To reach a bowl game, Lovie Smith’s third iteration of the Fighting Illini must find a way to 6 regular season wins. Few games are seen as a sure thing, so let’s look at the schedule to see where an opponent might fall into a trap versus Illinois.
Trap games get talked about a lot, so let me define what most football folk describe as a trap game:
*a game seen as eminently winnable
*a game after a big emotional or rivalry contest
*a game sandwiched in-between big, seemingly more-important games
*a game immediately proceeding a big emotional or rivalry contest.
*a game after a team has scored a big upset win
Since the last item is impossible to predict, I won’t try to get into those, but a quick look at the immediate before and after games will give us a glimpse at what teams may “be looking past” this year’s Fighting Illini.
The first two ballgames of the 2018 campaign better be wins, and substantial ones, or else this season isn’t going to go the way any Illini fan hopes.
Illinois opens up September 1 at home vs Kent State, which has been one of the worst teams in the Mid-American Conference the last couple of years. Kent State has been so bad that they fired Paul Haynes as their head coach and replaced him with Sean Lewis, an assistant coach at Syracuse. Lewis had worked at Syracuse under Dino Babers, former Eastern Illinois coach, who has offenses lighting up the scoreboards, and has improved the Syracuse football fortunes.
It’s reasonable to feel that any new coaching staff is going to have their team fired up for the first game in their new tenure, but for Kent, this game looks and feels a bit different. Kent has, arguably, the toughest non-conference schedule in the MAC, and two weeks after playing Illinois, Kent State plays at Penn State and the following week, the Golden Flashes travel to Ole Miss.
Fans on the Kent State message boards (yes, it exists, and yes, it was pretty hard to find) are excited about the offensive potential behind Coach Lewis. They also view the opener at Illinois as the most winnable game amongst the Power 5 opponents they play. In fact, the message boards of every team Illinois plays points to an absolute or very likely W versus Illinois.
Western Illinois’ Leathernecks come to Champaign in week 2, and shouldn’t be much of a test. I still don’t see how a coaching staff can recruit to Macomb, Illinois, but WIU has been pretty good for their level the last couple of years, and this game will be their Super Bowl. They will come out plenty motivated to play, and this will probably be the let-down game for the Fighting Illini, as it’s hard for Big Ten athletes to get fired up to play a directional school from a lower level. Still, Illinois will have a two deep of superior athletes to anyone who is wearing purple and gold and should prevail easily.
Last year, Illinois started off with a pretty good MAC team in Ball State and a good Western Kentucky team, two opponents far better than the first two games of 2018. Illinois barely won each game, and probably should have lost to Western Kentucky, and the rest of the season was pretty dismal as Lovie Smith went with true freshmen and even had to work through dysfunction within the coaching staff.
Those true freshmen are now true sophomores, which should be the year we see the biggest improvement from them collectively. Fewer true freshmen will play this year, but the ones who do play will, quite honestly, be better than the players they are replacing.
Next up will be the University of South Florida Bulls, and this will be a nice test for Illinois. USF loses a good bit of talent from the 2017 version, which was one of the three best in school history. Coach Charlie Strong still has a solid All-American Conference team, but this USF squad will not be as good as the one last year. The game is a neutral site game, played in Chicago at Soldier Field, which, sadly, won’t be full of fired up Illini fans. If 45,000 show up and get loud, it will be a better home environment for Illinois than USF had vs Illinois last year, when maybe 23,000 fans showed up at Raymond James Stadium, and 7,000-8,000 of those were Illini fans.
USF plays Georgia Tech immediately before Illinois, and if the Bulls beat Georgia Teach or play very close, they could look past Illinois because of how USF dominated Illinois in the final 33 minutes of the game last year. Illinois needs this game for bowl eligibility, because this USF team would not fare well playing a Big Ten schedule. Because of the first two games being against inferior competition, look for this to be the first game where new Illini offensive coordinator Rod Smith does anything more than just vanilla offense. This game would qualify as a potential trap for USF, and I think Illinois prevails in a high scoring football game in Chicago.
On to Big Ten Conference play, where things get a lot more difficult for the Orange and Blue.
After the Illini off-week, the Illini get an unpopular Friday night home game on national cable TV against Penn State, featuring Trace McSorley, my choice as the best quarterback in the Big Ten. Penn State is very good and travels well. The week before the Nittany Lions travel to Champaign, they play Kent State (yawn), but the week after, PSU travels to Ohio State for the biggest game of their season. So, once again, this game could be a trap game for Penn State.
I’m not sure it will matter this year, because the two programs are in such a different place. Penn State has re-ascended to it’s place among college football elite, and Illinois is just peeking around the corner at the intersection of Wasteland Avenue and Mediocrity Drive. Still, if you’re drinking some inappropriately strong Orange and Blue Kool-Aid, if Illinois is still healthy at this point, receiving good quarterback play, and has a fired up home atmosphere, this could be a game that Penn State is struggling to win. The spectra of Ohio State looms very large on the horizon for the Nittany Lions, and these are college kids, not NFL machines. A strong showing here portends well for Illinois for much of the remainder of conference play.
