You’re as sick of reading about the struggles of Illinois Fighting Illini football as I am of writing about it. In the three full seasons I’ve spent as a writer on OTE, Illinois has won four conference games. At this point, the Orange and Blue have won eight of their last 56 games against Big Ten opponents.
As if the beating this fanbase has taken over the last 25 or so years wasn’t enough, Nike has seen fit to punish us by totally retooling our look again so that we look like the Safeway Select version of Syracuse. The helmets feature a block I with an orange outline against an orange background. There’s no evidence any humans working at Nike actually looked at the orange helmet before it was released.
I’m writing this while sipping on a Stone Enjoy By series IPA. Bitter, yet refreshing. They say drinks like this are an acquired taste. To fully appreciate all its joys, you must first become accustomed to the bitterness. This is Illinois football.
What else is there to say? We’re riding a ten game losing streak, never scored more than 24 points in a game and have now experienced more seasons winless in conference play than bowl games since my graduation. Only three FBS teams ranked worse in offensive S&P+. Three quarterbacks started games for Illinois last year. One was demoted to tight end and later quit the game entirely, but not before playing the part of Leonidas at the Thermopylae that was Ohio Stadium. One transferred out, and the other was the only scholarship quarterback on the roster for the spring game, continuing a tradition that I don’t really care for. Mike Epstein, who left early in the fifth game, finished the season as the leading rusher.
To give you an idea of what Lovie Smith replaced when he ditched OC Garrick McGee for former Arizona OC Rod Smith, read this tweet from incoming freshman QB Coran Taylor:
Coran Taylor: "I like Rod Smith better than Garrick McGee. The hour that we had, we worked on more stuff than I ever had with McGee. We went over a lot of stuff. With McGee, we never went over anything. (Rod Smith) stays in touch with me. McGee barely texted me." #Illini— Isaac Trotter (@isaac_trotter2) February 7, 2018
I have to believe that Smith will be an upgrade over McGee if only because there’s a chance Smith might actually put some effort into his job. Exhibit B:
The speedy Epstein will be the lead back, and though incoming freshmen Coran Taylor and MJ Rivers are certainly more complete passers, Cam Thomas is probably going to start. I’m expecting him to have more success running a Rich Rodriguez style spread rushing attack. It certainly seems that the offense has no room to get worse than last year’s, but I said that in the last offseason as well, so I suppose you never know where rock bottom is until after you’ve come up from those depths.
There’s some talent in the receiving corps that was masked by our inability to get them the ball last year. Mikey Dudek returns for his redshirt senior year hoping to at long last complete a season without a debilitating injury. If he proves his body can withstand a full football season after all the rehab, he will almost certainly drive everyone nuts as a slot receiver for the Patriots for years. Graduate transfer Shaedon Meadors of Appalachian State missed last year with an injury while still a Mountaineer, but caught 45 balls for over 700 yards in 2016. Sophomore Ricky Smalling might have the highest upside, however, as he demonstrated great ability to get up and haul in jump balls. Tight end Louis Dorsey’s role in the offense is unclear as I expect a lot more three or 4 wide sets, but his magnificent hands will definitely be noticed at some point.
The offensive line is comprised almost entirely of underclassmen, and unfortunately I am skeptical of Luke Butkus’ ability to develop them. However, Larry Boyd and Vederian Lowe are truly colossal young men with a lot of potential. There will definitely be growing pains with this unit, however.
UPDATE (9:37AM): I apparently forgot all about graduate transfer quarterback AJ Bush, a 6’4” 220lb dual threat passer from Virginia Tech. I still maintain that Thomas will see some action in weeks 1 and 2, but Bush really ought to be the front-runner for getting the majority of the snaps. I think the Dwayne Lawson fiasco trained me to assume that former Virginia Tech quarterbacks would never make it to Champaign.
The strongest unit on this team is going to be the defensive line without any question. Though young, it’s already a fairly deep group, as several quality recruits actually managed to keep their redshirts last year. Jamal Milan is the most experienced of the group at DT, while sophomores Isaiah Gay and Bobby Roundtree were impressive as true freshman defensive ends. Redshirts included hulking DE Lere Oladipo and Scout 4-star DT Kendrick Green. Add to this incoming consensus 4-star freshmen Calvin Avery and Verdis Brown at defensive tackle and this has the foundation of a very solid rotation. This talent will hopefully make up for the departure of line coach Mike Phair for the NFL.
Four down linemen will be the norm and a 4-3 nickel look is going to be the base defense. Hopefully this will mitigate the depth problems at linebacker, as the departure of Tre Watson was only aided by the addition of one recruit (Khalan Tolson). Bennett Williams is the young leader of the secondary and if he can clean up his problems with helmet-to-helmet hits he can become a great run supporting safety. I have high hopes for the return of Tony Adams, who was impressive as a true freshman corner prior to a season-ending injury. This is a defense that will stuff runs up the middle, but may really struggle with edge containment on plays such as Iowa’s stretch runs and may also be vulnerable in pass coverage. Fortunately, this is the 2018 Big Ten and nobody passes unless they absolutely have to.
Blake Hayes was the best player on the team in 2017.
September 8, 2018 is my personal Super Bowl. We should win at least two in the non-conference. Anything after that is gravy. I say that in all seriousness. I would be pretty satisfied with a 3-9 season if the third win came from a conference opponent. Sports watching is supposed to be, among other things, a retreat from regular life, but instead it just parallels my reality. Here in real life, I’ve just verified that it is, in fact, still raining and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. For all intents and purposes, it’s always been raining and sunshine is an invention of my subconscious mind found only in dreams. I’m on the verge of buying a kayak to paddle around in the pond that was once my back yard. Similarly, on any given morning during football season, an Illinois fan can wake up, open the curtains, and not be disappointed to find that it’s shitty out. We’re usually shitty, so take advantage of those brief moments when you can’t tell we’re shitty.
If you’re talking to an Illinois fan...
then surely you’re worldly enough to come up with a conversation topic that doesn’t involve sports, right?
B1G 2018: Illinois Week
MONDAY | Cocktail Party Preview
TUESDAY | #Littyville
WEDNESDAY | Rod Smith Is Not The Guy That Played For The Broncos
THURSDAY | What does it matter, you’re probably not gonna read it
FRIDAY | The staff tries in vain to insult Illinois more than I just did in this half-assed article. 8 for 56.
ERRY DAMN DAY | Potlucks