When discussing the Big Ten’s West division, there’s one team that stands out from the others. Wisconsin and Iowa have been consistent leaders in the division in recent years, while Nebraska and Purdue have two of the most intriguing young head coaches in the nation. Northwestern consistently competes while Minnesota seems to be on an upswing.
And then there’s Illinois.
Or maybe in terms of perception, “West Rutgers”.
Since Ron Zook’s 2007 Rose Bowl team, Illinois hasn’t had a winning regular season record. (The Illini won bowl games in 2010 and 2011 to finish 7-6.) Phil Steele observes that Illinois has only won 29 conference games (with 102 losses!) the last 16 years. Considering the success that Rutgers had under Greg Schiano in the past, maybe it’s more accurate to say that Rutgers has now become “East Illinois”.
Perhaps that could change in 2019; while Illinois is still picked by most everyone to finish last in the west division, 17 returning starters could make the Illinois a darkhorse candidate to be bowl eligible in 2019.
Quarterback, however, is one position where Illinois needs to break in a new starter. Former Husker AJ Bush exhausted his eligibility, while MJ Rivers elected to enter the transfer protocol, leaving five-star dual threat recruit Isaiah Williams (5’10” 170 lbs.) as the likely starter, if only by default. Williams had a long offer sheet from nearly every top program to play slot receiver, but since Williams wanted to play quarterback, he’s at Illinois. If it’s not Williams, freshman Matt Robinson (6’1” 185 lbs.) did throw six passes during three games in a redshirt season last year. Graduate transfer Brandon Peters (6’5” 216 lbs.) left Michigan last month for Illinois to be another option, though he looks like an odd fit for the Illinois offense; in his last action during 2017, Peters completed 53% of his passes with 4 touchdowns and two interceptions.
Last year, new offensive coordinator Rod Smith transitioned the offense to run-first spread scheme, and put up some good rushing totals even with a banged up running backs corps. Senior Reggie Corbin (5’10” 200 lbs.) rushed for 1,085 yards and nine touchdowns last season. Corbin averaged 8.5 yards per carry with eight starts, earning him third team all-Big Ten honors. Junior Mike Epstein (6’0” 200 lbs.) rushed for 411 yards and three touchdowns, starting two games before a foot injury caused him to miss most of the second half of the season Junior Ra’Von Bonner (5’11” 210 lbs.) rushed for 395 yards and three touchdowns, averaging 5.5 yards per carry, while senior Dre Brown chipped in another 180 yards and two touchdowns on just 18 carries. Going five-deep, the running backs hit the 2,100 yards rushing mark, averaging 7.4 yards per carry last season.
Three of last season’s top four receivers return, and with the addition of graduate transfers Trevon Sidney (5’11” 170 lbs.) and Josh Imatorbhebhe (6’2” 215 lbs.) from Southern Cal, this group should be stronger than last season. Sidney caught seven passes for 104 yards last season; he was just buried on the Trojans’ blue-chip filled depth chart. Imatorbhebhe’s career has been injury plagued so far, but the former four-star recruit should definitely be able to contribute if healthy. Junior Ricky Smalling (6’1” lbs.) led Illinois last season with 33 receptions for 406 yards and five touchdowns. Senior Trenard Davis (6’0” 195 lbs.) caught 30 passes for 278 yards. An extra year to understand Smith’s spread offense combined with the Trojan talent influx should do wonders for making the Illinois passing game better in 2019.
An extra year of experience in the offense should also help the offensive line as well with four returning starters from one of the youngest line groups in the nation. Three juniors – center Doug Kramer (6’2” 305 lbs.), right tackl Alex Palczewski (6’6” 300 lb.) and left tackle Vederian Lowe (6’6” 315 lbs.) - all started as freshman as did sophomore left guard Kendrick Green (6’4” 300 lbs.). Taking over at right guard is graduate transfer Richie Petitbon (6’4” 316 lbs.). I can’t help but think that adding an underutilized blue-chipper from a talent overloaded program can’t help but raise the program.
Illinois’ defense hasn’t been very good under Lovie Smith, which has caused a lot of changes the last couple of seasons. In 2017, Smith began a youth movement on the field and over the last season, overhauled his defensive staff. Hardy Nickerson Sr. retired during the middle of the season, with Lovie Smith taking over coordinating the defense. Secondary coach Keynodo Hudson arrived this offseason from Southern Cal.
That hire opened up a transfer pipeline from Los Angeles to Champaign that netted not only Sidney at wide receiver but also defensive end Oluwole Betiku (6’3” 240 lbs.) to augment a defensive line that looked to return intact. Betiku, a five-star recruit out of high school, could be the replacement for junior defensive end Bobby Roundtree (6’5” 255 lbs.), who suffered a severe spinal injury while swimming in May. Roundtree led the Illini with 7.5 sacks and seven pass breakups, so his absence will undoubtedly be felt.
Junior weakside linebacker Jake Hansen (6’1” 230 lbs.) tied for the team lead last season with 95 tackles; his 8.5 tackles for loss led the Illinois defense last year. Junior Milo Eifler (6’2” 220 lbs.) is an intriguing prospect at middle linebacker. Despite never playing organized football until his junior season in high school, Eifler quickly became a four-star prospect who spent two seasons at Washington before transferring to Illinois. Behind Eifler is senior Dele Harding (6’1” 230 lbs.), who has had 82 tackles as a reserve and spot starter throughout his Illini career.
The entire secondary returns, and to give you an idea how young this group was last year, there’s only one senior starter this year in free safety Stanley Green (5’11” 200 lbs.). Green had 58 tackles last season, fourth on the team. Sophomore Sydney Brown (6’0” 195 lbs) started 10 games as a true freshman last season; his 55 tackles ranked fifth on the team. Sophomore cornerback Jartavius Martin’s (6’0” 190 lbs.) three interceptions led the secondary; he started eight games last season as a true freshman. Junior nickle back (fifth defensive back, not Iowa fan’s favorite band) Tony Adams (6’0” 190 lbs.) was sixth in tackles with 43. It’s not out of line to expect a secondary that started two true freshmen and two sophomores to improve significantly the next year.
From my perspective, if Illinois gets some decent quarterback play out of true freshman Isaiah Williams, I think Lovie has a bowl eligible team in 2019. With a non-conference slate of Akron, UConn (1-11 last year) and Eastern Michigan, plus a game against Rutgers, Illinois just needs two victories over a west division opponent to get to six; I suspect they’ll get there, as the incoming transfers should raise the overall talent level of the program significantly in 2019.
What’s your prediction when Nebraska faces Illinois in 2019?
This poll is closed
Illinois shocks the nation with an upset to enter October undefeated.
The Illini are improved, but Nebraska returns to Lincoln from the Land of Lincoln with a "W".
Bad Santa. Huskers roll all over Illinois to open Big Ten play.