Illini linemen from Prospect, Hinsdale Central built their experience early
Lovie Smith wasted no time investing in the future at Illinois.
During Smith's second season as head football coach in 2017, the Illini started four freshmen on the offensive line. Prospect grad Alex Palczewski was the first of the true freshmen to get the starting nod that year, in Week 2 against Western Kentucky. He probably would have started the season opener against Ball State if not for a high ankle sprain.
"It was unbelievable seeing all the people and thinking about a year ago at that time, I was playing at Prospect High School with maybe a few hundred people there," Palczewski said.
Center Doug Kramer from Hinsdale Central was the "veteran" of the group since he was a redshirt freshman, not a true freshman, when he joined the lineup. The other freshman starters were left tackle Vederian Lowe, who now has 22 career starts, and guard Larry Boyd, who left the program.
Needless to say, it was the youngest offensive line in the nation that season and probably one of the youngest in the modern history of college football. It's typical for an offensive lineman to spend a few years adding strength before taking the field.
"I just turned 18 about a month before," Palczewski said. "I showed up at Illinois at 260, so I had to gain weight really fast and didn't really have any strength underneath me. It was super tough."
The Illini went winless in the Big Ten in 2017 and weren't very competitive. They had to play at No. 9 Ohio State in Week 11, which predictably didn't turn out well.
"I think one play that definitely sticks out for me against Ohio State, it was a third-and-long and they lined up in a look that none of us had seen before," Kramer said. "We had a certain protection called and we were trying to figure out what we were supposed to do."
But time was on their side. Last season, Illinois ranked second in the Big Ten in rushing offense, averaging 243 yards per game. Palczewski and Kramer were both named team captains this season.
The offense has performed well so far this season. Quarterback Brandon Peters has thrown for 9 touchdown passes in three games -- more than any Illini QB could do during any of the last three full seasons. Running back Reggie Corbin ran for 144 yards on 18 carries last Saturday against Eastern Michigan, after missing the UConn game with an injury. The Illini lost to EMU 34-31 on a late field goal and will carry a 2-1 record into Saturday's Big Ten home opener against Nebraska.
"When you score 31 points that should give you a chance to win the football game," Smith said this week. "The offensive line continues to give the running backs opportunities to score."
Kramer had an odd introduction to Illinois football. He was committed to Florida Atlantic, then got a late offer from the Illini when Bill Cubit was named the permanent head coach. A few weeks later, Illinois fired Cubit and hired Smith. Then Kramer was originally set to greyshirt, which meant he would skip the fall semester and start college in January, but got a last-minute invite to fall camp.
"I was planning on staying home," said Kramer, whose parents both attended Illinois. "I was going to coach freshman football at my high school and basically just work out with one of my strength coaches. It was a whirlwind. Me and my mom were getting all my stuff for the dorm room in one day."
Palczewski, whose parents immigrated from Poland and met in Chicago, was stuffed into an uncomfortable spot at guard during his freshman season.
"That was real rough, because I'm 6-6 and it was tough playing against all the stout D-linemen in the Big Ten," he said. "Now that I've moved to (right) tackle, I'm way more comfortable, my technique's gotten way better."
Big Ten competition will be a major challenge for the Illini, but the linemen are optimistic about the future. By next season, Illinois should have three fourth-year starters paving the way on the front line.
"The first few years, we were grinding, just doing our best, throwing our bodies around," Kramer said. "But now when we line up out there, we're all talking; a lot better communication. We're seeing the defenses better, we're able to pick up pressures better."
"We all have confidence," Palczewski added. "We can all play against the best. You can see from Eastern Michigan and UConn (the past two weeks), the only thing that can stop us is ourselves.
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