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Reviewing the 2018 Illinois Fighting Illini

The Illini are really bad on defense, but with Reggie Corbin and former NU QB AJ Bush, they can run the ball all day long.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

In my preseason preview of Illinois, I closed by suggesting that the Illini would be better than Minnesota in 2018.

Well, last Saturday, Lovie Smith and the Illini validated my prediction with a 55-31 victory over the Gophers to move to 4-5 on the season. That’s a two win improvement on 2017; the Illini’s other wins were against Rutgers (38-17), Western Illinois (34-14) and Kent State (31-24). Illinois let a couple of other games slip away from them. South Florida scored the game winning touchdown with just over two minutes left, while Penn State scored six straight touchdowns to slam the door after Illinois took the lead in the third quarter.

As I suspected, former Nebraska quarterback AJ Bush has been the Illini’s starting quarterback this season though he’s missed two games with a hamstring injury suffered against Western Illinois. Bush has completed over 56% of his passes, with five touchdowns and five interceptions. The last two weeks against Maryland and Minnesota, he’s passed for 216 yards. He’s also a true dual threat quarterback, rushing for 472 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 5.6 yards per carry as the Illini’s second leading rusher. Bush’s hamstring injury pushed true freshman M.J. Rivers into the lineup. RIvers is less of a threat to run, averaging just 1.4 yards per carry. Rivers is a better passer, though, completing nearly 65% of his passes during his two starts against South Florida and Penn State.

Last season, junior running back Reggie Corbin (5’10” 200 lbs.) only carried the ball 18 times for 78 yards in an injury limited season. This year, he’s third in the Big Ten with 952 yards and leads the Big Ten with an eye-popping 9.07 yards per carry average. Last week, Corbin rushed 13 times for 213 yards against Minnesota, earning him Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors. Here’s another impressive stat about Corbin:

Leads the nation in 80+ yard runs (1), 70+ yard runs (4), 60+ yard runs (5) and 50+ yard runs (7)

Corbin got his opportunity as Illinois tried to limit sophomore Mike Epstein’s workload due to lingering foot issues which finally sidelined him two weeks ago; Epstein had rushed for 411 yards, averaging 6.9 yards per carry. Ra’von Bonner (who didn’t suit up last week) and Dre Brown (who rushed for 92 yards on seven carries against the Gophers) will back up Corbin in Epstein’s absence.

Speaking of recurring injuries, senior wide receiver Mikey Dudek finally had to hang up his pads after suffering his third season-ending knee injury of his career. Junior Trenard Davis (6’0” 195 lbs.), a converted quarterback, leads the Illini in receiving with 26 catches this season. Sophomore Ricky Smalling leads in yards (264 yards on just 18 catches) and touchdown catches (4). Sophomore Dominic Stampley (5’10” 175 lbs.) has caught fire the last two weeks, catching 12 passes for 218 yards and two touchdowns against Maryland and Minnesota.

Illinois defense ranks last in the Big Ten in all but one statistical category: passing yards allowed, where the Illini rank next to last in 13th place. But last week, Illinois defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson resigned, and head coach Lovie Smith took over the defense. Nebraska’s coaches noticed this week quite a difference in how the Illini defended Minnesota last week versus the rest of the season. With more “Tampa 2”, the defense Smith picked up from Monte Kiffin and then implemented in Chicago, driving the Bears to the Super Bowl, Illinois played better last week than they had much of the season.

Linebackers Del’Shawn Phillips and Jake Hansen lead the Illinois defense with 74 tackles each. Sophomore defensive end Bobby Roundtree’s 4.5 sacks and 8 tackles for loss leads the team, with his 47 tackles ranking fourth on the defense. Freshman cornerback Jartavius Martin is tied with Phillips for the team lead in interceptions this season with three. Freshman safety Sydney Brown is third on the Illini defense with 50 tackles this season.

While Illinois played better defensively last week, that better in context: Minnesota still gained 438 yards and averaged 9.3 yards for every pass attempt. Again, that’s Minnesota. You have to expect the Huskers to be able to move the ball, so the only question is how well the Nebraska defense can stop the two-pronged rushing attack from AJ Bush and Reggie Corbin. Force Bush (or Rivers) to throw the ball, and Nebraska should do very well. Below, you’ll find the preseason preview of the Illini for your reference.


It’s become somewhat commonplace to relegate Illinois to the cellar of the Big Ten’s west division, especially now that Purdue seems to be showing signs of life. That might be a touch premature, though certainly understandable based on how Lovie Smith’s NFL career ended up. Certainly, Illinois doesn’t show many signs of progress, if only because of the Illini’s ten-game losing streak. But you also have to acknowledge that Smith decided to just start fresh with his program last season. Illinois returns 16 starters from 2017: Nine sophomores, four juniors and just three seniors. Yes, NINE freshmen were starting last season for the Illini. So yeah, Illinois football wasn’t very good last season because they shouldn’t have been any good. But that raises the question whether Lovie Smith’s program will ever be good.