Week 5 finds the Illini playing outside the state of Illinois for the first time, at Rutgers. Like Illinois, every Rutgers opponent circles this game as a win, but for the Rutgers fan-base, both fans are seeing this as a respite from a brutal Big Ten East schedule. And lest we forget, last year Rutgers laid a physical beat-down on Illinois in Champaign, so this will be a tough test for a still young squad.
Rutgers has Indiana the game before and Maryland the week after facing Illinois, so this is a point in the schedule that qualifies as must have for the Scarlet Knights. The Rutgers schedule is heavily back-loaded, so if they get off to some positive momentum against the likes of Texas State, Kansas, and Buffalo, they could be looking at bowl contention and feeling really good about themselves. Being on the road for the first time in conference is always tough, especially for new teams. This one could go either way, and this will be a true test of the young defensive linemen for Illinois. Rutgers wants to pound the rock, and if Illinois is paper mache up front, they could be in-store for a 3 touchdown beat down.
The Purdue game is really an interesting, potentially pivotal game on the 2018 slate. Second year Purdue coach Jeff Brohm is the hot commodity in college football coaching circles these days. He inherited a sneaky good situation in West Lafayette, and his predecessor, Darrel Hazel had done a lot of the heavy lifting in rebuilding the program. In fact, more than a few Big Ten observers felt Hazel got fired just before he was going to turn the corner for the Boilers. He had some good defensive talent coming back, and Brohm took a boat load of seniors, augmented them with graduate transfers and junior college transfers and had a nice season. Furthermore, Brohm has seen a real, substantial uptick in recruiting. Purdue has a shiny new, gorgeous football complex, and is positioned to be better in the next 7 years than they have been in the previous 7.
Purdue will be preparing for Illinois’ homecoming game during an off-week in their schedule, giving them a change to catch their breath. Prior to that, they will have played at Nebraska. The week following the Illini, Purdue gets Ohio State. To me, that’s a net neutral, as the off-week at that point in the season is a good re-set for a team. If Illinois can beat a Purdue team which loses most of their starting defense from a year ago, that’s exactly where we need them to be.
The following week, Illinois travels to Madison, Wisconsin to play Bucky Badger, a Bucky Badger team that is loaded, possibly as good as a Wisconsin team has ever been. This, of course, is Wisconsin’s homecoming, and even though Michigan was their opponent the week before, kids play hard on homecoming and this Wisconsin team will remember that Illinois played them quite respectably last year in Champaign. The best thing for Illinois to hope for is that Wisconsin either beats Michigan by 40, or Michigan physically beats up the Badgers, resulting in poor performance the next week.
The Maryland Terrapins are a mess right now, and it’s not the fault of any single player on the team. The 8th Illini opponent, a road foe, would probably be the second or third best talented team in the Big Ten West. They have some very talented football players, and were decimated last year by injuries.
The coaching controversy at Maryland is real, and pathetic. I believe Illinois will be seeing a DJ Durkin-less team, and that might actually be a good thing. Coming out of a toxic cutlure into a more appropriate collegiate football experience could bond this team and make them stronger, collectively. As much as those kids have endured with losing a teammate directly attributed to horrible, unethical coaching, they deserve a chance to move forward positively. Maryland plays Illinois for their homecoming in between tough games with Iowa and Michigan State. They’ll be hungry for a win during what’s very likely to be a very emotional weekend in College Park. Maryland is a bowl team playing Illinois’ schedule. Will Illinois be?
Illinois’ next opponent should be triple-circled on the schedule. First off, it’s Dad’s Day. Secondly, the Minnesota Golden Gophers represent a winnable contest. Finally, Illinois football fans really, really want to beat the uber-annoying PJ Fleck, head coach of those buck-toothed varmints. Fleck is an Illinois native, and has harvested some very good recruits out of his home-state. He will continue to do so until Lovie and Co put a resounding beatdown on him. Minnesota will be in a stretch of what they see as winnable football games, seeing Illinois after Indiana and before Purdue.
If Minny takes care of the cream-puff portion of their schedule, this Illinois game could be their sixth win. At least their fifth, with their best chance at 6 coming the following week. The Fleckster will have his team rowing on all cylinders to ruin Illinois’ day, and to keep the sleeping giant down. If they’re all rowing the boat in the same direction, it could be tough, but I see this game as certainly winnable for Illinois, but not because it’s any kind of trap game for the Gophers.
The Illini’ penultimate road game of the season takes them to Lincoln, Nebraska to play the beloved Cornhuskers in the 10th game of the Scott Frost era at Nebraska. To listen to Husker fans, it will be the 10th win of the Scott Frost era as well. Nebraska circa 2018 is NOT Nebraska circa 1995-1997, which is a good thing for Illinois. Illinois is playing NU after they play Ohio State and before they play Michigan State, so this could be a trap game for the Huskers. Let’s hope so. Of all the games on the Illini schedule, this game sets up most to be a trap game.
As I view the Nebraska schedule, this looks like it could be W #6 for the Huskers if they win the games they are supposed to. If so, they will be fired up as the final two games are significantly tougher, with Sparty at home and the hated Iowa Hawkeyes on the road. Still, a very young team that comes into the season razor-thin in quality depth pieces, could be banged up by game 10, and winning in one of the most hallowed halls of college sports is always a challenge.
