The Illinois Fighting Illini will forge a new path on Saturday, April 13th when they play the first proper spring game of the Lovie Smith era. That’s right, in his fourth spring at the helm of our venerable Orange and Blue tugboat, Captain Lovie has more than one scholarship quarterback healthy in the spring for the first time since he took over the job a week before 2016 spring practices.
Yep, in 2016 they declined to hold a spring game because Lovie had just gotten there. In 2017, Jeff George Jr was the only scholarship quarterback available with Chayce Crouch still recovering from what would prove to be a career-ending shoulder injury. Last year, Cam Thomas was the only scholarship quarterback on the roster not counting emergency-quarterback-turned-WR Trenard Davis. This year, pocket passer MJ Rivers, electric runner Coran Taylor and guy-who-caught-the-eye-of-the-OC Matt Robinson will compete for the starting gig.
Nevertheless, I don’t believe we’ll learn much of anything from spring practices or the spring game, and here’s why:
1: The QB Battle Might Not Mean Anything
Rivers was the only one of those three freshmen not to redshirt, but his skill set fits Rod Smith’s offense the least. He’s capably mobile, but certainly not a guy whose running ability demands a defense’s attention. Robinson played poorly in limited action last season, and Taylor didn’t see a single snap. Rivers has been taking the bulk of the first team snaps so far, but this might be totally academic.
Offensive coordinator Rod Smith is asked often about potentially playing incoming freshman quarterback Isaiah Williams at WR due to his speed, and each time he defiantly insists that Williams is coming to play quarterback. Williams is the prototypical Rich Rodriguez type quarterback and this is reinforced every time Rod talks about him. Besides Williams, however, the coaching staff has expressed interest in graduate transfers at all offensive skill positions outside of RB, and so it’s entirely possible that the winner of the spring QB battle is the third-string quarterback come kickoff time.
2. Last Year’s Spring and Fall Camp Look Different In The Context Of 2018’s Historically Bad Defense
Last spring, reports out of practice were fairly limited. Cam Thomas was taking better to Rod Smith than to Garrick McGee, but they kept scrimmages to a minimum. Fall camp, however, showed an offense that was ready to kick ass and take names. In particular, I recall seeing a lot of praise for the receivers, who were running crisp routes, getting separation and making catches. AJ Bush was dazzling everyone with his speed in limited-contact scrimmages. Converted linebacker Justice Williams showed surprisingly soft hands, and the Illini had a plethora of running options who could make plays on the edge.
As it turned out, the offense was middling at best, finishing 70th in S&P+. Mediocre in the context of the Big Ten, it still represented an enormous improvement from the directionless “get stopped for a loss of six on a delayed handoff out of the shotgun” offense devised by McGee. The passing game that looked so sharp in the fall never materialized.
That’s because it turned out Illinois would field the worst defense in its long and storied history of playing football, dropping DBs into zone coverage and giving up 15-yard posts anyway, making Maryland look like an unstoppable behemoth and making Artur Sitkowski look polished for an entire drive.
With this fresh in the minds of Illini fans, what does it mean if the defense looks better? Are they better, or has the offense taken a step back with the departure of AJ Bush? In light of what we saw from the defense last year, it’s hard to actually believe in any progress shown in spring ball.
3. The Starters Could Look Very Different In The Fall
In addition to Isaiah Williams, Texas high school superstar DB Marquez Beason will compete for a starting spot in the defense this fall, and Illinois is still pursuing graduate transfers at offensive skill positions and defensive end. As of this post, we don’t yet know which offensive starter will miss the year with an injury sustained in the spring/summer (as WR Shaedon Meadors did last year and Mike Dudek did in 2015/2016), so that’s something fans need to account for. RB Mike Epstein is being held out of spring practice with concerns about his foot that might never go away, and two possible starting receivers are recovering from season-ending injuries (Dejon Brissett and Edwin Carter, at least if you believe Rod Smith).
This is to say nothing of the potential of losing players in deer heist shenanigans or armed robbery of the dorm room of a guy that knows you.
Hell, take a look at this clip from last August
That’s Lou Dorsey getting open against Bennett Williams to catch a Cam Thomas touchdown pass.
Two months later, all of those players were off the team for various reasons.
What Can We Learn Then?
The one thing I’ll be paying attention to besides injuries is the competition to replace Big Ten kicker of the year Chase McLaughlin.
Look, I’m glad we have a spring game like we’re a real football program. It’s an improvement. I don’t think anyone’s excited about it though; Lovie’s handling of the “defensive coordinator search” and failure to shore up the receiving corps has added to the 63-0 loss to Iowa (which was only two games ago) and built a case that this football program is a house of cards with the small pointy end on the bottom.
It’s just another event Illini fans need to endure because it brings us one more day closer to the long-awaited 2019 season, or to be more precise, the part of the 2019 season where we know whether or not this buildup to a reliable six win program is actually going to happen.