Junior Jon Asamoah is one of the top returning guards in the Big Ten this season.
Sept. 10, 2008
by Jonathan Zobrist, Illinois Sports Information
In 2007, the Fighting Illini offensive line soared to new heights, as Illinois led the Big Ten in rushing (3,338 yards), set school records for rushing yards from the quarterback (755 yards) and running back positions (1,681 yards) and paved the way to Pasadena and the school's first Rose Bowl appearance since 1984.
At the critical guard positions, junior Jon Asamoah returns as one of the premier linemen in the Big Ten. The 310-pounder started all 13 games a season ago, recording 80 knockdowns. Senior Eric Block solidified a starting spot at a grueling two-and-a-half week Camp Rantoul 2008. The New Orleans, La., native played 111 snaps last year, recording 14 knockdowns. The pair will strengthen the middle of a strong, quick line designed for the spread offense.
"It almost feels like a changing of the guard," Asamoah said of the emergence of Block and right tackle Ryan Palmer into starting roles. "We learned so much from the guys that came before us and know we can produce like they did."
While the loss of Rashard Mendenhall to the NFL draft is a significant one, the Illini are confident that the group of Daniel Dufrene, Troy Pollard, Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure will be able to carry the load in the rushing game.
"We still have extremely talented guys running the ball for us," Block said. "Last year, Rashard had holes to run through and this year those holes will be there again. I expect us to have the same type of success."
That confidence stems from the veteran leadership on the line. With juniors and seniors at four of the five positions, the Illini know what to expect in practice and on game day. They also know what it is going to take for the next generation of Illini to succeed and work to prepare them for upcoming seasons.
"As upperclassmen, both Jon and Eric remember what it took to get where we are," offensive line coach and run-game coordinator Eric Wolford said. "They are prepared every day and serve as mentors for the younger guys to build on the excellence we have already established."
Toughness is important at every position in football, but playing on the offensive line in the Big Ten takes tough to a different level. Running the spread offense and moving angry 300-pound defensive linemen around the field on a regular basis can lead to some pretty sore mornings.
"Every day in practice, we face some of the best competition in the nation," Block said. "You learn to block out the pain and work to help the team win and succeed." With the addition of Block, building chemistry on the field has been a goal during the preseason and non-conference season. A few of the linemen have 24 hours a day to get to know each other better, as Asamoah, Block, center Ryan McDonald and back-up guard Randall Hunt live together on campus.
"Sometimes we know exactly how each other thinks and reacts," McDonald said. "This helps on and off the field. Chemistry should be one of our biggest assets this year. It's really been a smooth transition."
Watching film, breaking down blocking assignments and cleaning the dishes have all become part of the offensive line's lifestyle. This togetherness can only help a group that is traditionally one of the closest-knit on a football team.
Working well as a unit doesn't promote the individual notoriety that comes with some of the skill positions. Yet, their impact is critical to a winning season.
"We definitely didn't choose this position for the acclaim," Asamoah said. "The only time we get mentioned by the media is if we are doing something wrong. We strive to stay out of the spotlight."
"Team is most important," Block said. "We are tough guys that hate to lose and know what we do is important every snap. You will never see us take plays off. It's 100 percent on every down."