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Reviewing the 2017 Illinois Fighting Illini

It’s a youth movement in Champaign as ten true freshmen are in the Illini starting lineup.

Illinois v South Florida Photo by Joseph Garnett Jr. /Getty Images

Illinois is still smarting from a 47-23 loss to South Florida two weeks ago; in that game, starting quarterback Chayce Crouch was benched after only completing eight of 18 passes for 76 yards and an interception. Jeff George Jr. wasn’t much better, completing 12 of 22 passes for 211 yards and a touchdown. Crouch has been named the starting quarterback for this week, though George was labeled as the “relief hitter” to come in should Crouch stumble yet again. For the season, Crouch is completing 51.6% of his passes for 328 yards and a touchdown with three interceptions. (For those of you wondering, Tanner Lee’s passing efficiency of 107.2 is better than Crouch’s 91.7) Crouch has also rushed 28 times for 56 yards and a touchdown. (For those of you wondering, junior college transfer Dwayne Lawson never qualified.)

Freshman running back Mike Epstein has become the bright spot in the Illini offense, rushing for 221 yards and three touchdowns. Add in four catches for 59 yards and another score, and Epstein has scored four of Illinois’ seven offensive touchdowns this season. Epstein’s emergence has limited Kendrick Foster, last year’s leading rusher, to just three carries in the last two games. Foster’s playing time might get cut even further now that elusive sophomore Reggie Corbin is back from an injury that held him out for most of the last couple of months.

Junior Mike Dudek is finally back on the field after missing the last two seasons with multiple ACL injuries; Dudek is leading the Illini with 14 catches for 158 yards and a touchdown. Senior Malik Turner, an honorable mention all Big Ten receiver last year, has 11 catches for 97 yards while true freshman Ricky Smalling caught three passes for 99 yards against South Florida.

Linebackers Del’Shawn Phillips and Tre Watson lead the Illini defense with 32 and 23 tackles respectively. True freshman safety Bennett Williams is third on the team with 21 tackles so far this season. If you’ve noticed, I’ve mentioned several true freshman making major contributors for a reason: Lovie Smith is going with youth this season. Against South Florida two weeks ago, the Illini had TEN true freshmen start: five on offense, five on defense. That’s an awful lot of inexperience for now, but should pay dividends down the line for Illinois.

So for what it’s worth, below you’ll find the preseason preview of the Illinois Fighting Illini, which didn’t anticipate quite so many freshmen playing right away.

Was 2016 year zero or year negative-one for Lovie Smith at Illinois? First year coaches typically get a free pass for year one, but considering that Smith wasn’t hired until a month after signing day, there’s an argument to be made that 2017 is really Smith’s year zero. (Certainly the Illini’s 3-9 record in 2016, with a loss to Purdue, is forgettable.)

One reason why Illinois struggled last season had to be quarterback issues. Wes Lunt started the first five games before being sidelined with a back injury. Chayce Crouch (6’4” 225 lbs.) replaced Lunt only to suffer a season-ending shoulder injury the next week. Former walkon Jeff George Jr. (6’3” 205 lbs.) started the next four games until a four-interception first half sent him to the bench for Lunt, who finished out his senior season. Many expected junior college transfer Dwayne Lawson to arrive this summer and claim the starting position, but now it looks like he won’t finish his academic requirements until the fall. So that would seem to leave Crouch and George as the quarterbacks this fall. Crouch is a dual-threat quarterback who averaged 6.1 yards per carry last season on 29 carries, and completed 56% of his passes. George is a prototypical pro-style passer who completed just 40% of his passes with four touchdowns and five interceptions.

Ke’Shawn Vaughn went into the season as the starting running back, but ended up getting benched after three games; he’s since transferred to Vanderbilt. Senior Kendrick Foster (5’9” 200 lbs.) started the last seven games, rushing for 720 yards and seven touchdowns, averaging 5.7 yards per carry. Sophomore Reggie Corbin (5’10” 185 lbs.) was elusive, rushing for 523 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 6.1 yards per carry. The weird thing with those numbers is that, according to SB Nation stats guru Bill Connelly, Illinois’ stuff rate (percentage of rushing plays that didn’t gain any yards) was 24%. (Do the math, and you figure that the rest of the rushes had to be pretty darn good.)

Senior Malik Turner (6’3” 205 lbs.) returns after a decent 48 catch, 712 yard, six touchdown season. His 50% catch rate in Bill Connelly’s advanced stats along with a 14.8 yards per catch average shows him to be a feast-or-famine option. Could junior Mike Dudek (5’11” 185 lbs.) finally be healthy? In 2014, Dudek burst into the Big Ten with a 1,038 yard freshman season, earning him second team all-Big Ten and freshman all-American honors. But then Dudek tore his ACL the next spring. Then tore the same ACL in April 2016. He was back running this spring, but won’t see any contact until preseason practice starts. If healthy, Dudek will provide a second experienced receiver; junior Sam Mays (6’3” 200 lbs.) is the only other receiver on the roster who’s caught more than a couple of passes in his career (13 catches for 158 yards and a touchdown in 2016.)

Three starters return on the Illini offensive line, which will be led by senior right tackle Christian DiLauro (6’5” 300 lbs.), who’s started every game since midway through his freshman season in 2014. Junior Nick Allegretti (6’4” 315 lbs.) started all 12 games last season, mostly at guard, but this year is projected to be the starting center; he’s on the Rimington Award watch list. Sophomore Gabe Megginson (6’6” 300 lbs.) started seven games last year and is projected at right guard. The depth on the line is rather limited, which means that true freshman Vederian Lowe (6’5” 340 lbs.) might just get the call to start immediately.

Last year’s Illini defense featured an experienced front four with youth in the back seven, but in 2017, that experienced defensive line needs to be replaced. Only sophomore defensive tackle Jamal Milan (6’2” 300 lbs.) returns as a starter. Junior college transfer defensive end Sean Adesanya (6’3” 250 lbs.) redshirted in 2015 and sat out last season with an Achilles injury; he was a JuCo all-conference selection in 2014.

Junior linebacker Tre’ Watson (6’2” 235 lbs.) is Illinois’ leading returning tackler; he’ll slide over to the middle to replace Hardy Nickerson Jr. That should open a spot for junior college transfer Del’Shawn Phillips (6’1” 230 lbs.), one of the top five junior college prospects in the nation, who arrived in time for spring practice.

In the secondary, Illinois had to depend on two freshmen at safety...which usually isn’t a good sign. Strong safety Patrick Nelson (6’0” 210 lbs.) and free safety Stanley Green (5’11” 195 lbs.) totaled 75 and 62 tackles respectively. Senior cornerback Jaylen Dunlap (6’1” 190 lbs.) led the Illini last year in both pass breakups (11) and tackles for loss (4.5). A two year starter for Illinois, Dunlap should be the anchor in the secondary.

Last season, Illinois went 3-9 in Lovie Smith’s first season in Champaign. After blowing a 16-10 fourth quarter lead over the Huskers, the Illini lost to Purdue in overtime thanks to missing a 41 yard field goal attempt at the end of regulation. It might only take a few better bounces of luck this season with a slightly easier schedule (swapping Western Kentucky for Western Michigan and Indiana for Michigan State) to get the Illini in contention for a bowl bid in 2017.