UI looks for sophomores to revitalize program

UI looks for sophomores to revitalize program

College football demands are too complex for one class of students to carry the load alone.

But Lovie Smith's sophomores are going to make a run at it. They've grown from 25 scholarship freshmen a year ago to a muscle-flexing 33 (with the help of redshirts and transfers).

That's right: 33 of the 83 Illini receiving aid; 33 calling on talent and pride to reverse a downward football spiral.

Looking back, we saw 16 freshmen earn starting roles in 2017. Then 16 varsity members, many of them unseated by rookies ... departed, mostly because they didn't figure in Smith's plans. That leaves just eight seniors today, thanks to the acquisition of key transfers AJ Bush and Del'Shawn Phillips and the return of fifth-year receiver Mikey Dudek.

This is the second straight year with fewer than 10 seniors, leaving Illinois alone among its peers in that category.

Historical perspective

That's the Illini. Forever reappraising and rebuilding. This familiar seesaw pattern — mostly tipped in the wrong direction — is nearing six decades since Ray Eliot retired in 1959. During that time we've witnessed just two back-to-back seasons of true success, John Mackovic's Illini going 10-2 in 1989 and earning a share of the Big Ten title in 1990.

Otherwise, history reveals UI coaches with weak getaways, followed in some cases by stunning upsurges, only to tumble back into inevitable mediocrity. Of the last 11 coaches, none finished over .500 in his final season, and that includes 2011 when Ron Zook's 6-6 team defeated UCLA in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl without him.

We hold a special place for Pete Elliott's 1963 champions, but he was otherwise 22-33. Mike White's 1983 club won all nine conference games, but his closing 3-7-1 record in 1987 matched his 3-7-1 start in 1980. Ron Turner and Zook enjoyed special moments, but they lost 100 of 166 games combined.

This history tells what Smith is facing. And he is further reminded as he carries a 10-game losing streak into Saturday's opener against Kent State.

Eye on the future

Hope springs eternal.

Regardless of their prep ratings, Illinois hasn't had many classes better than these sophomores. And with only one multi-week injury in August drills (junior tackle Jamal Milan, riding a stationary bicycle Friday, expects full knee recovery by late-September), signs point toward steady improvement this season and on through 2020, when these sophomores become seniors.

All this theorizing assumes, as Lovie has said, that added maturity and experience "will lead to a big step forward this season."

Tuesday's Big Ten Network visitors and the local media pack agree, while judiciously waiting for confirmation from midseason clashes with comparable foes Rutgers, Maryland, Minnesota and Nebraska.

It's a youth movement on offense

Youthful talent is spread amazingly well across the various positions. Thirteen sophomores and two redshirt freshmen from that original class (linemen Lere Oladipo and Kendrick Green) are likely starters Saturday, and another 10 or more figure in the rotation. Count 'em.

Running back: Sophomores Mike Epstein and Ra'Von Bonner are 1-2 with junior Dre Brown coming on strong.

Receiver: This is the strongest and deepest position on the squad with Dudek, Sam Mays and Zac Holman the lone seniors. Watch sophomores Ricky Smalling and Dominic Stampley.

Tight end: Sophomore Lou Dorsey is a quality receiver in a crop of young ones.

Quarterback: Freshmen MJ Rivers and Matt Robinson have shown the most promise in recent weeks, challenging sophomore Cam Thomas for the backup spot behind Bush, whose skills as a runner will surely bring the UI's ground game out of the doldrums this year.

Offensive line: The three-deep chart of 300-pounders includes one senior (Nick Allegretti) and two backup juniors out of 15. Tackle Larry Boyd, who started nine games last year, is expected to leave Smith's doghouse at some point.

And on defense, too

The defense features similar youth. Check it out.

Line: Massive freshmen Calvin Avery and Verdis Brown could push standout junior Tymir Oliver and Oladipo/Milan for playing time by October. Ends Bobby Roundtree, Isaiah Gay, Owen Carney, Ayo Shogbonyo and Jamal Woods are sophomores.

Linebacker: Senior Del'Shawn Phillips will probably be replaced by Washington transfer Milo Eifler, who'll have two seasons after sitting out. Jake Hansen, injured last year, and James Knight are sophomores.

Defensive back: Here's where fleet freshmen Delano Ware, Jartavius Martin, Kerby Joseph, Sydney Brown and Ron Hardge may make an impact, even though sophomores Nate Hobbs, Tony Adams and Bennett Williams have a one-year start on them.

Pride in their potential — and in their achievements — could hold this 33-man corps together. This time last year, most of them were three months out of high school. Some shouldn't have been playing. But they did and maybe that experience will contribute toward the next step.

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