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Reviewing the 2019 Illinois Fighting Illini

How will the Illini bounce back from dropping a turd on the field last week?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 07 Illinois at UConn Photo by Steve Nurenberg/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

My prediction that Illinois would be better than a last place team looked good for one week anyway. The Illini blew out Akron 42-3 to open the season as the Zips were held to just 192 yards of offense. Things haven’t gone much better for Akron the last two weeks, as they’ve lost to UAB and Central Michigan to start the season 0-3.

Unlike the fast start the Illini got off to against Akron, Illinois fell behind UConn 13-0 before the offense erupted for 24 points in the second quarter. A fumble on Illinois’ first play of the third quarter led to a UConn touchdown drive to tighten the game up. It wasn’t until Dele Harding intercepted a UConn pass with under four minutes left in the game that the Illini could salt away their first non-conference road victory since 2007.

Last Saturday, Eastern Michigan defeated Illinois 34-31 in Champaign. The Illinois offense went dormant in the second and third quarters, but battled back to overcome a 14 point deficit to tie the game with three minutes to play. That left enough time for Eastern Michigan to drive the field and kick a 24 yard game winning field goal as time expired. Illinois simply had no answer to contain Mike Glass III, EMU’s dual-threat quarterback, who threw for 316 yards and ran for another 37 yards. With their victory, Eastern Michigan now enjoys a three game winning streak against Big Ten opponents; in 2017, the Eagles beat Rutgers (who hasn’t, though?) and last year, they beat Purdue, also with a 24 yard field goal as time expired. (That’s a word of warning to Wisconsin, who will be EMU’s next Big Ten opponent a couple of years from now.)

In what would have seemed to be a mild surprise this summer, Illinois decided to go with Michigan graduate transfer Brandon Peters at quarterback. True freshman Isaiah Williams hasn’t seen the field yet (even in the week one blowout of Akron), leading to the expectation that Illinois would love to redshirt him this year. Peters has completed 63% of his passes for 687 yards and nine touchdowns with two interceptions. He’s run the ball a little more successfully this season, with a positive 18 yards rushing after subtracting sacks.

The season opener for Illinois was a costly one, as both Reggie Corbin and Mike Epstein left with injuries; Epstein is out for the season, while Corbin returned last weekend, rushing for 144 yards on 18 carries against EMU. Dre Brown is second on the Illini with 106 yards rushing and a 5.0 yards per carry average. Southern Cal transfer Josh Imotorhebhe leads Illinois with 10 catches for 167 yards and three touchdowns. Ricky Smalling has 16 catches for 159 yards and a touchdown while tight end Daniel Barker has seven catches for 136 yards and two touchdowns.

You might not have been tracking on the name Oluwole Betiku this summer, but Big Ten offensive coordinators are now. The Southern Cal transfer leads the nation with 7.5 tackles for loss and his six sacks leads the Big Ten after three games. Senior middle linebacker Dele Harding is the leading tackler for the Illini with 30 this season; Milo Eifler has shifted over to strongside linebacker. In the secondary, injuries to expected starters Tony Adams and Stanley Green have led to poor play from the secondary, especially last week as EMU repeatedly burned the secondary in the upset.

This might be a bad week to play Illinois, coming off a bad loss; remember back to 2015 when Nebraska upset Michigan State a week after getting trucked badly by a Darrell Hazell-led Purdue team. While many fans may already be looking forward to next week’s ABC prime-time matchup against Ohio State, the team can’t afford to do the same...especially since the Huskers haven’t won on the road in nearly two years. This looks like a very favorable matchup for the Huskers as long as Nebraska takes care of business on their end.

Below the jump, you’ll find the preseason preview of the Illinois Fighting Illini.

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 tackle 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.