The Illini then come home to face a tough, veteran football team in the Iowa Hawkeyes. I always misspell that nickname, leaving off the e at the end. So, I wish they were just the Iowa Buzzards, instead. Iowa has Northwestern before and Nebraska afterward. Iowa should be playing for positioning in better bowls by the time they roll into Champaign, and by this time of the year, injuries may matter, players emerging matter, and confidence has a chance to be a huge factor.
Still, beating Iowa will be a huge challenge this year. Maybe not in 2019, but for 2018, Iowa looks like a 9-point road favorite.
Finally, Illinois wraps up the regular season in front of 20,000 cold Northwestern fans. Northwestern should have their bowl eligibility wrapped up by this point, but Pat Fitzgerald always has his team ready to play the Illini. Northwestern has Minnesota the week before, so emotion won’t be a big deal here, unless Northwestern, somehow is still in contention to win the Big Ten West. And that could be true if they somehow find a way to beat Wisconsin.
Last year’s game in Champaign was ugly. A thorough beat-down and a bad way to start the long off-season.
Overall, I think Illinois could be in a position to benefit a couple of times from the trap game mentality. The three best scenarios, unfortunately include Penn State and Wisconsin, the two best teams on the Illini schedule. The third opportunity is Nebraska, following their beat down at the hands of Ohio State.
The delta for potential outcomes for the 2018 Illini is wide. One could foresee being 7-2 after 9 games. It could just as easily be 3-6.
The past couple of weeks has been rough for the Illinois fanbase losing out on supposed locks, Kahlil Whitney and Terrence Shannon Jr. There has been a cloud of negativity surrounding Illinois basketball recruiting as a result. Illini fans are hoping things are going to go a full 180 in the 2019 and 2020 classes. The good news for Illini fans is that there are plenty of options to regroup and add exceptionally talented players to the rebuilding program.
One name that fans will know, if they don’t already, is 2020 6-2″ 150 lb. Point-Guard DJ Steward from Oak Park, Illinois. He is stated to be a Point-Guard but has also been considered a Combo-Guard in National Recruiting Services. The 5* guard had been playing at Fenwick High School for the last two years and enjoyed a lot of success. During his sophomore season, Steward averaged 18.6 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and 2.0 steals a game on the way to leading Fenwick to a second place finish in the Class of 3A tournament. However, Steward will be joining a mass exodus of players and taking his talents elsewhere because of “personal reasons”. He has not decided where he will be continuing his high school education and athletics yet but stated that he is hoping to have a decision by the end of the month.
Regarding DJ Steward’s recruitment, he has plenty of time to enjoy the process and decide where he’s going. Steward seems to be taking the process very well, describing the overall vibe of his recruitment as “nice and smooth”. Despite his high ranking, Steward hasn’t received as much love from programs in terms of interest. So far the highlights of his offers include “Creighton, Florida, Georgia Tech, Illinois, Marquette, and UAB (his first collegiate offer). When I spoke to him about which schools are showing him the most interest he said “Louisville, Illinois, Michigan, Northwestern, and Butler are showing me the most interest”. He also went on to say that of those schools, he is most interested in “Illinois, Michigan, and Northwestern”.
Steward also took sometime to discuss his relationship to the Illinois program and it’s staff. He told me that “Illinois started recruiting him last summer” and he’s been interested in them ever since. Steward went on to say that “The coaches and my family have a great relationship. They make sure to stay in contact with me and my family often”. That’s a good sign especially since there have been apparent issues with families and the coaching staff in the past. Additionally, it seems as though Steward really feels the love from the Illinois coaching staff stating that “They make me feel like a priority”. That is music to most Illinois’ fans ears as many have questioned the staff’s priorities recently, when discussing certain players.
Steward is a highly touted player who I expect to get offers from the blue-bloods such as the Dukes and Kentuckys of the world. This usually spells heart-break for Illini fans as it seems those are the programs Illinois loses it’s most prized recruits to. If that doesn’t hurt, Steward told me that “Duke was his dream school when he was younger”. This will concern most Illini fans, so I asked him plain and simply, “What happens if you do get that Duke, dream school offer? Will you jump on it and forget the programs that recruited you for so long? Steward responded to the question stating that he would “definitely value the time of other schools recruiting.” The good news? Duke hasn’t even offered yet and that means it is time for the Illini to close this recruitment down before it can take a turn for the worst.
Steward’s recruitment is far from over however I really do believe that the Illini staff has done a good job making sure they secure a commitment from the Illinois native. Steward would add athleticism, a dynamic ability to put the ball on the floor as well as getting his shot , and a tremendous amount of poise Underwood’s roster. He has also been known to be a high flier which will excite Illini fans to know that we may see some big time dunks in the State Farm Center. With that being said, I am going to make a bold statement and go ahead and put my Aarmani stamp on DJ Steward being a member of Underwood’s 2020 class.
