By Paul Schmidt
The University of Illinois has had a challenging season. Everyone knows about the copious amount of talent on offense, but what might actually surprise some is that the top rated player, by position, by ESPN’s NFL draft guru Mel Kiper isn’t Arrelious Benn – it is offensive guard Jon Asamoah.
Asamoah has been a three year starter for the team, and in fact started his career as a freshman, logging playing time during the 2006 campaign. With that level of experience, and that many games under his belt, Asamoah is viewed as one of the anchors of a strong offensive line.
Thus far this season, the disappointments have far outweighed the successes, and it is starting to wear on everyone, not just the offensive line.
“Offensively we’ve got to get it going consistently,” Asamoah said. “We’ve had those drives where we were moving the ball and moving the ball and moving the ball, and we’ve got to keep that going the whole game.”
Not to beat too much coach-speak into the ground, but it’s the little things that would help turn things around.“Individually, no one is perfect out there. We just have to play at a higher level. The Rose Bowl year, we were just out there playing as hard as we could. We’re still doing that, but just not executing.”
For an offensive line, Juice Williams presents an interesting problem as a quarterback. He’s very mobile and likes to move around in the pocket, as well as creating his own magic with his feet, which makes things interesting for the lineman assigned to protect him.
“I’m out there and sometimes I get so focused, I’m blocking my guy and I have to say to myself, ‘Wait, where is he going,’” Asamoah said as he chuckled. “Then I think to myself that I really don’t really know what’s happening.”
The same problem doesn’t exist every time Williams drops back to throw, however. When forming the pocket, Asamoah knows that every moment that can be spared for his quarterback gives him a little bit longer to make the correct read.
“The way the game goes, you’ve got to get out there in that pass mode. We scout the D-Lines so much, so we know what they are doing,” said Asamoah. “We go out there and fight against that as long as we can to give Juice every second that we can to throw. With all the great players that we have out there, we know they are going to make plays.”
And even though they haven’t always made those plays this season, it is that type of intensity that helps carry a warrior like Asamoah through every down of the game.
“I wish I could block every guy out there, but honestly, it’s not really like that, once you’re really in the game,” Asamoah stated. “I’m focused on my guy, and then I trust that my other four guys out there are going to get the job done.”
That all goes back to one of the most important factors in determining the success of an offensive line: Continuity. Quite simply, the more an offensive line plays together, the better they will be.Though the Illini have some youngsters on the line, it is Asamoah and other upperclassmen’s leadership that have really held things together for the unit and the entire offense.
“It’s so important, because I feel so comfortable in between (junior Ryan) Palmer and (senior Eric) Block, we talk out there and we only have to say a couple of words to each other and we know what’s going on,” Asamoah said. “The young guys that come in, like Corey Lewis, I feel just as comfortable with them, because he’s learned over his time here. Without that kind of continuity on the O-Line, you’re just not going to be a good group.”
One thing that he and the rest of the Illini have placed emphasis on is staying positive and putting the bad things behind them – And it’s that type of attitude that finally may have paid some dividends this past weekend with their victory over Michigan.
“It’s hard, it’s hard to lose. Things haven’t gone the way that we wanted them to, but there’s a fight tomorrow, and we don’t let a team beat us twice,” Asamoah said. “You just have to refocus,” Asamoah continued. “You look at the film and see there were some really good things from this game or that game, but in order to do this consistently, you have to go out there, play balls-to-the-wall on every play. We’re capable of it – We just haven’t been doing it.”
All of that leads to the question of Asamoah’s future, a question that was posed to him after one of the team’s many losses this season. To his credit, he wasn’t thinking about anything other than finishing the year as strong as possible.
“You know, who knows what will happen? I could go out tomorrow, slip on something and break my leg. I’m not worried about any of that,” Asamoah said. “All of that will come later. Right now, I’m just doing my job, playing as hard as I can. All of that stuff will come after the season. The feeling I have in my gut right now, this sick feeling…I’m not worried about any of that other stuff right now.”