Tate | Illinois football has talent, but for how long?

Tate | Illinois football has talent, but for how long?

Equally uplifting alongside volleyball's run to the Final Four is the upcoming talent that UI coach Chris Tamas will have to work with. They'll continue to draw optimistic crowds.

And it's encouraging to hear Dan Hartleb, with all those young mound returnees, call his freshman class "the best" in his 14 years as Illini head baseball coach. They'll be highly competitive for years to come.

It's the nature of fans and media to look ahead ... and that brings us to what should be Josh Whitman's greatest concern in the sport that (money-wise) matters most.

Where is football coach Lovie Smith taking us? A 4-23 record in three Big Ten races doesn't make recruiting any easier.

No coach can win without talent. So doubts remain whether the program is attracting talent capable of catching Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska and Northwestern, four Western Division members that have defeated Illinois 25 of 29 times over the last 10 years.

Too fine a line

Are there indications that Illinois is drawing closer? Nebraska, you'll note, just attracted nine four-star recruits, and the well-established cultures at Iowa and Wisconsin are rumbling right along (their combined victory margin was 112-20 over Illinois last season).

The answer is: Illinois should be more competitive in 2019 — despite playing Michigan and Michigan State out of the East —and projects even better in 2020 with a large class of seniors plus, hopefully by then, an established quarterback.

Crystal-balling further ahead, the groundwork for 2021 appears crumbly. By groundwork, I mean linemen. Illini rivals are bringing in beefy fellows who'll be fed and trained for future confrontations. Nebraska has six new O-linemen on the way, and Wisconsin attracts human bulldozers based on past success.

The 2019 Illini, meanwhile, are dangerously thin up front with just 12 offensive linemen including a single incoming freshman, Brother Rice's Evan Kirts, plus two walk-ons and two remaining members of the 2018 recruiting class.

Recent departures include Larry Boyd, Reuben Unije, Zeke Martin, Andrew Trainer and Adam Solomon, not to mention once-touted Gabe Megginson. O-line depth is severely impacted. And while 315-pound transfer Rich Petitbon is the lone senior among this year's dozen, five others will be gone after 2020. This means Illini recruiters face some heavy lifting to restructure the core of blockers. And it also means they'll be forced to employ youth at a physically demanding position in 2021.

Upon further review

At the same time, the critical defensive tackle position (featuring three seniors this year) has an uncertain long-term look. Calvin Avery and then-ineligible Verdis Brown were the only interior additions a year ago, and there are none this year. None! That makes it doubly important that red-shirted Deon Pate, Jamal Woods and Lere Oladipo have fallen back into the sophomore class.

The obvious interior concerns can be corrected in the next recruiting class, and they must be.

In the meantime, Smith's defense should be in reasonably good shape. He expects big things from Washington transfer Milo Eifler (a sophomore in eligibility) at linebacker, and he'll oversee the insertion of four-star Marquez Beason among 17 mostly experienced defensive backs.

We won't know about Rod Smith's offense until two-time Missouri Player of the Year Isaiah Williams demonstrates whether he can challenge M.J. Rivers at QB in August. Otherwise, the receiving unit will be set with the expectation that Georgia transfer Luke Ford is granted eligibility, though this is becoming more uncertain as the NCAA takes a second look at waivers. Petitbon and 330-pound redshirt Kievan Myers will lead candidates for the only open O-line position vacated by Nick Allegretti.

Wrapping it up

For now, Illinois has just enough talent to go around, but not enough to withstand key injuries. And the small numbers in the UI's last two recruiting classes have left Illinois vulnerable at key line positions down the road.

ONE LAST NOTE: Long-term projections often spin off the rails. We thought the receiving positions would be strong last season and, with Mikey Dudek sidelined again, that unit dropped too many passes. Secondly, Mike Epstein was viewed as the No. 1 running back, and Reggie Corbin emerged with 1,085 yards at 8.5 yards per carry. It never turns out quite like we think ... except at Ohio State.

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