Lovie Smith does not value transparency in his football program.
He’s always been famously tight-lipped about most things, perfecting the art of coach-speak at the highest level of pro football. There is no such thing as an injury report. There will be no insight into why a game went the way it did. That’s simply not your place to know.
I’m not saying he’s wrong to practice this philosophy. However, it does make it a bit harder to guess what the plan is for the program, how long that has been the plan, and whether or not the plan has been adjusted.
Put another way, Lovie’s intentions are difficult to divine.
Due to being hired in March, Lovie had a free pass year in 2016 during which he could chart the course for Illinois Fighting Illini going forward. In eschewing the JUCO and transfer markets, I believe he was trying to build an experienced team for the future through trial by fire as underclassmen. Experience is valuable, but any long-time Illini fan was within their rights to be concerned about building towards a single team instead of building a sustainable program. We were twice burned in 2001 and 2007, and again in 2015/16, though not from as high a peak.
Nevertheless, it was clear that playing underclassmen to build an experienced 2020 roster was a high priority. Those who were most promising in those dark days of 2017 would be the anchors of a legendary 2020 team. Star recruits like Isaiah Williams and Marquez Beason would amplify the existing experience.
So how did that go?
The 2020 Depth Chart
Let’s see just how much experience this group has! Italics note players from the 2016 or 2017 recruiting class
QB: Brandon Peters (16 starts, 11 for Illinois); Matt Robinson (2 starts)
RB: Mike Epstein (11 starts); Chase Brown (13 starts, none for Illinois); Reggie Love (true FR)
WR1: Josh Imatorbhebhe (10 starts); Donny Navarro (11 starts)
WR2: Casey Washington (7 starts); Edwin Carter (1 start)
WR3: Trevon Sidney (12 starts, 5 for Illinois); Kyron Cumby (0 starts)
TE: Luke Ford (0 starts); Daniel Barker (13 starts)
RT: Alex Palczewski (36 starts)
RG: Blake Jeresaty (29 starts, 0 for Illinois)
C: Doug Kramer (36 starts)
LG: Kendrick Green (24 starts)
LT: Vederian Lowe (32 starts)
DE: Isaiah Gay (10 starts); Seth Coleman (RS-FR)
DT: Jamal Woods (12 starts); Deon Pate (1 start)
DT: Calvin Avery (24 games played); Anthony Shipton (JUCO-JR)
DE: Owen Carney (21 starts); Keith Randolph (RS-FR)
WLB: Jake Hansen (22 starts)
MLB: Tarique Barnes (0 starts)
SLB: Milo Eifler (12 starts)
CB: Nate Hobbs (30 starts)
S: Sydney Brown (20 starts)
S: Tony Adams (19 starts)
CB: Devon Witherspoon (3 starts)
K: James McCourt (13 starts)
P: Blake Hayes (37 starts)
Let’s see what did and didn’t work.
Of the 49 games Lovie Smith has coached at Illinois, only five have been started by quarterbacks he recruited out of high school, and they were all in place of an injured starter. Of course, if you’re building from 2016 for a 2020 roster and you replace the offensive coordinator at the halfway point, you’re not going to roll into 2020 with a redshirt senior who’s been groomed to run this system for his whole collegiate career.
AJ Bush was perhaps Lovie’s most effective quarterback, though his game was woefully incomplete. Brandon Peters is a best case scenario given how badly quarterback recruiting and development has gone awry. Lovie inherited 2016 freshman Eli Peters and recruited Cam Thomas in 2017, MJ Rivers, Coran Taylor and Matt Robinson in 2018 and Isaiah Williams in 2019. Thomas transferred during the 2018 season, Rivers transferred after, Taylor has barely played and Robinson has been ineffective. It’s safe to say that the biggest reason Garrick McGee was fired was his failure to recruit the 2020 starting quarterback to Illinois.
Lovie inherited 2017 recruit Mike Epstein and added Ra’Von Bonner that year. The Illini backfield suddenly became crowded when Rod Smith figured out how to use Dre Brown and Reggie Corbin. Bonner departed last week due to concerns about coronavirus, but Epstein remains, as do some untested pieces from 2018 and the transfer market.
No receivers from the 2016 class remained on the team long, but Lovie got to work landing Ricky Smalling, Kendall Smith, Carmoni Green and Tony Adams as promising receiver prospects in the 2017 class. Green was dismissed in 2018, Adams was moved to DB where he’s been successful, Smith was moved to DB and hasn’t been heard from since, and Smalling just left the team for reasons that are still unclear. The bulk of the receiving duties will be handled by players that suited up for Illinois for the first time just last year.
