5 things we learned from the Illinois football scrimmage this weekend

Illini Scoops, Ryan Evan, was one among many Illinois media members who attended the Illinois football scrimmage on Saturday. The turnout was what one would expect for a preseason event of the Illinois football program. There was an ample amount of fans showing their support for their team despite Memorial Stadium looking rather empty. This event signaled the end of open portion of training camp which consequently means that the football season is right around the corner.

It is quite apparent that the players weren’t playing tackle football, so a good chunk of the statistics might be skewed one way or another. Given that, we believe that we have 5 takeaways from the scrimmage that will stand true once the season comes around.

1.) We know who the starting QB will be.

The Illinois QB competition has been under a microscope for the entire offseason after last years abysmal season, that the QB’s largely contributed to. The Illini added three freshman QBs in Coran Taylor, MJ Rivers, and Matt Robinson. All have their strengths however only Matt Robinson really gave a real run at the starting job. Then the Illini have sophomore QB Cam Thomas, who was considered the favorite to land the starting QB gig at the beginning of training camp.

The man that we believe out preformed them all and will land the starting gig is grad-transfer AJ Bush. He is the most mature QB out of the rest of them, in terms of his physical tools. To go along with that, his speed when carrying the football, his strong accurate arm, and overall smart decision making, leads us to believe that he is the best fit for to be a big time leader for the offense this year.

2.) Freshman will be B1G, once again

All Illini fans know that Head Coach Lovie Smith played and started the most freshman of an FBS program last year. It came with a lot of growing pains, but those players gained a lot of experience. Well, the starting QB might not be an incoming freshman but that doesn’t mean the 2018 class won’t get a chance to put their mark on this season.

True freshman Jartavius Martin, Ron Hardge, Sydney Brown, Calvin Avery, Edwin Carter, Verdis Brown, Khalan Tolson and Jakari Norwood are all likely to see decent playing time given the way they preformed during camp. Remember, sophomore DB Bennett Williams got some playing time as a freshman last year, and he turned that into an ESPN Freshman All-American nomination. I wouldn’t put it past any of them to have a special season either. Illinois will add a couple Redshirt freshman Impact players as well, Kendrick Green and Lere Oladipo are poised for major contributions

3.) OC Rod Smith’s new offense is all about trickery and formations

The staple of Lovie Smith teams on the offensive side of the ball is the running game. When he had success with the Chicago Bears, he had Matt Forte and a formidable run game. Unfortunately, the run game was plagued by injuries to Mike Epstein, Reggie Corbin, and others. Last year, Illinois’ offense was ranked around the 150’s, which was close to the bottom of all offenses in the FBS. Since then, Garrick McGee was fired and in comes Rod Smith from an Arizona offense that averaged 41.31 PPG and totaled 4260 rushing yards as opposed to Illinois who averaged 15.42 PPG and totaled 1267 rushing yards. Adding to this, Rod Smith likes his offense to play quickly as opposed to using the play clock to it’s entirety. This means you should expect to see a majority of no huddle offense this year. To say that the offense might be in for a drastic change, clearly is an understatement.

As this offense is predicated on providing confusion, trickery, and movement, we noticed that there were a multitude of formations and sets that were used by the offense. There were some traditional formations such as the Pistol , however there were unconventional formations as well. For example, Aj Bush would line up with empty sets of 4 or 5 wide. This allows him to have many options to make a play with his arm, but also allows him to keep the defense honest with his feet. Another unconventional set that will surely improve the run game is a 2 RB set. This would really make the opposing defense do their homework as the the offense could elect to pass, run, or maybe throw an option keeper play for a specific individual. All in all I can’t wait to see what this offense is capable of this year.

4.) Depth is a strength for the Illini in the majority of the positions.

Along with having a young team last year, the injury bug plagued Illinois and lead to inconsistencies in players performances. That should be minimized this season with the number of talented individuals this years roster possesses. For example, just look at the DBs. The most likely starting secondary would be Cameron Watkins, Nate Hobbs, Tony Adams, Bennett Williams, and Stanley Green. After that, the secondary is three deep at the four corner and safety positions. Thus an injury to any of these positions doesn’t seem that problematic.

There is a concern at linebacker however, as this position is very limited. Currently the projected starting linebackers are Del’shawn Phillips and Jake Hansen (coming off an ACL injury). An injury to this pairing would force a freshman to come into action and could prove to be a problem.

5.) Mikey Dudek and Ricky Smalling are the WR combo we’ve been waiting for

Speaking of “Mikey Flash”, he’s back and ready to make some noise this season. If Illini fans recall, the RS Senior Dudek, had a phenomenal freshman season at Illinois recording 76 receptions, 1036 yards, and 6 TDs. This helped Dudek garner national attention on the way to being named a Freshman All-American. Since then, Dudek has had a rough career at Illinois, that has been defined by injuries. 2 summers ago, he tore his ACL during a practice drill. He went through the 8-12 months process of building himself back up only to be broken again the following summer. He tore his ACL in the opposite leg and had to repeat the process all over again. He made his comeback last season but was never fully 100%. Now, he is looking to contribute greatly to this years offense and will be a focal part of the offense according to coaches Rod Smith and Lovie Smith.

