The 90 Illini #14: Alex Pihlstrom

Aug 16, 2022

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"Returning starter" is an interesting thing. I live by the statistic - if some team has 19 returning starters, I'm automatically adding 1.5 wins to their expected total. College football, to me, is all about balancing returning starters so you don't have to completely start over after you have a successful season.

(This obviously doesn't apply to Ohio State or Alabama. But they don't play college football.)

For someone like Alex Pihlstrom, he does not count as a "returning starter". But he got a lot of experience last season and started five games. I've been quoting a lot of PFF snap counts lately so let's just list the top seven offensive linemen from last season. Actually, I'll list eight because that's where the dropoff happened.

Alex Palczewski - 811 snaps
Vederian Lowe - 754
Doug Kramer - 719
Julian Pearl - 659
Jack Badovinac - 582
Alex Pihlstrom - 382
Blake Jeresaty - 281
Zach Barlev - 24

The next closest player on the roster to Pihlstom's 382 snaps on the list from last year: Daniel Barker, 399 snaps. Had Barker returned, we would absolutely call him a returning starter. Our top receiver at tight end and third-leading receiver on the team. But had Barker returned and I was filling out all of these 90 Illini categories for him, under 2021 statistics I'd have the exact same sentence as Pihlstrom: Played in all 12 games, starting five. So if Barker would be a returning starter (and he would be), should Pihlstrom be a returning starter?

This is why Bill Connelly uses "returning production" in his SP+ preseason projections. Here's the positions where returning starters matter, here's the teams that have snaps returning, here's the returning production rankings. "Returning starters" doesn't really tell the story.

But it also kind of does? Northwestern returned 20 starters in 2020 and won the Big Ten West. Then they returned, like 7 starters last year and finished last. Teams that focus on roster balance - places like Iowa and Wisconsin seem to always have 12-14 starters returning every season - seem to be able to maintain their momentum.

Not really sure where I'm going with this besides saying "Pihlstrom isn't a returning starter. But he had a lot of snaps last year. So we really have 2.5 returning starters on the offensive line."

14. Alex Pihlstrom

Offensive Lineman
Uniform number: 75
Year in school: Senior (1 year to play 1)
Height: 6'-6" -- Weight: 305 lbs.
Hometown: Glen Ellyn, Illinois
High School: Glenbard West HS
Best Offers: n/a - walkon
Tom Cruise rating: n/a - walkon

2021 statistics: Played in all 12 games, starting five.


Two freshmen arrive on campus in the fall of 2017. Larry Boyd was a four-star offensive lineman and the future of Illini offensive lines. Alex Pihlstrom was a high school tight end who walked on to the team. Care to guess which one is a starter on the OL in 2022?

That's the crazy thing about offensive line recruiting. Doug Kramer was an afterthought recruit and Vederian Lowe had only one offer. And they were just drafted this past spring while many of the highly-ranked linemen we've brought in never got close to that.

Pihlstrom "bet on himself", as they say, walked on at Illinois, played tight end for a few years, switched to offensive line, and... is now the starting center.

2022 Outlook

I was surprised to see that he moved to center this spring. He was at guard for the first half of last season but then he switched to tackle. During the Penn State game, when Vederian Lowe went out with an injury, Pihlstrom finished the game at left tackle. So I figured he'd be tried at both guard and tackle in the spring. Instead, he was moved to center to replace Kramer.

So his outlook is pretty simple. Start 12 games at center. Have a great senior season. Get to a 13th game.


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