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An early look at the Illinois Fighting Illini

The Champaign Room fills us in on how the rebuilding Illini looked under Lovie Smith this spring.

Illinois v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

It’s never too early to write about next season!

With spring football completed for college programs, and with what feels like a long offseason until late July/early August, B5Q wanted to check on the Wisconsin Badgers’ 2019 opponents—with the help of some of our SB Nation friends.

Note: These previews will not be in the chronological order of the games, but we hope to get through all of them at some point before fall camp rolls around.

On Oct. 19 inside Memorial Stadium, Wisconsin will look to beat Illinois for the tenth straight time in a Big Ten West showdown.

Our friends from The Champaign Room took some time out of their busy schedules to answer some questions we had about Lovie Smith’s program heading into next season.

What are your overall thoughts about Illinois heading into the 2019 season?

Kyle Huisinga: There’s a lot of hesitant hopefulness regarding this upcoming season. There’s more competition and depth at just about every position outside of quarterback and wide receiver. Unfortunately, those two need a serious upgrade, or five wins or fewer is a distinct possibility. The run game should be pretty solid to spectacular, and the defense can’t get any worse (127th out of 129 teams last year in total defense). We might have some answers at quarterback in Isaiah Williams, the phenom speedster freshman from St. Louis. Grad transfers are also looking likely as well. We’ll see. We have some playmakers at receiver, but none who create enough separation, stay healthy, or make plays to bail the quarterback out when he’s in trouble.

In terms of changes to the coaching staff, we had some turnover. Two new coaches for each side of the ball. Luke Butkus, o-line coach left for the pros. He was replaced by offensive analyst Bob McClain. Thad Ward, our running backs coach and a good recruiter, left for a similar spot on Temple’s new staff. He was replaced by former Illini wide receiver and Toledo’s receiver coach Mike Bellamy.

The biggest changes occurred on the defensive side, however. Lovie Smith knows it’s on him to fix this defense. So he’s taking the reins this year and working as our de facto defensive coordinator. It’s a bold, somewhat divisive move for Lovie. Divisive in that he hired his son, Miles Smith, to be linebackers coach to work within the system. He could have easily hired a proven, collegiate d-coordinator/linebackers coach to run that side of the ball. He didn’t feel comfortable with giving that kind of autonomy to another coach (like Hardy Nickerson, who resigned last year), however.

That lays some unneeded pressure on a non-related coach such as Miles Smith. If our defense looks like it did last year, especially our linebackers, there will be a lot of “I told you so’s” amongst the fanbase.

Our best off-season hire might have been Keynodo Hudson. The defensive backs coach for Florida Atlantic last year, Hudson brings a fiery personality to the cornerback unit. He’s a very intense man, who so far has sparked a motivation in our best cover corner Nate Hobbs. He looked like one of the team’s best defenders through spring.

There’s a lot of pressure on the defensive staff to right the ship. If Illinois finds a quarterback, and one or two wide receivers who can make a play, 6 wins is a realistic goal for 2019.

Matt Rejc: Kyle nailed the major player and coach changes coming up for 2019, but I do want to emphasize the recruiting impact of Bellamy. He was involved with the recruitments of both of our commits this year, and both are some of the best players to pledge to Illini during the Lovie Smith era. Thad Ward was an excellent recruiter, but it doesn’t seem like the Illini will skip a beat with Bellamy back in the fold.

Overall I’m cautiously optimistic about our chances at making a bowl game next season. The departure of sophomore quarterback M.J. Rivers opens up many questions on the offensive side of the ball, which was already facing uncertainties at quarterback and wide receiver even before he left. If one of the other quarterbacks can step up (all are freshman), then we may be in luck. And if not, then it could be a very long fall.

Who are the main players returning, and how could they help the Illini next season?

Kyle: Offensively, a couple stand out. Reggie Corbin, one of the best running backs in the Big Ten returns for his senior season. His breakout 2018 was not an aberration. He was just poorly used by the previous offensive coordinator. He had shown his elusiveness in fits and spurts. It just took Rod Smith to turn him loose and have the confidence in him to make plays. His senior year has the potential to cement him as a fringe NFL prospect.

Alex Palczewski was not highly rated as an offensive lineman prospect in the class of 2017. He has made huge strides going into his junior year and is arguably the best offensive lineman on the Illinois roster. Kendrick Green also has a chance to breakout as a bulldozing guard in their zone-blocking scheme. He’s one of the strongest men on the team.

On defense, Bobby Roundtree is the one to watch. (Editor’s note: After receiving these answers a report came out that Roundtree suffered a “severe spinal injury” while swimming near his home in Florida.) The defensive end logged 7.5 sacks last year with little help on the defensive front. If the line around him gets marginally better, double digits sacks and a big season could be in the cards for the best NFL prospect on the defense. Nate Hobbs has the look of a lockdown corner who could make a huge leap in 2019. He reminds me of Vontae Davis, the star corner for Ron Zook in the Rose Bowl season of 2007. He oozes potential and is one of the fastest players on the team. Defensive tackle Calvin Avery, a former top prospect and Dele Harding, middle linebacker, could also help improve this defense and climb out of the cellar.