You can follow all of the latest updates of DJ Steward by following him on twitter at @swipasnipa
Illini freshman Samba Kane set to rejoin Illinois Basketball Program: I cant wait to get back to Champaign
It isn’t how Samba Kane envisioned his Summer, but it definitely is ending how he wanted. The last 9 weeks have been a speed bump in the path for Illini fans and more Importantly, Samba himself. Illinois had zero clue some of his credits or courses from his native Senegal wouldn’t count towards his eligibility. Samba spent the last two month’s taking a summer course that he needed at least a B to be accepted into the University of Illinois, Samba finished that course and passed last week. He told me it was fairly difficult but was confident the entire summer.
When we talked back in June, he told me an old technology course was the issue hindering him from summer school at Illinois. It also cost him precious time with Illini strength coach Adam Fletcher and gaining valuable chemistry with his teammates. With all that said, I think anyone would agree, better late than never with this situation. I spoke with Samba this week about keeping in shape, contact with Illinois staff and when he lands in Champaign.
In his words with Samba Kane
I asked Samba how he has been keeping in shape and if he had been spending much time working on his game.
Samba told me “Yes, absolutely. I’ve been working with the guy I’m staying with, Greg used to coach and now he’s the president of the Colorado Hawks Basketball program.
After having a setback that wasn’t a sure thing to come back from. I wanted to know how he felt knowing his journey is back on track to Champaign. Also, his confidence level heading back to his squad.
He said” I’m confident and super thrilled to get back. That’s a great program and I’m blessed to be part of it.”
During his time away, the Illini staff talked with him often and even came and visited him. But it wasn’t about what Samba would bring on the court they discussed.
Samba said “Coach Coleman was here to check on me but he was only worrying about the present moment. Wanted to see how I was holding up and how my Online courses were going.”
Something I am sure everyone had been waiting on, When will Samba actually hit campus?
Kane told me “I will leave for champaign on August 22nd. I am extremely excited.”
Samba also told me that he’s around 210 pounds still and is ready to hit weight training full speed.
This story turned out way better than it could have. While the situaion wasn’t ideal, Illinois will need Samba Kane this season. Grad transfer Adonis de La Rosa likely won’t play untill January, meaning the entire Non-Conference slate will be occupied down low by freshman. Samba a natural 5, the only one accustomed to to the “center” position. Anthony Higgs and Giorgi would have had to hold an extremely undersized front court yet again. I genuinely love what Samba can bring to the team and he has loads of potential. Samba instantly brings shot blocking presence Illinois hasn’t had since Nnana Egwu left. Samba is a humble and Hard working young man who wants to be a pro and make his family and country proud, he pushes himself daily and is someone the University and it’s fans will fall in love with.
I’m frustrated…the Illini are in training camp and I can’t be there to watch and to make informed observations
so I decided to take a little different path and write about something that has always bothered me about Illini football. Keeping the players at home, or the lack, thereof.
Every Illini fan is used to the mantra “lock down the borders”….
We all think that, don’t we? In basketball for sure, because of the rich traditions and wealth of talent that the State of Illinois has, it is easy to envision the Fighting Illini to be a national power every single year if the basketball coaches can just keep the kids home. The thought is less pervasive in football, because, you know, basketball is king in Illinois, but, still, we see great high school football players leave the state, choosing to go somewhere else to continue their playing careers in college.
As much as we Illini fans love our beloved flagship university, there are legitimate reasons why some kids would like to attend school elsewhere:
*Failed to get admission from the University of Illinois. UI has high standards, higher than the NCAA minimums, and some student-athletes just can’t get in. Many times in the past I have thought about what might happen if UI admissions would ease up just a bit, or if, perhaps, each sport could get just a few exceptions every year. Can’t hurt, right? I mean, a Big Ten member institution provides their student-athletes with all kinds of advantages in securing positive academic outcomes. Early and preferential scheduling, virtually unlimited tutoring, the best available nutrition, a data-base of athletics-friendly faculty, etc…
Other schools “North Carolina” win national championships with bogus academic departments and classes, and the NCAA looks the other way…..oh never mind, don’t get me started.
Back to the discussion. We should all be proud of the rigorous standards set by the University of Illinois. Other schools have high standards, as well. Stanford, Duke, Northwestern, Notre Dame….and there are plenty of well qualified students to come to UI to be excellent athletes. There will never be any support for lowering admission standards in Champaign, nor should there be. But the fact remains that the Fighting Illini are waging an unfair battle in the recruitment of certain kids.
*Wants to go somewhere warm. It gets cold in Champaign, and it stays cold and gray for much of the school year. I get it. I moved away from Illinois to sunny, humid South Florida, and many kids want to go play and live in a warmer climate. This argument can go both ways. Some kids from the deep south want to move up north because they can escape the suffocating heat that they have to practice and play in. I get that, too. I coached 5 years of high school football in Florida and it can be dangerously hot, humid, and really ugly. No one in Illinois should complain about practicing when it’s 90 degrees. I covered high school football in Arizona for 2 years as well, where kids are practicing in 98 degree weather BEFORE THE SUN RISES and where early and mid season games routinely kick off with temps well above 100 degrees.
