Tate: With some luck, Illini should have plenty of talent

Tate: With some luck, Illini should have plenty of talent

When the subject of Illini football comes up — which isn't often enough — there are usually voiced concerns that Lovie Smith is lacking bodies.

That perception is understandable. Illini watchers can't get past the fact that a long injury list and a shortage of passers and receivers caused Smith to cancel the customary Illini spring game. So social media and media outlets are launching bazookas of doubt about UI's worthiness for Big Ten play.

Nor did it help that three young squad members were jailed and booted for a foolish — no, imbecilic — dorm robbery. Grim stuff. When Tre Nation and M.J. McGriff skipped town, that reduced by five the number of scholarship freshmen who signed on a year ago.

From my media-driven viewpoint — off the main subject for a moment — the latter incident reminds how many column inches, how much talk radio, how many internet reports and how many discussions have been wasted on athletes who leave early without making the anticipated impact ... Aaron Bailey, Caleb Day, Bryce Douglas, etc.

Many headline-grabbing signing splashes quickly run dry. Some didn't reach campus. Maybe the late Bo Schembechler had a point when he refused to discuss freshmen.

Isn't what we're doing today a cousin to Fake News? But, then, there's an entire industry operating on gossip and speculation related to recruiting. We must feed what the public gobbles up.

Cause for concern

Let's turn to redshirting, about which everyone has an opinion. Most teams withhold freshmen for developmental purposes. For all but the Alabamas and Ohio States — our modern 3-and-dones — a typical plan is to bring in 25, play six or seven out of necessity, and save the rest.

OK, how's that working at Illinois? In part due to repeated coaching changes, coupled with inevitable mistakes, the 2017 UI roster features four fifth-year seniors who accepted scholarships in 2013: Kendrick Foster, Jaylen Dunlap, Christian DiLauro and James Crawford. Nate Echard was a walk-on that year so you can count him too.

Altogether, the UI lists eight seniors receiving scholarships on a squad of 92 players. Eight! Does any squad have fewer? We're talking about fourth-year seniors and fifth-year seniors, and Illinois has eight on scholarship in those two classes.

But hold on a minute

But there I go again, citing a negative. That wasn't my intent because there is another side, even if somewhat muffled.

First, forget the low spring number. The current roster counts 92. That's enough if they're good enough. Chayce Crouch and Mikey Dudek have the ability to make things interesting if they can stay healthy, and the backfield will not miss Nation (or "prize catch" Keyshawn Vaughn, who left earlier).

There are enough receivers to test opposing defenses. It might even be a team strength. Begin with Dudek, a game changer in the bowl season of 2014 before becoming the missing ingredient for Bill Cubit's 5-7 team in 2015.

Malik Turner should make it a 1-2 punch after spearing 48 passes last year. Dominic Thieman and Sam Mays have shown flashes. Freshman Carmoni Green impressed in the spring and will be joined by the squad's top plebe, Ricky Smalling, and versatile Kendall Smith.

The offensive line won't quite match Wisconsin's monsters, but Nick Allegretti, a developing team leader, is up to 325 pounds, and newcomers Vederian Lowe (6-5, 340) and Larry Boyd (6-6, 360) are legitimate prospects who probably need to shed excess poundage. DiLauro and Gabe Megginson are legitimate Big Ten performers, and redshirt Doug Kramer, now at 300, could solidify that unit if he can make the grade at center.

Defensively, after tackle Jamal Milan, concerns are more serious up front. But Tre Watson and 4-star junior college transfer Del'Shawn Phillips head a rambunctious corps of linebackers — plenty of mobility there — and safeties Stanley Green and Patrick Nelson demonstrated an eagerness for contact late last season.

Looking ahead

My basic point is that, while a 6-6 season is a long shot, it is too early to throw in the towel.

With a year in the Smith system, the units won't be learning on the fly. Meanwhile five Illini opponents are starting fresh with new head coaches.

Furthermore, Illinois plays two of the weaker teams in the Eastern Division, Indiana and Rutgers.

So what if some evaluators project Illinois to win only three or four games. So what if Ball State is deemed less than a TD underdog in the opener.

With a little good fortune, there might be just enough talent to go around ... particularly if two of six new defensive end prospects step up.

So if you're caught in a kind of cautious numbness, fearing the worst, there's a better way to proceed. Take 'em one at a time. It's just fun and games anyway.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.


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Moonpie wrote on July 11, 2017 at 8:07 am

Ah, yes -- blame it on fans. Ancient Tate always does. If only the great unwashed hordes could see what the Great Man can see. Only he alone, up on Mount Olympus, can see and know the truth about Illini sports. Everyone else--traitors.

Bazookas of doubt. Wasn't that a 60s rock band?

With Ancient Tate it's always the same: people outside his amazingly small circle of sports insiders are The Other. No one outside the Tate Circle of Truth can understand anything. Fans must be scolded and must fall into lockstep behind him.

Don't Think, Read Tate.

michael loyd grays conscience wrote on July 11, 2017 at 12:07 pm

In his apology on Reddit, "Han*******Solo" sent a message to his fellow anonymous posters."To people who troll on the Internet for fun, consider your words and actions conveyed in your message and who it might upset or anger," he wrote. "Put yourself in their shoes before you post it. If you have a problem with trolling it is an addiction just like any other addiction someone can have to something and don't be embarrassed to ask for help. Trolling is nothing more than bullying a wide audience. Don't feed your own self-worth based upon inflicting suffering upon others online just because you are behind a keyboard."

PortlandIllini wrote on July 11, 2017 at 2:07 pm

This is the time of year where optimism runs high  because no one has dropped a pass,  missed a block,  blew an assignment, gotten a foolish penalty, shanked a kick, fumbled a ball,  or failed to make a tackle.

 Frankly, every other team in the nation and their fans are also hoping that they are going to exceed expectations, that freshmen will surprise, and that old injuries stay in the past.

Come October first,  we'll all have a better chance to make an assessment of this year's team performance and Lovie's coaching.  Until then,  talk is just talk.