Matt: Corbin and Roundtree are definitely the guys to watch on their respective sides of the ball. A wildcard on defense is transfer linebacker Milo Eifler, who arrived last season from Washington and sat out. He was a former four-star recruit out of high school and is extremely athletic, but he didn’t crack the rotation at Washington. His sit-out year should’ve provided him with some background on Lovie’s defensive scheme, which we hope he can use this fall as our linebacker corps is desperately thin.

Mike Epstein and Dre Brown are both phenomenal running backs when they’re healthy, but they’ve unfortunately been hobbled by injuries off and on most of their careers. Both were healthy but largely kept out of action this spring, and we’re looking for breakout years from them.

Jamal Milan is one of the few seniors on the team, and he figures to play an anchor role on the defensive line alongside Calvin Avery. Milan has also been hampered by injuries at times, but he is a great run stopper when he’s on the field.

Who are the critical departures from 2018, and has anyone stepped up to be potential replacements?

Kyle: The biggest losses are at the most important position. AJ Bush was not perfect, but he was the best quarterback on the roster last year, and his running ability helped Illinois finish second in the conference in rushing offense. With another year, Bush no doubt could have alleviated a lot of the problems the Illini face going into 2019. Then after spring ended, Bush’s backup last year in M.J. Rivers announced he was transferring. There’s literally no playing experience currently on the roster at quarterback. That’s disconcerting.

However, one of the biggest recruiting additions to this year’s class is Isaiah Williams. The four-star, top 300 player injects an athleticism not seen at quarterback at Illinois since Nathan Scheelhaase. He’s got the goods. Smart, elusive, strong-armed. He’ll be the starter sooner than later. He’s a freshman, though, and putting large expectations on those shoulders is a gamble Illinois can’t afford to take in a make or break season.

Losing Nick Allegretti at guard hurts. There’s also a lot to replace at wide receiver. USC transfer Trevon Sidney potentially steps into a starting spot. Casey Washington and Kyron Cumby are both incoming freshman who can help with speed and depth. There’s still work to be done at filling in gaps, though. There will be additions before fall starts that will change things.

Matt: Losing both Bush and Rivers at quarterback were probably the two biggest blows. At this point it’s anybody’s guess who will be under center week one. The staff has been offering grad transfer quarterbacks across the country to fill the hole on the roster, and that’s never a reassuring sign.

Otherwise, there aren’t too many significant departures, which is one positive from a ground-up rebuild of the type that Lovie has undertaken at Illinois. Much of the team that took the field in 2018 will still be playing in 2020 as a very experienced roster. With luck, Lovie’s decision to play freshman and sophomores in 2017 and 2018 will start to pay dividends in 2019 and beyond.

Who is your “way-too-early” breakout player-of-the-year candidate based on the spring?

Kyle: Hobbs would be an easy choice, as all indications are he’s ready to make huge progress going into 2019.

I’m going to go with a bit of an outside the box choice though and say Marquez Beason will be a fan favorite by year’s end. He’s an incoming freshman, so he hasn’t practiced with the team yet. However, his swagger, speed, confidence and playmaking ability will be a refreshing injection into the Illini’s defense/special teams. The four star corner from Texas has everything you want in a building block for future success. He has talent that’s just unteachable. Personally, I hope he plays a little receiver, too. He could be a Rondale Moore type on that side of the ball. He’s sticking at corner for now though. He’ll also be a top two choice at punt/kick returner.

He’ll be a jack of all trades and a top contributor for the Illini this year and beyond.

Matt: Agreed on Hobbs, that guy is going to be a stud.

I have a feeling we’re going to see Bobby Roundtree emerge onto the scene this year as an all-conference type player. All indications from spring are that he’s improved physically and is now a dominant factor when he’s on the field (Editor’s note: Again, answers were received prior to the Roundtree injury being announced).

What is your “way-too-early” prediction of the Illinois vs Wisconsin on October 19th? What is your prediction for Illinois’ season?

Kyle: I won’t say the Illini will beat Wisconsin. The Badgers still have enough talent and depth to defeat the Illini. I do think it will be closer than in year’s past. Definitely more competitive than the last two seasons. I’d say something like 38-28 Wisconsin is not that far-fetched. Illinois has closed the talent gap at certain positions. The questions at quarterback, wide receiver and depth at offensive line will be too much to overcome against a team as formidable as Wisconsin, however.

For the season, I think most fans will be disappointed with fewer than five wins. That’s my personal prediction. Five wins and enough progress to save Lovie for another year. Then big things potentially in 2020 with Williams at quarterback and some game changing talent surrounding him.

Matt: There’s very little chance the Illini beat the Badgers this season, but Illinois has finally built up enough experienced depth to be able to play four competitive quarters against top-level Big Ten teams. I’ll say the Badgers win 35-21.

As for the season as a whole, I really do think it comes down to who the quarterback will be. If Isaiah Williams is ready to take the reigns from day one and Ricky Smalling can become the go-to receiver he showed flashes of being in 2017, then I think six wins is within reach. If no one emerges at quarterback or wide receiver, then this season will likely resemble the catastrophic 2-10 2017 campaign.