Tate | A light at the end of the tunnel

Tate | A light at the end of the tunnel

In my cracked mirror, there stands the reflection of a modern-day Diogenes waving his lantern in search of honesty and a brighter day.

They say the ancient Greek never found what he was searching for. He is welcome to step out of history and join us today because, casting ingrained cynicism aside, we'll chase down a faded rainbow ... that light flickering the end of the Illini sports tunnel.

That's not a mirage. It's real. Maybe it's not bright enough to influence season ticket holders in football and basketball.

But just imagine, as we're seeing with Cub fans, how much more fun it'll be when the suffering ends and the wins pile up. If all good things must come to an end, so too must all the bad.

Trends have a way of extending themselves. In this low ebb for the two revenue sports, Illinois has, over the past seven school years, dropped 126 of 183 Big Ten games, and hasn't produced a plus-.500 conference record in either sport since Bruce Weber's 2010 quintet finished 10-8.

Recovery may not happen as rapidly as impatient fans would prefer. But the foundation — facilities, backing and young talent — is being laid. And at a date not far distant, the UI's golf, gymnastics and volleyball teams won't be the only ones for whom Josh Whitman can be proud.

So for this Sunday at least, let's banish negative images to the closet. Honest, judge, I'm a changed man.

Newcomers are now veterans

Lovie Smith's football hopes revolve around nearly two dozen upcoming sophomores who exceeded expectations in 2017 and have three years to "get even."

Admittedly, if quarterback was presently settled, fans and media alike would view the situation in a more upbeat manner. With five mobile (mobile: that's important) candidates to choose from, coordinator Rod Smith needs just one passer to display a knack for reading defenses, anticipating receivers and delivering with accuracy. At this point, it looks like a five-way scramble.

We now return to the sophomores who hold the future in their hands. If they were underrated and green in 2017, their time is coming ... just as it did for the Big Ten champs in 2001 and the Rose Bowl team in 2007. These once-disrespected rookies, now carrying thicker muscles and a grudge, form the nucleus at offensive line, wide receiver, tight end, running back, defensive end, defensive back and punter.

OL — Bulging at 340 pounds and missing early games, Vederian Lowe came on fast last October as one of four freshman starters up front. If Luke Butkus' line isn't yet a position of strength, it is moving in that direction.

WR — Insiders were skeptical a year ago about Ricky Smalling's qualifying grades and breakaway speed, but he erased those doubts. He and veteran Mikey Dudek lead the receiving corps.

TE — Lou Dorsey has increased his freshman weight (he played at 225) and has magical hands. He caught 22 passes as a rookie. If the aerial game isn't geared to take advantage of this extraordinary pass catcher, they're missing a bet.

RB — Lightly touted upon arrival, Mike Epstein flashed explosive skills before he was injured. He's healthy now, as are sophomore Ra'Von Bonner and junior Reggie Corbin.

DE — Bobby Roundtree is already an all-conference candidate. Isaiah Gay, who arrived after decommitting from Elon, has pass-rush skills to compensate for a lack of size. The tackle slots have ample bulk and veteran experience, and have gained added quality depth in the form of the two best freshmen, Calvin Avery and Verdis Brown.

DB — Overlooked Californian Bennett Williams had 64 tackles and was named to the ESPN.com Freshman All-America team.

Nate Hobbs decommitted from Western Kentucky and had a high of eight tackles against Nebraska last year.

Defections among their elders have thrown an exceptional sophomore class into leadership roles. All signs point to a checklist of favorable careers.

Length over height

Illini basketball fans won't know their players without a scorecard. Eight newcomers replace seven departures.

This roster presents athletes who hail from Senegal to the Dominican Republic, from California to New York, from Baltimore to Florida, from Cleveland to Vienna, Austria.

If you fretted that Brad Underwood might not be able to field two units, he now has 12 on scholarship ... including 7-footers Samba Kane and Adonis De La Rosa.

My optimism centers around the guards and wings, while masking a concern that the recent addition of size will feed into the natural inclination of coaches to favor length when they are better served by quick playmakers.

You know the examples, starting with Golden State and working down.

Yes, patience is needed

We begin by accepting the fact that, unless your team is graced by NBA-bound five-stars like Duke or Kentucky, freshmen don't win championships.

So again, patience is required, not only from the fans but from Underwood himself. It's acceptable to toss these rookies into the fire, but not headfirst.

Even Trent Frazier, who was named to the 2018 All-Big Ten freshman team, produced just 58 points in his first 10 games. Later on, Frazier hit highs of 32 against Wisconsin and 27 against Iowa to bring his freshman scoring average to 12.5.

In remaking the roster, Underwood has essentially traded non-shooters for shooters. Nagging question: How long will it take for young marksmen to shake off nerves and become accustomed to the speed of the college game? And will the demanding early schedule encourage their growth or set them back?

Forego your doubts and prick up your ears. That's a distant whistle coming down a familiar track. This train is overdue, but it's on the way.

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

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