From an Illini football perspective, nothing good happens in August.
Oh, the practices might allow a keen eye to pick up on the development of No. 87, Daniel Barker, at tight end. Or you might hear Lovie Smith speak eloquently about junior linebacker Milo Eifler or guard Kendrick Green.
But mostly, having already lost top defender Bobby Roundtree, the coach is holding his breath through workouts. Overall depth is wanting. Up front, where can he find an edge rusher like Roundtree when the rival quarterback drops to pass?
This raises another question: How often should the conservative coach dare to blitz with his linebackers?
There you have it. One key loss at defensive end, with replacements not showing a flair for sacks, and it can change an entire strategy on defense.
At other positions — offensive line and the defensive secondary — Illinois is too thin in established talent to afford inevitable injuries. In multiple cases, subs are far behind the regulars (note of hope: the same five O-linemen started all 12 games in 2018, and four return).
With an eye toward keeping everyone healthy, Smith withheld 23 players from the “scrimmage” last weekend, and he continues intermittent use of members like running back Mike Epstein, receiver Edwin Carter and linebacker Jake Hansen ... even as drills are non-tackling.
We’ve barely seen safety Sydney Brown (10 starts as a freshman) and senior D-tackle Tymir Oliver (22 career starts). Hard-running Ra’Von Bonner has been held back because of concussion protocol. And just when Southern Cal transfer Trevon Sidney was emerging as the No. 1 receiver, his absence this past week raised a durability issue that contributed to his transfer in the first place.
OK, there are no games in mid-August. So it’s a time for caution. But the coaches must see what these freshmen are made of. And, sure enough, the prize of the plebe class, cornerback Marquez Beason, is on crutches after seriously injuring his knee on a non-contact pass drill.
Here’s what that means. Illinois is so thin at cornerback that the staff is scanning the receiver corps for a defender (they already moved Kendall Smith to safety). That’s what happens when players leave early, veterans like Cam Watkins who had nine career starts at corner. Meanwhile, the only other freshman DB on scholarship, Chicago Phillips’ Joe Thompson, hasn’t made a practice yet.
Yes, Quan Martin and Nate Hobbs look especially good, but you can’t ask these talented corners to chase a rotating gang of speedy receivers for four full quarters. Beason was, at least, projected as their alternate. So who’s next? Might it be an overlooked transfer, St. Louis native Nick Walker, who got in six UI games in 2018 after spending his freshman year at Cisco College? Or maybe a walk-on?
With brute force
Point is, football is a game of attrition. Of intimidation. Of domination, if possible. Only the strong survive.
Deep in chilly November, when the Illini travel to Iowa, the hosts won’t hide the fact that they intend to inflict “pain and suffering.” That’s their style, their motto. Others may spread formations and favor misdirection. The Hawkeyes are coming at you. They announce their intentions in advance with a 13-man “depth chart” that includes two 240-pound tight ends and a 246-pound fullback, Ross Brady (Fullback? What’s that?). Even the quarterback, Nate Stanley, tips the scales at 243.
Brace yourself, here they come. You can beat them, but only if you can match their muscle (Iowa outscored the Illini 136-16 the last three years, and has won 10 of 11 in the series).
And then there’s Wisconsin, having lost massive O-line stars Beau Benzschawel, David Edwards and Michael Deiter to the NFL, and nevertheless bringing 328-pound Jason Erdmann and 321-pound Tyler Biadasz among 14 plus-300 blockers to the UI homecoming Oct. 19 ... not to mention Heisman contender Jonathan Taylor, who averaged 7.1 yards per carry while accumulating 2,194 yards last season.
Brave and the bold
All those who deny modern assertions that “concussions are threatening the game” may assert with conviction that the intent of the game is not to inflict injury. Maybe not, but Iowa didn’t sell out its student section and Wisconsin doesn’t draw feverish turnouts to see their favorites pussy-foot around. If it wasn’t dangerous, why would they have all those medics on the field and an ambulance on call?
Unless you are convinced of Northwestern’s absolute superiority (well, it looks that way), you can’t really project the outcome of the Illini season finale when, after 11 grueling mini-wars, nobody knows who’ll be standing.
My point: Success requires a peril-defying lineup of regulars more concerned with the result than how these clashes might affect their long-term well-being ... and backups similarly driven when personnel setbacks occur.
Numbers count due to the ferocity of this collision sport. If, as we believe, Lovie & Co. can present a solid front in 2019, what happens when already-evident attrition enters the equation?