*Wants to play in front of the big crowds. Ouch. This one stings. A true indictment of US, the fans of the Fighting Illini. Granted, the football program has had many, many more downs than ups, and Memorial Stadium has a weird layout. The Horseshoe is about 40 yards away from the back of the end zone on the south side, and don’t even get me started on the North End Zone seating, which is universally seen as awful, and even more awful of a place to stick the students….
All that being said, when you’re an impressionable 16 or 17 year old kid and wealthy grown men are swooning over your every move and tweet, you’re probably not closing your eyes and dreaming of playing in front of 30,000 empty seats on a cold and windy day in the middle of the cornfields of central Illinois. I know that back in the day when I was a lightly recruited placekicker and punter from Beardstown (I got a couple dozen letters and got to take 3 visits to small colleges before ultimately walking on at Illinois State) my visions were of making the game winning kick in front of 100,000 fans at the Big House. And one of the letters I got was from Bo Schembechler at Michigan. If there would have been the reality of a scholarship playing for Bo, I would have signed up without ever first setting foot in the state.
Illinois fans have to step up, BIG TIME, and show up for the games. Iowans do it for TWO Power 5 programs. Wisconsin does it. Nebraska has sold out EVERY SINGLE HOME GAME IN MY LIFETIME, and I’m almost eligible for Social Security.
This stuff matters, folks. So load up the mini-van, take your whole family to a couple Illini games. Tickets are really, really affordable, and the experience is fun. Tailgating, people-watching, etc…Just go, because you can do your part to elevate the Illini program in the eyes of the current players and the future ones, too.
There are other reasons, as well. Some families relocated to Illinois and their family roots are elsewhere. Some kids are not a fit for the current scheme. Some kids just want to get away from home. All understandable reasons. Other universities and other communities have attractive options for sure, but it doesn’t keep me from dreaming about “what could happen if Illinois kept the best players home?”
The State of Illinois isn’t a hotbed of high school football
in the way that Texas, Florida, or Georgia are. There are better programs in a number of states, but Illinois is the 6th most populated state in America, so there is plenty of home grown talent to build a foundation with. Plenty.
I took a look into the rosters at the other 13 Big Ten schools. I found 84, EIGHTY-FOUR players listed who graduated high school in Illinois. Some of the names are recognizable stars, some are solid depth pieces at their schools and, I would guess, half are just guys on the squad who will never be big contributors, guys like I was, a wannabe who was going into coaching and wanted the hands-on experience of trying to play college ball.
I don’t want to get into specific player names here, but many of you already have some guys in mind, either from the past of present, who could have really helped Illinois win more games.
But what is the impact?
Let’s assume that of those 84, half are just dudes….roster fillers who don’t make an impact, like that 5th string quarterback, or the third-string long-snapper. That leaves 42.
Of those 42, let’s even further assume that half of those guys aren’t any better than what the Illini already have. That leaves 21.
Of those 21, let’s just say that half of those kids just wanted to play somewhere else for any of the reasons listed above, or for some other reason.
So that boils it down to 11 solid Big Ten players, from Illinois, who are helping other programs in the league. Let’s assume that 4 would be first team, 4 second-team, and 3 third team players out of those 11. Don’t you think the Orange and Blue would be much more competitive, year in, and year out, with 11 more good players?
But those numbers are just the Big Ten Conference players from the Land of Lincoln.
To more look a little deeper at the issue, I took the next step and looked at the rosters of the non-Big Ten teams from bordering states. Kids that didn’t go too far from home, but still don’t play for the Illini.
So, just in those programs, we see another 29, which, when you whittle it down like before, should net Illinois another 3 or 4 good players.
Just off the top of my head, I know of an Illinois kid who played in the college football playoff last year as a starter, I know of a 5 star Under Armour All-American at Miami, too. One top recruit in Illinois this year is committed to Alabama.
Lots and lots of kids are getting away. The UI is a great school, now we need it to be a great football destination.
Josh Whitman and Lovie Smith are great ambassadors for the University of Illinois
and we, as fans, need to get behind these gentlemen and support this team as it builds. It IS building. It will be better than the year before, and the games will be more competitive and more exciting. I truly believe there will be more wins this year than last, and more wins to come.
So, Illini fans, jump on board and help Josh and Lovie put their foot on the gas.
It’s August and that means we are about a month away from the college football season kicking off. The biggest question for Illini football is whether the offense will improve from last year. Yes, the quarterback position will be a major factor in this but the quarterback will need a strong offensive line. An important piece of this unit will be the inclusion of freshman Reuben Unije who has already been on campus for a semester as an early enrollee.
Reuben has come in with quite a reputation. He was ranked as a 4-star recruit by ESPN and Rivals and had some stand out offers from programs such as Alabama, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, and UCLA among others. He’s built to play at the next level with a 6’6 frame and 290 lbs, he will greatly help an offensive line that struggled a year ago. I took sometime to catch up about how the off-season is going and what he is looking forward to at camp.
AS: How has summer been and how has weight training been?
Reuben Unije: Summer was good. The training has been also good. We’ve all worked hard, grown closer together, and have all seen remarkable results.
AS: For you personally, how many pounds of muscle do you think you have added since you’ve been on campus?
