Tate | Football's hope rests with seasoned Illini

Tate | Football's hope rests with seasoned Illini

This won't convince friends mired in doubt, but it is not inappropriate to project a positive side of Illini football, even in facing repugnant evidence to the contrary.

That damning evidence dates to 2003 when current UI rookies were still in diapers ... a 16-year period showing Illinois captured one 14-13 win in six tries against opening Big Ten foe Nebraska and, in the games that matter most, went 1-13 against Wisconsin, 3-11 against Purdue, 1-10 against Iowa, 4-9 against Minnesota, 4-12 against Northwestern. ... and in pertinent rivalries this year, 2-6 against Michigan State and, we might as well know the whole story, six wins and two ties in the last 50 clashes against one-time arch-rival Michigan (here Oct. 12).

This history alone gives pause. On top of which are uncertainties about the critical quarterback position, which finds UI recruiters scanning the active transfer market while awaiting the arrival of fleet, strong-armed (and, at 5-10 and 170, slightly undersized) Isaiah Williams from St. Louis.

If you stuck a pistol to my temple and forced me to tattle, I'd say the current duel of sophomores finds 6-foot-4 M.J. Rivers II ahead of Matt Robinson based on a stronger arm and eight games of experience.

But there might be a 50 percent chance that, by the third game against Eastern Michigan, we'd be looking at Williams or a grizzled transfer already in tune with coordinator Rod Smith's system. Take note, dissatisfied QBs scatter these days like gypsies escaping French gendarmes.

Experience is back on offense

So Illinois, unable to fill needs the Ohio State way, remains deeply engaged in the lively transfer market.

Offensively, with 2018 UI starters returning everywhere except QB and guard, Lovie Smith has seemingly plugged in 315-pound Alabama transfer Richie Petitbon at Nick Allegretti's spot, while putting Georgia transfer Luke Ford (whose eligibility petition was submitted last week) alongside muscular regular Daniel Barker at tight end, and adding key pieces to an up-to-now unimpressive receiver corps.

The receivers deserve the sour description because (1) they haven't been particularly adept at getting open, (2) they dropped too many passes in 2018 and (3) they didn't chime in with the passers in early spring drills.

But consider: Donny Navarro, who prepped at the same high school as Mikey Dudek (Neuqua Valley in Naperville), caught 32 balls for 539 yards at Valparaiso in 2017 before electing to transfer. His practice efforts impressed last fall, and he is now the fastest member of the corps. Then too, yet-to-arrive Dejon Brissett was All-Colonial at Richmond in 2017 with 63 catches for 896 yards as a junior. And he had a 178-yard game against Fordham before taking a medical redshirt last year.

Add Navarro and Brissett to junior Ricky Smalling, re-converted defensive back Kendall Smith and the other Illini journeymen — plus the possibility of a West Coast transfer — and a seeming weak spot could correct itself. And don't forget. You can't count out four-star Marquez Beason, a crack receiver as a Texas prep, even though he will arrive under the current listing of cornerback.

Then too, fleet No. 11, Carlos Sandy, adds pass-catching potential and a reverse threat alongside a quartet of veteran running backs: 1,000-yard rusher Reggie Corbin, Mike Epstein, Ra'Von Bonner and Dre Brown, all sound and poised.

Tough defensive task ahead

These offensive interests shunted me to a sidetrack when my intention was to address defense. That's where Lovie Smith, the full-time coordinator, is most strongly engaged.

Some might believe his takeover of the defense is new. Not true. Even when Hardy Nickerson was coordinator in name, it was Lovie's unit both in the room and on the field. And yes, the finger pointed straight at Lovie when Penn State, Maryland and Iowa scored 63 points in 2018 (Big Ten foes averaged 45.5 points). He has a grim set to his whiskered chin as he tackles the problem ahead of Saturday's spring show (it won't be a "game" if the past week's injuries prevent them from fielding 10 offensive linemen).

"I'm doing the same thing I've been doing since I got here," Lovie said. "We have upperclassmen now, and we're tweaking all aspects, plugging holes. We're not starting over."

Familiar names are back

At linebacker, where transfers Hardy Nickerson and Delshawn Phillips have served admirably during the last three seasons, Washington transfer Milo Eifler (6-2, 220) steps up after sitting out 2018 here.

With the redshirted duo of Verdis Brown and Julian Pearl being shifted to offense, the defensive interior still has numbers with seniors Jamal Milan, Tymir Oliver and Kenyon Jackson, and two versatile end-tackles whose 2018 season was cut short, Jamal Woods and Lere Oladipo.

Of those two, Lovie Smith offered: "It's good to have versatile players who can play more than one position. Those two are going to help us win a lot of football games."

With end Bobby Roundtree seeking all-league honors and 330-pound Calvin Avery expected to come of age, the front four carries the look and the depth, at long last, of a Big Ten defense. And the secondary is taking shape with just one key senior, safety Stanley Green. The promising sophomores — Delano Ware, Kirby Joseph, Quan Martin and Sydney Brown — now have a better idea in a sector where communication is paramount.

Faint glimmer of hope

Nutshelling, we have yet to learn the workings at quarterback, what Ford and Petitbon learned as SEC backups, whether Navarro and Brissett can make the jump from smaller colleges, if Eifler can match the Nickerson-Phillips accomplishments, how Pearl and Brown fare on offense.

Some newcomers will excel, others will fall short. But as you can see, Lovie Smith isn't tied to rookies anymore. A program that set records in employing freshmen the last two seasons has taken the next step ... toward, if not outright success, greater competitiveness.

It's fair to say, based on the 30-man junior class, a two-year window of possibilities is sliding open.

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

-