By Steve Sturm - IlliniGuys Football Contributor
July 9, 2021
Illinois added three star offensive lineman Matthew Fries from Cranford, New Jersey and I couldn't be happier about it. Not only is Fries underrated in my opinion, he is one of the few players on the roster who I can project as a left tackle in the future, and boy did we need one.
What does he bring to the Orange and Blue?
Fries won't wow you with his straight line speed, and his body control is questionable, but for a lineman he's an above-average athlete. His feet and hands really stand out to me. Fries' feet are almost as good as Joey Okla's and that's why I see him both as a legitimate Big Ten lineman and a guy with a real shot at being the Illini left tackle of the future. Fries has the classic long upper body and reach that you want in a pass blocker and frankly the only Illini player who fit that bill was Brevyn Jones and he just left town last week.
Fries is such a good athlete for a lineman that I think he can be a legitimate defensive lineman for the Illini. I wouldn't say the clips that we see of him would merit a Big Ten offer on defense, but they're pretty darn good. He gets a little high out of his stance, and like I mentioned above his upper body control is a little suspect. However, if you can teach this guy to use his hands more like a defensive lineman by keeping the offensive lineman's hands off him, then you'd really have something. Obviously Illinois will try him on offense first, but I could really see Fries succeeding as defensive end in the new defense as well.
So, while Fries did have at least five power five offers, you may have gotten to this point and wondered why he's only rated as a three star player. Well, the first reason is that he is a little underrated. There's really very little separation between Fries and Joey Okla as a prospect, who's a high three star player. Okla's a little better athlete but Fries has the ability to play tackle, and that means a lot because tackles are so much harder to find. Like Okla, Fries is a little undersized right now, but I believe that both guys have the frame to add sufficient weight to play in the Big Ten. I'm a little more confident in Fries doing so because his older brother Will was 280 pounds coming out of high school and was recently drafted in the 7th round by the Colts as a 309 pounder. Will was a little bigger coming out of high school than Matthew's listed 265-275, but its nice to know that NFL size and ability are in little brother Matt's bloodlines. Will played tackle almost exclusively at Penn State, so Matt will also know who to call for tips on playing tackle in the Big Ten.
Where does he fit in?
Longtime Illinois fans can remember plenty of years when Illinois struggled to find anyone who could play a credible left tackle, and that's a common problem for lower tier power five programs. Not only that, but offensive line recruiting under Lovie Smith was questionable at best, so it's no surprise that Coach Bielema has grabbed four offensive linemen in his first recruiting class. Fries and Okla will get to know Clayton Leonard and Hunter Whitenack very well on the scout team, weight room, and training table in the fall of 2022, and there's a chance that any or all of them will be in the mix for playing time in 2023. Given the recent exodus of four scholarship linemen, including the only one who projected as a left tackle in the future in Brevyn Jones, the rest of the offensive line in 2022 will be based around Alex Pihlstrom, Julian Pearl, Verdis Brown, and recent Colgate transfer Jack Badovinac (he will likely redshirt this year). Beyond them are highly-touted Brody Wisecarver and the rest of the Lovie Smith-era recruits: Jordyn Slaughter, Evan Kirts, Josh Plohr, Moses Okpala, Josh Gesky, Zach Barlev, Josh Kreutz. I don't have a lot of confidence in that group and considering the rate at which new linemen are being ticketed for Champaign it doesn't seem like the new staff does either, though it says something that these guys are still here while several others have left already. I'm going to guess that the staff is going to use the transfer portal to add a mature player or two to this group for the 2022 season. I'm very excited to see the depth chart after fall practice to get an idea which of these players has the inside track on playing time starting in 2022, because right now I only have question marks regarding that last list of seven guys (Slaughter and Kreutz are my favorites with Okpala a dark horse).
So, how excited should you be? Very excited! Even if you're not the type of person who really enjoys lineman film like I do, the addition of Matthew Fries was a big addition for the program solely because of the position he plays. And, while he was only rated as a low three star player, I believe he's a bit underrated and the fact that he has at least three other high major offers backs that up. The fact that he has Big Ten and NFL bloodlines means something to me too. So, add all of that up and you have a solid 8 on the 1-10 excitement scale. I heard a rumor that Illinois was only going to take 3 linemen in this class and I think maybe they stretched a little bit just to add Fries.
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