Reuben Unije: I’ve gain 22lbs of muscle and I’m at 17% body fat.
AS: How are you adjusting to life in Champaign? How are you and the teammates gelling? Also, what are you looking forward to at camp?
Reuben Unije: The adjustment has been good! I’ve been on campus for a semester already so it’s more about gelling with the freshman coming in which is going well. Also, I’m looking forward to dominating and earning my spot and seeing how the team progresses.
AS: What’s the overall vibe of this group? Does it feel like something special could happen this year?
Reuben Unije: The overall vibe I would say is dominate. This year is going to be better than last year.
AS: Who would you say are your closest friends on the team?
Reuben Unije: To be honest I would say everyone I know, they and I can hang with them at anytime and I do.
AS: One question for the fans, what do you think is a realistic goal in terms of wins this year for the team?
Reuben Unije: I’d say you’d have to come and find out.. enjoy the show!
I really believe this offense will be greatly improved this year and I fully expect the run game to be the beneficiary of all the hard work this offensive line will be doing in the off-season. There will be hiccups along the way but Reuben should be a big impact player on the offensive line because of his sheer size. Also, he might be more along than some of the other freshman because he’s been on campus for a longer period of time. As Reuben stated earlier “You have to come out and watch the show!”
As Lovie Smith leads the Fighting Illini into his third training camp as head coach, his off-season moves show where he sees the program:
Any discussion of the 2018 Illini football fortunes must start with the elephant in the room: How does Lovie Smith address the quarterback situation? Last year’s Quarterback situation included a running quarterback coming off major shoulder surgery (Chayce Crouch), a legacy player who started as a walk-on (Jeff George, Jr), and a true freshman who won 3 games as a high school varsity quarterback (Cam Thomas).
Very early, Crouch proved that his poor throwing skills were further diminished by injury, George proved why he was never offered a scholarship out of high school, and Cam Thomas showed great wheels and an erratic arm. The result was an offense that mustered only 19 touchdowns in 12 games. Ugly all around.
So what does Lovie do: he fired offensive coordinator Garrick McGee, sought out a new coordinator to bring in a completely different offensive system in Arizona’s Rod Smith. He then goes out and signs 3 high school quarterbacks and brings in a graduate transfer. Lovie knows that 5 options at quarterback are better than last year’s 3 and that someone has to step up to play competitively in Big Ten games in order for his program to take a step forward.
We all know the tough spot the Illini are in: Can’t win without players, can’t recruit players without winning. Add to that, can’t win without representative quarterback play. With a returning late season starter in Thomas, the graduate transfer AJ Bush, and freshmen Coran Taylor, Matt Robinson, and MJ Rivers, Lovie is recognizing that fixing the QB problem is his most pressing need.
So, how does this break down during training camp? The biggest issue is how to get 5 inexperienced players enough reps in practice to gain proficiency and the trust of the coaching staff and their teammates. Thomas comes in with the edge in Illini game experience, and he got exclusive reps during spring ball in Coach Rod Smith’s quick-hitting spread scheme. All four other quarterbacks have been on campus all summer working out, studying tape of spring ball, of Smith’s Arizona offenses, working the white board, and developing timing with their receivers.
All of that work, whether the Illini coaches would ever admit it or not, has given Rod Smith a starting point to assess his quarterback pecking order. That pecking order will be evident early in camp, but it’s not set in stone. Guys emerge, guys get hurt, and when the pads start popping, some guys rise to the top. Still, how do you get everyone a fair shake and a legitimate look?
I think the answer might be found in the pace of the Illini offense, which Rod Smith wants to be lightning fast getting to the line and running plays. With 5 quarterbacks to get reps for (6 if you count Cam Miller, the only guy to get in the end zone against Ohio State last year), I think we could see two separate offensive units working in opposite directions, with Smith standing in the middle orchestrating everything. One play run going east, the next play starting 10 seconds later going to the west, back and forth, with Rod Smith being the fulcrum, using a scripted system of practice plays to go through everything and get twice the number of reps in a traditional practice setting.
All the practices are filmed from 3 different angles, so this would be a way to get twice as many reps (for the defense, too) and create twice as many teaching opportunities.
Without seeing the quarterbacks in action, I have no idea how to handicap the competition. Cam Thomas has elite quarterback speed and a strong arm. Last year in training camp, many of his throws sailed high, and the same thing happened during games. If the game slows down for him mentally, he could have a breakthrough. His working knowledge of Rod Smith’s offense should be ahead of the others, but he has to make plays.
The last ten days of camp, the pecking order will be pretty easy to see from the hill next to the Campus Rec fields. The top guy will get the most reps, the main backup next, and literally the other 3 will be fighting for scraps. Lovie has always leaned conservative offensively, so expect decision making and ball security to be high on the priority list. Players also know who is leading, making plays, and emerging as the Top Dawg.
As fans, we tend to watch the ball….quarterbacks, receivers, and running backs, but there is a lot more going on that we need to find out:
With all the spotlight on the quarterbacks, smart football people know that games are won up front, and last year’s Illini offensive line was not only young and inexperienced, but it was pretty bad. It didn’t help the offensive line that the quarterback situation was a mess, the best running backs were hurt, and the wide receivers were poor, but on it’s own, the offensive line play was atrocious.
