Illini land ECU transfer OL Avery Jones

East Carolina transfer offensive lineman Avery Jones committed to Illinois following an official visit to campus this weekend. Jones, who has one year of eligibility remaining, thing Illinois over South Carolina and Missouri, among other suitors. He will enroll at Illinois in January and is likely to be an instant starter at center for the Illini.

Jones is a former four-star prospect who originally signed with North Carolina in the Class of 2018. He transferred to ECU after one season with the Tar Heels. He started three seasons at ECU, including the last two at center.

Jones played 572 snaps at guard as a redshirt sophomore and finished with a 66.6 offensive grade that season, per Pro Football Focus. In 2021, Jones slid inside to center and in 874 snaps had some ups and downs in his first year at the position, finishing the year with an offensive grade of 59.6. Jones started every game this season for the Pirates and had the team’s second-highest blocking grade (63.2), though he was excellent as a pass blocker (76.9 PFF grade).

Why Illinois: “Just how they develop offensive linemen,” Jones told Illini Inquirer on Monday night. “I got one year left to play, and I’ve got to make it count. Coach Bielema and how he handles offensive linemen and his respect and his knowledge of offensive line play, it’s really hard to say no to that if you’re an offensive lineman.”

“I was looking for a program that’s the next step to the NFL, and that’s what Illinois definitely has to offer. Of course, Coach has his connections with the NFL and his history with the NFL, so him bringing that knowledge to Illinois and running the program the same way is a lot of what really drew me to Illinois.”

How he fits: Illinois loses Alex Pihlstrom, a former walk-on tight end who was everything the Illini could’ve asked for at the position after an offseason slide into the middle. After some early-season struggles, Pihlstrom really settled in and gained confidence as a stalwart and vocal leader in the middle of an Illini offensive line that was a semifinalist for the Joe Moore Award, given annually to the nation’s top offensive line. Pihlstrom even earned All-Big Ten Second Team honors from conference coaches. But now the Illini must replace Pihlstrom. Josh Kreutz will earn an opportunity to compete for the job as redshirt sophomore, but the Illini are looking for a bigger, more established player at the position.

Jones fits extremely well as an experienced, productive center who has a good pedigree (highly-recruited prospect), has experience snapping in the shotgun and has experience playing against pretty good competition in the AAC. Jones (6-foot-4, 290 pounds) has good size and really quick feet, and he looks like he has another gear he can get to if he becomes more consistent with his technique. The Illinois staff, which just had five All-Big Ten offensive linemen this season, certainly had to be an appealing option for a player with realistic NFL goals.

What’s next: Quarterback certainly is the No. 1 task of this offseason, but the Illini are still looking to upgrade the offensive line despite already adding Jones and junior college guard Dez’Mond Schuster. The Illini would like to add one more plug-and-play starter and are in the mix for multiple junior college prospects. Four-star prospect Keyshawn Blackstock, the No. 4 overall JUCO prospect in the country according to the industry-generated Composite rankings, is a top priority. Blackstock took an official visit to Illinois in October and also has visited South Carolina, Florida State and Michigan State. Blackstock also recently received an offer from USC.

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