CHAMPAIGN — Illinois left tackle Julian Pearl is returning for a sixth season, he announced via social media on Sunday.
The 6-foot-6, 315-pound senior has been a starter for Illinois during the last two seasons. He primarily played right guard and right tackle in 2021 but moved to left tackle during the 2022 season. He was named All-Big Ten honorable mention by the coaches and media and started 11 of 12 games, missing only the Indiana game due to injury.
Pearl allowed just two sacks in the last nine games of the season but earned a lower PFF grade this season (63.7) than last season (69.6). He went through Senior Day ceremonies prior to the final home game this season, but is electing to return for another year.
“Been here five years, you know? I wanted my family to be able to experience that for me,” Pearl said in November. “As far as the season, definitely it was more for my family but I’ve been here for a long time. …It means a lot, just being able to reflect on what I’ve been through and all of my experiences wearing the Block I. Then being where we are now — I’m not taking it for granted and I’m not content with it — but seeing how far we’ve progressed and where we’ve came, it’s crazy to me. It definitely doesn’t hit as hard having another year.”
Pearl played 776 snaps this season, a career-high, after 659 last year and 331 in 2020. He arrived in Champaign from Danville (Ill.) High School as a lanky defensive lineman but switched to the offensive side of the ball prior to the 2019 season as he bulked up and kept the traits needed to be an offensive lineman.
“He’s really gifted. He can really bend, and long. …He’s a big human. We’ve got a big line,” Illinois offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. said prior to the season. “Overall we’ve got some length there. He really likes football and he likes competing. I think he’s been a complement to the other side of Palcho with his length and athleticism. They’ve got a similar type game.”
Added offensive line coach Bart Miller, prior to the season: “I think he has the skill set and the talent to take his game as far as he wants to take it,” Miller said. “That’s the exciting part of us as coaches is you see this basically unlimited potential. Potential doesn’t mean anything without action. You have to put the work in to really realize that potential. He is so gifted, he’s a great locker room presence, he’s an asset to our line and our team and he needs to continue to play that way. He really has this camp. I don’t want to take anything away from the work he’s done because he’s really performed very well.”
What it means: It’s pretty eye-popping to see how Illinois has re-made the offensive line since the coaching staff arrived in Champaign. Pearl’s return should give Illinois a really good offensive line this season. He and Isaiah Adams should be the two tackles with Avery Jones, an East Carolina transfer, as the team’s starting center. Zy Crisler has a starting guard spot lined up and Jordyn Slaughter should be in the mix to secure the other. That’s a lot of returning experience, even despite both Alex Palczewski and Alex Pihlstrom exhausting their eligibility.
Illinois also has a commitment from junior college guard Dez’Mond Schuster and the development of Zach Barlev, Josh Gesky and Hunter Whitenack could provide depth that this team hasn’t had along the line in years.