But let’s put that youth and inexperience in perspective: Tackles Larry Boyd and Vederian Lowe came in with a LOT of baby fat, and Lowe was injured and basically missed all of camp. Alex Palczewski came in undersized and lacking the necessary strength to hold his own. Three names, all true freshmen. Doug Kramer, an undersized red-shirt freshman, got his first licks. Jake Cerny, another redshirt freshman, got some tick. Only Nick Allegretti, a junior and former US Army All-American, had seen real action and had any level of success.
Now this: the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores. Boyd and Lowe are in better shape, Palcho and Cerny have beefed up. Kramer is still short, but he’s stronger and more experienced than a year ago. Allegretti is back, anchoring the line from either a guard spot or from center.
The Illini offensive line should be better, even if Larry Boyd misses time due to disciplinary reasons. Lots of returning starts, and guys better understanding the speed of the game. This unit should move from 14th in the conference to one that could be in the 9-10 range. The thing that could derail those hopes is injuries.
Last year when I watched three training camp practices, I was shocked at the drop off in talent beyond the top 6 linemen. Shocked. My thought was literally, “how did these guys get Big Ten scholarships?” They were that bad. The fact that they were so much worse than players who comprised the worst offensive line in the Big Ten is even more shocking. Some of those players have matriculated elsewhere. Some of them remain, and hopefully, they have gotten a whole lot stronger over the last 12 months. However, they were so far behind from a strength standpoint, from a footwork standpoint, that I wouldn’t think any of those guys could ever start at any other public university inside the state of Illinois.
So, where does any quality depth come from? Highly recruited redshirt freshman Kendrick Green comes over form defense. 3 new true freshmen, Kievan Myers, Jordan Slaughter, and Ruben Unije come in to take their shot. Of the freshmen, my sense is that only Myers has a real chance to contribute this year. Slaughter is coming off major shoulder surgery and his surgeon didn’t even let him begin rehab for 6 weeks. I can’t see that shoulder being ready to hold up to the physicalities of Big Ten football practice. He may get in a game or two along the way, but I would be shocked if he’s not red-shirted. Unije is a real project. He was a part of a true developmental high school at IMG Academy in Florida, but he is so raw that he played much of the year on the B team, and didn’t see much action on the true powerhouse varsity squad. Unije is a huge young man, has good feet, and should be a real force on the line…..in 2022.
So, Illini fans, watch those offensive linemen drills and see who’s stepping up.
The most talented position group on this team, in my opinion, is the defensive secondary. Two consecutive strong recruiting classes give the Illini real Big Ten caliber athletes on the back end.
My favorite part of last year’s dismal Illini team was the young secondary. Safety Bennett Williams was an ESPN Freshman All-American. Tony Adams and Nate Hobbs showed real flashes of talent. Adams, coming off ACL surgery as a high school senior, was limited in camp and then hurt his shoulder midway through the season. Hobbs basically missed camp due to mono, then went right into the starting lineup. Again, all three of these players were true freshmen. There is real reason to believe that all three of them will be playing professionally once they leave UI. Real talent, with good freshman experience, developing.
Returning starter Stanley Green reruns as a hard hitting, if not personal foul prone safety. Solid Big Ten player.
The Illini need some of the newcomers to step up and be able to play as well as Williams, Hobbs, and Adams did a year ago. Nick Walker comes in as a juco transfer. Sydney Brown, a sprint champion and a heat seeking missile comes in at safety. The uber-athletic Jartavius Martin comes in looking the part of a Big Ten stud DB. Delano Ware and Dylan Wyatt are also coming in with length and aggressiveness. Today’s spread offenses mean 6 and sometimes 7 DBs on the field at any given time. The Illini need to find out which of these newcomers is ready to ball.
The one on one practice battles that these receivers have against a more experienced Wide Receiver group will be very telling. Which leads me to the next thing I would want to see at camp:
Are the freshmen ready?
Lovie Smith inherited a collection of talent that, sadly, would not have fared well in the the FCS playoffs. He’s got his second recruiting class in place, and they will be counted on more for depth than last year’s freshmen. But, at any given time, those guys might be on the field and need to make a play in the second half to win a game against Maryland, Purdue, Minnesota, or Nebraska. Training camp reps will show us who is ready. Here are a few match ups I will be looking to learn from:
Freshman TE Daniel Barker vs Redshirt Sophomore LB Jake Hansen. Barker looks smooth and athletic. He should be a good test for Hansen, who Lovie and Defensive Coordinator Hardy Nickerson love, but is coming off ACL surgery. Starting TE Lou Dorsey will be a nightmare matchup for any linebacker in the country. Barker is a better barometer for the healing Hansen.
