Loren Tate: Now is the time to dream
As LTate, the wretched sports broker, my job is to play it straight. Always be skeptical. Question an Illini football program that has lost 21 of 22 Big Ten games and reached plus-.500 twice — just twice — in 20 years of conference play.
If the outlook is dismal, call it dismal.
But two people occupy this space. Loren the Ever-Hopeful creeps in. Even if you can’t see him, he breaks out of his cocoon each August, habitually overrating (in his mind) players who we have barely seen or not seen at all. Isn’t that the way? Aren’t athletes always better before you see them against Ohio State?
Today I’ll identify six such players on the UI team. Not tackle Simon Cvijanovic or running back Josh Ferguson. They’re established. This will pinpoint new potential difference-makers, athletes we have barely seen. Some have NFL potential. Each could be special. And collectively they could put Illinois in the postseason. Or not.
Wes Lunt, quarterback
You already know about the strapping Oklahoma State transfer from Rochester. He has an NFL throwing motion. We’re betting our chips on him, and it’s not like filling an inside straight.
Lunt has a physical resemblance to Jon Beutjer, who transferred from Iowa and succeeded Kurt Kittner as QB in 2002. Beutjer was rangy and had a strong arm, throwing 21 TD passes the first year.
But in clutch situations, where Kittner was so effective, Beutjer fell short. The Illini won nine of 26 games in 2002-04, and Beutjer started just 20 of 35 contests even as he threw for 5,190 yards.
Premier QBs, when backed to the wall, rise to the occasion — and you never know until the time comes. The lanky Lunt will step in after eight seasons of mobile (Juice Williams and Nathan Scheelhaase) UI quarterbacks.
Geronimo Allison, receiver
At 6-foot-4 and 195 pounds, Allison is swift and agile, and particularly adept in jump-ball situations. He has 4.4 speed and a hurdler’s dexterity. A transfer from Iowa Western, he caught 69 balls there in 2013.
Call him a sleeper. He didn’t play football as a sophomore or junior in Tampa, Fla., and had just one offer: Iowa Western. No four-year colleges.
Dating to the Brandon Lloyd days, the Illini have produced some outstanding receivers. Arrelious Benn topped 1,000 yards in 2008, A.J. Jenkins caught 84 for 1,276 yards in 2011, and fast-finishing Steve Hull had 993 yards last season.
Now the receiver slots are wide open as coordinator Bill Cubit and assistant Mike Bellamy study a large crop featuring junior Justin Hardee, spring standout Mike Dudek and flashy newcomers Malik Turner and Tyrin Stone-Davis.
“I’m learning things I’ve never been exposed to,” Allison said. “Coach Cubit is very fundamental. You have to be a student with him. I’m trying to finesse all my routes and critique everything I do. I am more than a vertical receiver.”
Sounds like a thinking man’s pass catcher, and he appears smooth in the execution. But take note: JC transfers often need time and, collectively, 2013 pickups Martize Barr, Abe Cajuste, Eric Finney, Dallas Hinkhouse and Zane Petty made modest contributions last season.
T.J. Neal, linebacker
Defense needs the most help, and coach Tim Beckman believes he uncovered a gem last spring in the 235-pound Pennsylvania tackling machine. Two-year regular Mason Monheim has been moved to weakside backer (Jonathan Brown’s former slot) to make room for a more reactive playmaker in the middle.
“This shows that the coaches really believe in me,” Neal said, “and are giving me a chance to step up and make plays. My redshirt year gave me time to grow as a person and as a student. It was hard at first, but it helped me develop and kept me hungry.
“If it had been up to me, I would have played. But looking back, I’m glad I sat out. I played enough last year to get my feet wet, and I separated myself in the spring. I’m anxious to see how this turns out.”
Dawuane Smoot, defensive end
When a high school athlete competes nationally in the shot put, discus and 400 hurdles, you know he is special. And when he grows from 230 to 270 pounds in one year, it makes you look twice.
Simply put, Smoot’s prospects are off the charts as he moves into the LEO slot, a position that may call for pass rush or drop coverage. He looks the part and gave strong indications in the spring after appearing in seven games as a freshman.
Remember, Whitney Mercilus (16 sacks in 2011) emerged out of nowhere.
Jihad Ward, defensive line
You’ll roll your eyes when you see the svelte (6-foot-6, 300 pounds) product of Philadelphia and New York. He was ranked the No. 6 JC player and No. 2 D-lineman in the country by 247sports. If they’re right, Illinois has a much-needed stopper up front.
Ward is one of the reasons Greg Colby says, “I’ll be a better coach this season.”
Caleb Day, secondary
The 200-pound Day arrived last year from Hilliard, Ohio, as the UI’s only four-star prospect besides Aaron Bailey. After a disappointing season (he played in eight games), Day joined Neal and Smoot in displaying breakout talent in the spring.
Will it carry over? We’ll see. Beckman says he’ll play the “four best” in the secondary, which could require one of the cornerbacks moving to the weaker safety position. For now, Day is listed at corner.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.