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August 13, 2011With the opener versus Arkansas State just three weeks away, it won't be long before the Illinois football team gets to hit opponents wearing different colored jerseys. But for now, the competition is against others in the orange and blue, as the players try to work their way up the depth chart at Camp Rantoul.
One of the most hotly contested spots is at strong side tackle. The projected starter in the preseason, junior Corey Lewis, is rehabbing an injured knee and likely won't return until the Big Ten schedule is underway on Oct. 1.
With Lewis on the shelf, red shirt freshmen Michael Heitz and Simon Cvijanovic are in a battle for the spot. Neither is giving any ground.
"That spot is mine, in my mind," Cvijanovic said. "Mike and I don't really hit each other in practice, so I'm not coming after him really. I'm just looking at myself and trying to make myself as good as I can so I can get that spot.
Like most offensive linemen, it took a year in the strength program for Heitz and Cvijanovic to bulk up and prepare their body to compete physically in the Big Ten. Both came into camp at about 290 pounds, and much stronger than they were when they arrived on campus last fall.
Heitz has the same mindset as Cvijanovic; that the starting spot is his to lose. And he is determined to prove it on the field.
"Right at here is where we are going to prove it," Heitz said, after another day of practice in Rantoul. "If I don't work hard enough, the position will be his. So it just depends on who comes out here and works the hardest."
Coaches always like to see competition in the preseason. It keeps everyone on top of their game and prevents the onset of complacency once they get into a regular routine. Offensive line coach Joe Gilbert not only enjoys seeing the competition, he throws fuel on the fire.
"We go back and watch the film after each practice and see who had a good day," Gilbert said. "Who gets the start during team will depend on who had the best practice the previous day. So we keep the pressure on so they come out and compete every day."
Heitz appears to have a slight upper hand with five days of camp in the books. According to Gilbert, the scrimmage at Rantoul High School Saturday at 6:30pm will give the staff a better feel for the progress each player has made over the last week.
"I think when we get to the scrimmage it will start shuffling itself out a little bit," Gilbert said. "I think they both bring different things to the table. Both of them have done a great job learning the offense, now its just putting together their technique and seeing who can get the job done."
The offensive line is expected to be one of the strengths of the team in 2011. They have a solid nucleus of veterans in Jeff Allen, Hugh Thornton, Graham Pocic, and Jack Cornell.
The only big question mark coming into camp was at strong side tackle, but Cvijanovic said he and Heitz are holding their own. They made strides in the spring and have the playbook down. Now its just a matter of refining their technique.
"I think its going pretty good right now," Cvijanovic said. "Coach Gilbert is coaching us up. We are just working on technique, staying low, and finishing. Those are things that me and Mike both have to work on."
Heitz and Cvijanovic are both keenly aware that they are being watched closely, by both the coaches and the fans, to see who will end up in the starting lineup when the season gets underway. There is an underlying edginess to the competition, both on and off the field. But it's not personal.
"We're buddies," Heitz said. "We stay in the dorms together, so we talk and everything. Its friendly for the most part."