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Illinois Fighting Illini 2018 Football Preview

Don’t fall for the trap of automatically placing the Illini in the Big Ten’s West cellar. This young team might be better than some fans and sportswriters want to give them credit for.

Illinois v Nebraska
Illinois’ Mike Dudek has faced a Bo Pelini and Bob Diaco defense in his career; how will he fare against an Erik Chinander defense?
Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images

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.


What’s your prediction when Illinois comes to Lincoln to play the Huskers?

This poll is closed

  • 30%
    AJ Bush has the last laugh as the Illini pull off the upset over the Huskers
    (73 votes)
  • 23%
    Two young football teams play sloppy, but the Huskers brand of sloppy is better than Illinois. Huskers win a close one.
    (56 votes)
  • 46%
    Lovie Smith doesn’t have this thing figured out yet. The Huskers lower the boom on Illinois.
    (113 votes)
242 votes total Vote Now