Freshmen Linebackers Khalan Tolson and Jacob Hollins in space versus Illini RBs Mike Epstein and Reggie Corbin. So much of the modern college game is played in space with offensive coordinators spreading defenses horizontally and vertically, creating one-on-one match ups. When healthy, Epstein and Corbin are Big Ten caliber backs with adequate quickness. If Tolson and Hollins can chase those guys effectively and make some plays in space, the Illini will have some very important defensive depth pieces and special teams contributors. Tolson, in particular, is incredibly fluid and has freakishly long arms. I think he could be a WLB who chases a lot of guys down from behind, comes hard off the edge, and I will predict that he blocks at least one kick this season.
Freshman S Sydney Brown vs Sr Mikey Dudek and Freshman CB Jartavius Martin vs Ricky Smalling. Both freshmen just seem to be exactly who you would recruit to cover each of those veterans. Dudek, the cagey veteran, the Julian Edelman pesky slot guy vs Sidney Brown, a player who on film explodes across the field and arrives with bad intentions. Smalling had a solid freshman season for the Illini and has a physicality for an outside receiver. To combat that, a defender must be long, athletic and tough. Training camp will tell us if Brown and Martin are ready to compete against that level of Big Ten talent. My guess is they will hold their own.
Freshmen tackles Verdis Brown and Calvin Avery against Senior Nick Allegretti and Sophomore Alex Palczewski. The freshmen were the centerpieces of this recruiting class, both playing in the prestigious Under Armour High School All-American game. Allegretti is the closest thing that this young Illini team has to a grizzled veteran. He’s smart, tough, experienced, and will play well in the conference this season, like he did a year ago. Palczewski survived last year on the line because he has very good mobility and exceptional hand skills. He’s packed on some good weight and should take a big step on the Illini offensive line. If Brown and Avery can compete against those two guys, maybe, just maybe, the Illini will be able to stop the run someday….and soon.
Offense or Defense ahead of the curve?
This will be really interesting to see which side of the ball is showing the most growth. I would suspect the defense will be ahead of the offense because of the continuity of the defensive staff and the embryonic quarterbacking situation. An offense only progresses as fast as the quarterbacks who lead it. This will really be amplified early in camp because Rod Smith insists not only on speed to the line, but on making very quick reads once the ball is snapped. Defense relies on alignment and responsibility, then reacts.
During last year’s camp, the defense was so far ahead of the offense, and that held true during the season. Illinois played solid defense against Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa. I expect that unit to be solidly better this year than last year, so Rod Smith has to be able to move the ball with zygote quarterbacks against a league average Big Ten defense. If he can have some practice success, I think we’ll be pretty excited after the first two ball games.
How to practice hard and get ready vs safeguarding health….
Finally, Lovie knows he needs to win at least 4 ball games to move the chains. As fans, we hope that 6 or 7 wins are possible. That only happens with health. To prepare teams to play Big Ten football, you have to practice with a certain amount of physicality. This Illinois football team is thin, so any injuries are significant. After a couple more recruiting classes are in place, depth will be in place to cover injuries which are just a part of the game. But let’s hope that Lovie can get the team to Soldier Field for the game against South Florida in week 3 with everything in tact. This team will need some good luck to find it’s way to a bowl, none more important than physical health.
There have been many players this summer who have played well and gotten attention, along with scholarship offers. None more than 4-star top 100 6’5 180-lb Donovan Williams from Houston Hoops. He was named to the All-Breakthrough team at the Peach Jam in Atlanta two weeks ago and continued to impress last weekend.
Donovan can do a good bit of everything, he averaged 13 points and 5 rebounds at the Peach Jam. His long arms make it tough to block his shot in traffic and he causes havoc defensively in passing lanes. The Illini staff have taken notice, particularly assistant Jamall Walker. He fell in love with Donovan’s game and Brad Underwood offered after they watched him play together. Jamall has kept tabs and watched Donovan play each weekend since the offer. I caught up with Donovan after Illinois offered along with Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Texas A&M and Northwestern.
In his words with Donovan Williams
I wanted to know how long he has been in contact with the Illini staff.
He told me “I’ve been talking to coach Walker since June and we’ve established a nice relationship. We talk 3 or 4 times a week and he believes my length and athleticism can translate to the college ranks and really allow me to be effective.”
In regards to his interest in Illinois
Donovan said ” I do have interest in Illinois. Their playing style is very interesting the way they use their players and with the new staff, I just plan to get more acquainted and learn about them more.”
I asked who has stuck out to him leading up to his recent offers.
Williams said “Right now the schools that are sticking out for me are Miami,Arizona State,Texas, and SMU”
My last question for Donovan was targeting his strength as a player.
He told me “My strengths are being a multi dimensional player, that can go inside and out. I have a high IQ and I know how to make smart plays. I think I can improve on my offensive skill set just as any other player and being even more effective on defense than i already am.”
Donovan mentioned he plans to decide on Official Visits in mid August and plans on signing in November
The Illini staff isn’t putting all it’s egg in one basket. They aren’t afraid to offer a kid and go after them. Media and fans can talk about priorities but Donovan Williams intrigues the staff. With so many talented wings in 2019, Williams has stood out this summer.
Regardless how it plays out this fall, Illinois is putting in the time and effort on players they want. Jamall Walker has done a nice job in this recruitment and has given Illinois a chance to compete with the Texas schools for this Native Texan. Will it be enough to get a visit? We will find out over the next month