Smith rotated between three different quarterbacks last season, with injuries leading to Cameron Thomas (6’2” 190 lbs.) ripping off his redshirt midway through last season. He only completed 42% of his passes, throwing for 375 yards with no touchdowns and five interceptions in four games. Thomas is a dual threat who rushed for 233 yards and a touchdown, averaging 4.5 yards per carry. He’ll be joined in the quarterback room by a name that’s better recognized by Nebraska fans than Illinois fans, as well as several freshmen. Senior graduate transfer A.J. Bush (6’4” 223 lbs.) returns to the Big Ten after stops at Virginia Tech and Iowa Western the last two seasons. As a reserve at Tech, Bush completed seven of 11 passes for 99 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 129 yards, averaging 6.8 yards per carry. Many preview magazines anointed Thomas as the presumed starter, but it sounds like it’s actually a race between Bush and true freshman Matt Robinson (6’1” 180 lbs.), a three-star recruit who’s impressed during the early part of preseason practice. At this point, I think the edge goes to Bush to start the season, but by November, who knows.

Injuries also were a factor in four different running backs starting last season. Sophomore Mike Epstein (6’0” 190 lbs.) rushed for 346 yards and three touchdowns in five games, averaging 6.1 yards per carry before a foot injury ended his season. Next up was Ra’Von Bonner (5’11” 210 lbs.), who rushed for 202 yards and four touchdowns in six games before a concussion ended his season. The now-graduated Kendrick Foster then took over, only to be supplanted by junior Dre Brown (5’11” 215 lbs.) for the last two games of 2017. Brown rushed for 138 yards, averaging 4.5 yards per carry. If Epstein and company can stay healthier this season, Illinois should run the ball better in 2018.

One reason to expect a better rushing attack is a really green offensive line should be more experienced. Other than senior right guard Nick Allegretti (6’4” 320 lbs., a three-year starter), the rest of the line will be sophomores, all who started last season as freshmen. Sophomore center Doug Kramer (6’2” 295 lbs) redshirted in 2016, but sophomore left guard Alex Palczeewski (6’6” 295 lbs.), sophomore right tackle Vederian Lowe (6’5” 340 lbs.), and sophomore left tackle Larry Boyd (6’6” 320 lbs.) all started as true freshmen. Spending a full offseason working out and developing to play at this level can’t help but improve this group of youngsters.

Back in 2014, Mike Dudek (5’11” 185 lbs.) earned second team all-Big Ten honors after 1,038 yards receiving freshman season. He missed two seasons after tearing both ACL’s, returning last season to play in seven games to catch 24 passes for 262 yards and a touchdown. Sophomore Ricky Smalling (6’1” 205 lbs.) led the Illini in receiving as a true freshman, catching 31 passes for 510 yards and two touchdowns. Sophomore tight end (6’6” 225 lbs.) started the last seven games, catching 22 passes for 395 yards and three touchdowns as yet another true freshman contributor. Adding graduate transfer Shaedon Meadors (6’2” 185 lbs.) from Appalachian State should only increase the depth of the receiver corps. After earning second team all-Sun Belt honors in 2016, Meadors missed the entire 2017 season due to injury.

If you look at last season’s Big Ten football statistics, you’ll see two names at the bottom of just about every defensive category: Nebraska and Illinois. Unlike Nebraska, Illinois is holding steady with defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson Sr., though they did replace defensive line (Austin Clark) and safeties (Gill Byrd) assistant coaches. And with eight returning starters on defense, there is room for some hope.

Sophomore defensive end Bobby Roundtree (6’5” 258 lbs.) was thrown into the lineup early last season as a true freshman, starting nine games. His four sacks led the defensive line, as did his 50 tackles. Junior defensive tackles Jamal Milan (6’3” 300 lbs.) and Tymir Oliver (6’4” 300 lbs.) return as well, but may have to fight off a couple of four-star true freshmen Calvin Avery (6’2” 310 lbs.) and Verdis Brown (6’3” 295 lbs.). This young line is going to get better over time.

Injuries really crippled the Illini linebacking corps last season, starting with sophomore weakside linebacker Jake Hansen (6’2” 230 lbs.) He was the top linebacker in spring 2017 only to tear his ACL last August. Hansen’s return will allow senior Del’Shawn Phillips (6’2” 220 lbs.) to slide back to the middle; last season Phillips led the Illini with 85 tackles. Illinois uses a nickel defensive back instead of a third linebacker most of the time; sophomore Tony Adams (6’0” 190 lbs.) looks to be that guy after playing in five games in an injury-shortened true freshman season.

Sophomore safety Bennett Williams (6’0” 200 lbs.) and junior safety Stanley Green (5’11” 195 lbs.) are the top two returning tacklers in the secondary from last season with 64 and 70 respectively. Williams three interceptions as a true freshman earned him freshman all-American honors by Phil Steele in 2017. Sophomore cornerback Nate Hobbs (6’0” 180 lbs.) led the secondary with 10 starts in his true freshman season; he’ll be paired with junior cornerback Cameron Watkins (6’0” 190 lbs.). The duo combined for 87 tackles last season; expect a big jump in productivity after a full off-season of development.

Some writers have placed Lovie Smith near the top of their hot seat rankings for 2018. I’m not sure that actually the case...or perhaps that just means that very few coaches appear to be in danger of actually being fired. I tend to agree with our SB Nation brethren at The Champaign Room that Smith’s seat isn’t all that warm. People talk about the first year for a coach being “year 0”; well, if that’s the case, Smith started at year minus-1. He arrived days before spring practice began in 2016, meaning that he just signed his second recruiting class. He started a bunch of youngsters last season, and he’ll have more to choose from this fall. If I had to pick the order of finish in the Big Ten’s west division, I’d keep the Illini out of the cellar in sixth place.