Zarrian Holcombe was the highest-rated Bill Cubit recruit Lovie inherited, but got involved in the Great Dorm Robbery of 2017. Lou Dorsey emerged as one of the bright spots of the 2017 season, putting up 395 receiving yards to finish second on the team to Ricky Smalling. He would leave the team during the 2018 season. The two leading receivers in the 2017 campaign were both true freshmen, and neither will play for Illinois in 2020.
This is arguably the most successful group if you judge by the rubric of assembling a 2020 team of upperclassmen with a lot of starts for Illinois. Doug Kramer was a Cubit recruit that redshirted the 2016 season and would become part of the underclassman-heavy offensive line from the 2017 season, as eventual NFL player Christian DiLauro was shelved in favor of the likes of Kramer, Lowe and Palczewski. Junior Nick Allegretti was the leader of this group and would not be benched, but the most promising freshman lineman was Larry Boyd, who was sure to be an anchor at guard.
Boyd was suspended for the 2018 season and subsequently dismissed, lasting a year longer than his fellow 2017 guard recruit Hojo Watkins of Great Dorm Robbery fame.
Still, Kendrick Green came over in 2018 and has been very successful, and as long as you don’t consider what happens past 2020, this offensive line has tremendous experience.
2016 recruits Tymir Oliver and Kenyon Jackson played as freshmen and therefore ended up as contributing seniors last year. The biggest blow to the vision of an experienced 2020 line came when Bobby Roundtree’s spinal injury ended his career, but of course he’s not the only departure from the 2017 class. Owen Carney, a top-500 recruit, remains with much left to prove; the same can’t be said of domestic abuser Lere Oladipo. Kendrick Green is, of course, now on the offensive line.
2018 4* DT Verdis Brown was also conscripted to offensive line duty, perhaps to replace departed 2018 4* OT Ruben Unije. Highly touted transfer Oluwole Betiku Jr left with a year of eligibility in order to not get drafted by the NFL.
Because this is about the construction of the 2020 roster, I’ll ignore the impact of benching Tre Watson for noted deer statue thief Jimmy Marchese. Dele Harding from the 2016 class provided good linebacker play in 2019, and Jake Hansen from the same class has become a solid Big Ten player. Oddly, despite literally being Lovie Smith, Lovie Smith whiffed on all his linebacker targets in 2017 and finally managed to snag one in 2018. I don’t know why Lovie Smith could not convince 2017 linebackers to be senior captains on his 2020 team, but he couldn’t. Nevertheless, between Hansen and Washington transfer Milo Eifler, the position isn’t lacking, if not quite strong.
Once again, because he wouldn’t have played for the 2020 team, safety Patrick Nelson isn’t relevant to this discussion even though he would have been a very important player for 2018 and 2019 had he not left for SMU.
The 2017 class did yield a pair of corners in Nate Hobbs and Tony Adams that’s proven to be competent at the Big Ten level. In 2018, Adams moved to safety during the season to plug a big hole that raw freshman Sydney Brown couldn’t yet fill next to Stanley Green. It’s not clear if he’ll be playing safety or corner in 2020, as surprising freshman Devon Witherspoon proved quite capable last year.
The elephant in the room is of course why there was a big hole in the secondary, and that was due to the dismissal of 2017 freshman All-American Bennett Williams. He will continue his career at Oregon and has the makings of a stud, with a real nose for the ball and the strength to make tackles on ballcarriers in the box.
These are perfect. Don’t touch them.
Though some areas (offensive line) are more complete than others (receiver), on the whole there are enough starts on this team that one could reasonably give Lovie a passing grade for the assignment of rolling into 2020 with one of the more experienced teams in the country.
However, there are a lot of freshly patched holes, which sort of violates the spirit of the assignment, since the point of suffering through the lean years and benching quality upperclassmen for freshmen was supposed to be that those freshmen become the leaders of the 2020 team.
In the leanest year of all, 2017, all we had was bright spots. These were the names Illini fans wanted to talk about after the season, the guys everyone thought would be the seniors that carried 2020 Illinois to glory. Their names were Bobby Roundtree, Larry Boyd, Lou Dorsey, Bennett Williams, Ricky Smalling and Mike Epstein. By various means ranging from the unfathomably cruel to the questionably handled, only the injury-plagued Epstein remains with the team.
The materials used to patch the holes have been perfectly fine! Imatorbhebhe in particular has been a rousing success, and Peters holds more upside than any quarterback Lovie targeted early on. However, transfers do nothing to address the anxiety of the cliff after the experienced team graduates.
Therefore, can it be said that Lovie achieved the vision that cannot be confirmed or denied to be his for the 2020 team?