Then, there is the athletic freak of nature that is sophomore Ricky Smalling. He was the gem of the 2017 class and lived up to that bill despite the QB play. His freshman season stats were 31 receptions, 510 yards, and 2 TDs. He also gained national attention by making some truly amazing catches that were even featured on ESPN SportsCenter Top 10. Along with this, Ricky Smalling has become, one of potential starting QB, AJ Bush’s favorite targets in the offseason, as evidenced by his connections with him in practice as well as the scrimmage.

These two WR’s potentially could be one of the top 3 duos in the entire B1G Ten Conference. If the QB play is improved and these playmakers can receive enough targets, expect them to put up monster statistics.


Can the Fighting Illini find a trap game?

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.

Illinois Football Camp Breakdown: August 14

On Tuesday August 14th, the Illinois fighting Illini Football team held another open practice during their training camp period, while getting ready for the upcoming season. There was a lot to watch for, as is typical with so many fresh faces when a new season begins, but these training period really allow us to look at exactly who could take a leap and become a household name this season.

Lovie and Co. had another good day with their young, talented squad, and the team didn’t disappoint the fans and media members in attendance, as Illinois showed off what could be the best top-to-bottom roster it has had in recent years.

Here’s some of the key things I noticed at today’s camp, for those of you that missed my breakdowns on Twitter.

M.J. Rivers had his best day thus far, after being rewarded with second team reps for today’s practice. He showed off his high arm strength that many Illini fans have pointed out recently from his high school highlights. Rivers comes into a quarterback race at Illinois that remains wide-open, and he certainly made his case today, completing on several deep balls and also on quick slant routes to all manners of receivers during both QB/WR Drills, and full-team offense/defense drills.

If Rivers can continue to build and get comfortable in Rod Smith’s offense, he certainly has the talent and ability to make himself a top-tier choice for the Illinois offense behind apparent QB1 A.J. Bush.

Rivers, however, has a lot of competition for the QB position, and will have to fight with, and likely surpass, the player who is the focus of the next thing I saw.

Matt Robinson, now an Illini fan favorite, continued Tuesday to showcase his abilities and make his case. From the start, Robinson really caught my eye. In QB/Receiver drills, Robinson showed off his accurate arm, completing both deep-ball passes on streak routes to speedy receivers like Mike Dudek, to corner routes from TE Luis Dorsey.

Robinson has really impressed Illini fans as of late with his ability to throw the ball, but Robinson also showed his running ability, on one play in a later drill, evading the sack from a defensive lineman, and scrambling for a fifteen-yard gain, and could easily have had more. Robinson, to me, looks like the clear-cut QB2 for this team that showcases one of the deepest Illini QB rooms in recent years.

I was impressed with Robinson today, even though Bush and Rivers got most of the time with first string units. He’s shown out through camp and will look to continue fighting for the primary backup spot, or even the starting spot, should Bush suffer a setback.

The Defensive Line showed out, and took the day from Offensive Line. The Defensive Line was matched up once again against the Offensive Line in today’s practice, and they certainly didn’t disappoint. The defensive line (in real-time drills) often got into the line of scrimmage and frustrated the offensive unit, taking sacks and tackles-for-loss at a high rate. The young defensive line is certainly a bright spot going forward, especially with the addition of one of my favorite freshmen, Calvin Avery.

The Illini Special Team’s Unit continues to impress me. As someone who loves watching special team’s work, the Illini have a great, talented group of kickers (and returners) this year. Blake Hayes continues his development, as his foot power is unparalleled to any that I’ve seen don an Illini uniform in some time. Placekickers like and Caleb Griffin continue to impress with their consistency in the position, and Coach Ligashesky’s unit will hope to thrive behind a new offense under Rod Smith and the newly-implemented offense.

Also, it’s worth noting the Special Teams performance, especially Blake Hayes, even “wowed” a certain legendary News Gazette writer who covers Illinois sports.

The team’s depth of quality the best it’s been in some time. It’s been a while since I’ve been to an Illini practice or early-season training camp where I could visibly not keep my eyes on one specific player, due to the large amount of talent on the field.

This year’s recruiting class brought in not only a solid stable of skill players, but with it the Illini also added depth and young talent at most of the positions. From linebackers to offensive linemen, the team is stacked with young, untapped potential.

The team looks fresh and ready to go for the upcoming season, and the sheer intensity players like Bennet Williams, Mike Dudek, and A.J. Bush (amongst many others) have shown throughout the early-season training camp practices points to a much-acknowledged fact: very few positions are set in stone.

Overall, Lovie’s team this year features a lot of positional battles, which bodes well for an Illini team that has for so long lacked the depth of talent that this year’s roster appears to have. With an already-booming Class of 2019 coming in next year, the staff will look to build this year, and have a seasoned core of sophomores and juniors to add to the special incoming class.

Update on “High Ceiling” 2020 5* Guard DJ Steward

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.

Aarmani’s Take

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.

Swami Thoughts

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.

Keeping the home grown players, and what it can mean to an Illini football rebuild.

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.

Notre Dame…….12

Iowa State………6




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.

Illini Scoops Freshman Spotlight Series: Reuben Unije

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!

Aarmani’s Take

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!”