Welcome, one and all, to Illinois Week on Off Tackle Empire!
Yes, it’s time once again to dive into a rebuilding year, as football season often is in Champaign. This time, Lovie Smith has a full class of freshmen to replace the many seniors that graduated from last year’s team. The Illinois Fighting Illini faithful will watch patiently for signs of improvement in Year Two of the Smith era.
What Happened Last Year?
Many bad things. After defeating Murray State 52-3, Illinois sold out Memorial Stadium for a primetime game against the North Carolina Tar Heels and kept it close through nearly 3 quarters. That was as good as it would get, as the Western Michigan Broncos annihilated them the following week to thoroughly unsettle the Illini faithful. Coming close to a road win at Nebraska, Illinois proceeded to lose to the hapless Purdue Boilermakers the following week, causing much gnashing of teeth. With starting quarterback Wes Lunt out indefinitely with a concussion, Chayce Crouch led the Illini into New Jersey, where he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in a 24-7 win aided largely by Rutgers turning the ball over. Jeff George Jr proceeded to step in and be subpar until the Michigan State Spartans served up 31 points and a much-needed victory. Lunt’s return would mean little, as the Illini would be shut out by Iowa and handled by Northwestern to close out the season 3-9 with a 2-7 conference record, which is still the best inaugural season for an Illinois head coach in nearly 25 years.
Seriously though, Lunt graduated, Crouch missed spring ball recovering from his surgery, George should really not be starting, incoming freshman Cameron Thomas will almost certainly not be ready and JUCO transfer Dwayne Lawson still isn’t at Illinois yet.
After seeing his role diminish over the season, RB Ke’Shaun Vaughn transferred. This leaves Reggie Corbin, Kendrick Foster and Dre Brown to run the ball. Their success will hinge on the offensive line and what we can do with the quarterback outside the pocket. Mikey Dudek will at long last return to action after tearing an ACL in spring ball in 2015 and 2016. This could potentially be a deep receiving corps if Dudek still has the explosiveness he showed in 2014 and Malik Turner continues to develop. Expect contributions from incoming freshmen Carmoni Green and Ricky Smalling as well.
Ultimately, I have no idea what to expect from this offense. It sounds like Crouch is the starter right now, but he’s started one game in his career. Whoever is the quarterback will certainly be more mobile than Lunt, so expect more option-oriented looks to come from the Fighting Illini.
Not tremendous, but maybe not as bad as it appears. Most of the linebacking corps returns, and though four starters and a rotation guy left the defensive line, returning players still got plenty of snaps last year. Jamal Milan and Kenyon Jackson will step in at defensive tackle, while the crown jewel of the JUCO scene Delshawn Phillips will play outside linebacker, allowing Tre Watson to move to MLB. Stanley Green developed into a solid tackler at safety, but this group did lose a lot of talent last year. This season is where we’ll see if this coaching staff can develop players to their scheme.
Chase McLaughlin earned himself a scholarship as our kicker of the future with his work last year. Had he only not doinked the game winning kick against Purdue off the upright, I’d call him our most clutch player.
The punter situation is murkier than the quarterback situation.
OK, yes, I’m lazy. Anyway, Ball State is a mediocre MAC team that hasn’t bowled in a few years, so that should be an easy win.
However, the next two games are pretty concerning. Western Kentucky and South Florida both won 11 games last year and finished ranked in the Coaches’ Poll. Sure, they both had their head coaches hired away, but USF hired Charlie Strong and programs like that don’t fall apart overnight. WKU at home may just be winnable, but USF on the road probably isn’t. I’m seeing losses in both of those.
Unless Mike Riley loses his mind in Champaign again, Nebraska’s not going to be a win, and I’d be very very surprised if we beat Iowa on the road. Rutgers looks like a good chance to score the first conference win given what went down on the road last year.
The other three that look winnable are Purdue, Indiana and Northwestern. For Purdue, this is an annual series where the home team hasn’t won since 2011. We’re on the road. Case closed. Indiana is without Kevin Wilson and could be in disarray, while Northwestern is just not a team I’ll ever take seriously.
If You’re Talking To An Illinois Fan, Don’t Mention
2018 recruiting, Jeremiah Tilmon...eh probably just don’t talk about Illinois sports until 2018 or 2019.
Shots. Shots. Shots. Shots. Shots. Shots. Shots. Shots. Shots. Shots. Shots. Shots. Shots. Shots. Shots. Shots.
B1G 2017: Illinois Week
MONDAY | Cocktail Party Preview
TUESDAY | I’ve Got Underwood
WEDNESDAY | How To Champaign During Our Rebuilding Years
THURSDAY | We’re Gonna Win The National Title
FRIDAY | Smug people saying smug things smugly
ERRY DAMN DAY | Potlucks