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Bob Asmussen | Experienced transfers give Illini a boost

Jan. 27—CHAMPAIGN — If Illinois football wants to improve on a 5-7 2023 season, it will need newcomers to provide a boost on the offensive line.

Reliable starters Isaiah Adams and Julian Pearl are taking their games to the NFL. That leaves three returning regulars, a few experienced backups and a trio of transfers.

It is up to fourth-year offensive line coach Bart Miller and offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. to make it work.

Illinois coach Bret Bielema's reputation for producing NFL-ready offensive linemen seems to be paying off for him in Champaign-Urbana. The three newcomers, who met with the media Thursday, all mentioned their pro aspirations as part of the reason the picked Illinois.

It is not as simple as plug and play. The offensive linemen work more as a group than any other position on the field. They even have their own national prize, the coveted Joe Moore Award, which goes to the best O-line in college football. Michigan won the most recent two.

Can Illinois become a contender for the Joe Moore? We'll see. But if it does, success in the win-loss column is certain to follow. Michigan took the Moore and the national title.

The two-deep

Projected starters: Center Josh Kreutz, guards Josh Gesky and Kevin Wigenton II, tackles Zy Crisler and J.C. Davis.

Crisler, Gesky and Kreutz are returning starters. Kreutz is doing his father Olin proud, taking over the position despite some initial questions about his size. Center requires leadership skills and Kreutz is more than up for the assignment.

At times during the 2023 season, Crisler was the best player on the line. Consistency and avoiding penalties are two keys for the Mississippian. He seems to have a pro future. Every snap against the Big Ten brings that closer to reality.

Davis is a transfer from New Mexico where he was a two-year starter on the left side. He earned All-Mountain West first-team honors in 2023. The step up in weight class to the Big Ten should do wonders for his NFL stock.

Wigenton is a transfer from Michigan State who knows the teams are scheduled to play in Champaign on Nov. 16. He played in all 12 games for the Spartans in 2023, making six starts for a 4-8 team.

Hunter Whitenack, Melvin Priestly, Magnus Moller, Brandon Henderson, Andrew Dennis, T.J. McMillen, Will Leys and Dezmond Schuster.

Priestly is a transfer from Grambling who is another in a long line of Illinois players from prep power East St. Louis. Talks with former Flyer/Illini Terry Hawthorne helped convince Priestly to join Bielema's team.

Indiana native Whitenack is an option at guard. He played in 11 games in 2023 and made three starts. He should provide healthy competition in spring and fall camp.

The early schedule, with games against Eastern Illinois, Kansas and Central Michigan, gives the line a chance to become one before Big Ten play starts.

Final analysis

Adding Wigenton and Davis from the transfer portal makes the job easier for Miller. Davis was a standout in the Group of Five and Wigenton has played in the Big Ten before.

They should be able to mesh with their new teammates.

The issue for Illinois — like it was in the past — is depth. Yes, there are bodies there and the talent level is rising. But will the unit be able to thrive if a key starter or two gets hurt? Generally, other than kicker, offensive line is the safest position on the field. There are injuries, but not to the level you see at running back and quarterback.

The running backs and quarterback Luke Altmyer will play a major role in the success or failure of the offensive line. When healthy, Kaden Feagin, a former Arthur-Lovington-Atwood-Hammond standout, makes the blockers look good. Same for Josh McCray. They both churn after contact, increasing the per-carry average that is so important.

Altmyer has shown the ability to avoid trouble. You don't want to see him running for his life, which seems avoidable with the new crew.