At the conclusion of the 2018 season, with bad defense and a lull in recruiting, it seemed that the term Littyville had come and gone like Halley’s Comet.
But, in the week before Christmas, Lovie Smith’s Illini have gotten better. Much better. And for the first time since Ron Zook’s Illini started 6-0 in 2011, Illini fans have visions of sugar-plums dancing in their heads.
Illinois concluded the early scholarship signing period with a small but stout class, headlined by 2 Under Armour All-Americans, one on each side of the ball. Quarterback Isaiah Williams from Trinity Catholic in St. Louis brings electric playmaking ability to offensive coordinator Rod Smith’s spread-option attack. Williams is fast, with elite vision and cutting ability. He throws well, being very consistent on deep balls and showing a feathery touch on swing passes and screens. Williams will be a dangerous running threat on designed run-pass options but will also be lethal when scrambling.
Scrambling quarterbacks force the defense into much more zone coverage than they would sometimes prefer to play, simply because in man coverage, a 4 vertical route by the receivers takes four sets of eyes off a dangerous runner.
Marquez Beason, a corner from Duncanville, Texas gives the Illinois secondary a jet-pack of speed, with great fluidity, ball skills and competitiveness. Beason talks and plays with some swagger, and immediately upgrades the back 1/3 of the Illinois defense, a defense that was historically bad last year and must improve in order to allow the Illini to post more wins in 2019.
Illinois also landed a terrific group of defensive linemen, with Keith Randolph of Belleville, Moses Okpala of Ladue, Missouri, and Seth Coleman of Melbourne, Florida. All 3 are high floor, high ceiling athletes. Randolph and Okpala have the frame to eventually slide inside, but Coleman will remain on the edge. Okpala is a mountain of a man, 6’7″ and 260 lbs. All 3 have the athleticism to be very good high school basketball players and by 2021 project to the exactly the type of physical and fast athletes Illinois will need to compete with the rugged offensive lines in the Big Ten West.
Then, lest we forget, more presents are under the tree for Illini faithful: transfers. Not scrap heap transfers, but transfers with legitimate high end, championship potential.
The headliner is electric wide receiver Jeff Thomas, hometown East St Louis. Thomas had two years of experience at Miami, where, quite frankly, he was underutilized. Thomas, also an Under Armour All-American, is a human cheat code with an extra gear and incredible change of direction. Possessing great hands, Thomas has the potential to be a first round NFL draft choice and simply the most electrifying player in Illinois football history. Illinois must hope he gets a transfer waiver from the NCAA to play next year or he may never see the field in Champaign. Sugar plums, sugar plums.
Also rumored to be transferring in is Thomas’ ex-teammate Rey Estes, who has been playing some defensive back at the University of Minnesota the last two seasons. If Estes comes to Illinois, he may be a slash-type offensive player or continue on the defensive side. Estes is a solid depth piece and, again, a piece of the puzzle to potentially boost Illinois recruiting in the hotbed of East St. Louis.
Two other names to watch on the transfer wire: WR AD Miller from Oklahoma, who has already applied for admission to Illinois, and TE Luke Ford, a Georgia Bulldog freshman from Carterville, IL. Both players would be significant talent upgrade to Illinois football.
Illinois will already be counting on adding significant talent to the field from players who are returning from injury or suspension or academic hold-outs.
Linebacker Milo Eifler, a former top 60 player in the country, transferred in from Washington. Although he was injured in practice this season, he should be good to go in the spring and would be the favorite to take over at LB for DelShawn Phillips. Eifler looks the part of a rugged, physical Power 5 linebacker. Let’s hope he plays tougher than a Mary Kay consultant on the field.
Massive offensive lineman Larry Boyd is poised to return to action to augment the Illinois offensive line. Boyd, who had moments of stardom as a true freshman, had a year to focus on his academics and citizenship while working on the scout team as a redshirt in 2018. A young man with NFL potential, Boyd could be even better than the player he may replace, senior Nick Allegretti.
Strong and athletic Verdis Brown comes off a red-shirt freshman season in which he practiced and got his academics in line. Brown has an exceptionally wide body, but great strength and mobility, which will make him an immediate upgrade for Illinois at defensive tackle or nose guard.
And then the Illini fans are waiting to see who fills out Lovie Smith’s 2019 coaching staff.
In 2018, Illinois lost defensive line coach Mike Phair to the Indianapolis Colts. His replacement, Southern Cal grad assistant Austin Clark oversaw a unit that was quite possibly the worst position group of any Big Ten program. Other than sophomore Bobby Roundtree, the Illinois defensive line was not below average, they were horrible. Like a kinetic chain, when your defensive line is awful, is makes life very difficult on the linebackers and when the secondary is counted so heavily for run support, pass coverage suffers. In other words, the key to good defense starts up front.
Now, Clark absolutely proved his worth on the recruiting trail and I’m giving Lovie Smith the benefit of the doubt in hiring a smart coach. So, I’m giving Clark a pass on his bad unit, which means the blame falls on players who just weren’t very good. Jamal Milan was injured, as was Jamal Woods. Illinois improves when they are healthy. Isaiah Gay was just dreadful and defensive end, and Owen Carney was below average. Illinois struggled all year to contain the edge, and I believe that they made a conscious decision to overplay the middle and gamble that they could run to the edge. Unfortunately, the Illinois linebackers were not athletic enough to do that against an opponent not named Kent State.
During 2018, Illinois lost CB coach Donnie Abraham and Defensive Coordinator Hardy Nickerson as well. These openings remain, and, while the openings were filled with family and graduate assistants, the Illini faithful feel like a seasoned Defensive Coordinator should take over. Speculation has Lovie Smith calling the defense himself. Sounds good to me, as long as Smith hires effective recruiters and coordinators to fill out the staff.
With no announcements so far, I have to believe that those hires are coming either from some highly successful college programs or from the NFL. One name from the college ranks to keep an eye on, Glenn Schumann, the young inside linebackers coach at the University of Georgia. Schumann worked six years at Alabama under Nick Saban before joining Kirby Smart in Athens. He is young and considered a savant of sorts in college football. He makes great money at Georgia, and would probably need the title of defensive coordinator to come to Illinois, but as long as Lovie is calling the shots at first, I think this coach is a coach who could eventually be Lovie’s successor.
Lovie still has a deep Rolodex of NFL contacts, and at the conclusion of the NFL season there are always moving parts in the NFL coaching world. I suspect the Illinois defensive hires will be made in early January following the American Football Coaches Association clinic.