After a long summer and various expectations, the Fighting Illini Football team take the field to commence year two under head coach Lovie Smith. In all reality, this will be “year one” under coach Smith due to the fact that he’s now had a chance to recruit his own players. In addition, Lovie has had a full offseason, as opposed to the couple of months he had last year, to implement his system and culture. Players and coaches are now mutually acquainted and comfortable with one another and, as a result, the foundation of the Lovie Smith era can be cemented, in comparison to last year’s whirlwind of events. Does this mean that the Illini can now jump from bottom feeders of the Big Ten to the top? No. Patience, Illini fans.
While Lovie has players on this roster that he and his staff have personally handpicked, these players are all still freshman. These kids all have their share of potential and talents to offer, but they are not Leonard Fournette or Jabril Peppers. The extent of their talents will be showcased with time, but without the necessary experience, it will be a tall task for any of them to step in and make an immediate impact. A tall task, however, that many of these freshmen will be asked to take on. With 8 scholarship seniors and 14 scholarship juniors, the Illini will rely heavily on the 35 true and redshirt freshman on the roster. What can we expect in week one however?
The following players will not be playing against Ball State due to Injuries:
Jaylen Dunlap (Defensive Back)
Reggie Corbin (Running back)
Jake Hansen (Linebacker) –Out for the season–
Illini True Freshman names to look out for:
Look for this list of freshmen to start at their respective positions. Larry Boyd has been a projected starter since arriving on campus, as he brings a college-ready size to a somewhat thin line up front. Bennett Williams, the safety from California, has emerged as a quality athlete at the safety position. As reported by Ryan Evan with Armchair Illini, Williams consistently made plays on the defensive side of the ball and has really impressed the entire coaching staff with his abilities. With senior cornerback Jaylen Dunlap sitting out, freshmen Tony Adams and Nate Hobbs will have to step up in order to replace Dunlap along with Sophomore Frank Sumpter and senior Ahmari Hayes. Adams is coming off a torn ACL, but has shown flashes of his athleticism and ball-skills throughout camp. Hobbs is another pure athlete that the staff has been bullish about; however, he was limited in training camp due to injuries. Without Dunlap, the Illini may have trouble containing the pass, but it will be a great opportunity for freshmen and previously obscure players to step up and make a name for themselves. Bobby Roundtree is a defensive end who has shown great promise, and the ability to make an impact, both in the long and short term. The Illini will boast a young defensive line, and players such as Roundtree have an opportunity to jump into the fire and learn on the fly. Another name that Coach Smith has thrown around in terms of the defensive line is Sean Adesanya, who has missed previous seasons due to injury. Coach Smith has also mentioned freshman Isaiah Gay as someone who has had a strong camp. Also, look for freshman Ricky Smalling and Louis Dorsey to play a role in the rotation at wide receiver and tight end respectively.
What to look out for:
Though there may not be much to take away from a game against a mid-major school, there are a few expectations to have. For starters, fans expect the Illini to put their foot down in authority as they did in their opener last year against Murray State. The Illini are not a finished product by any means but fans can also hope to see flashes of the potential the young Fighting Illini have.
Look for the offense to have a different flavor to it than last year. Offensive coordinator Garrick Mcgee likes to utilize a Dual Threat Quarterback to establish the run and keep defenses guessing with different option plays. Look for that to finally be instilled with Redshirt-Junior Chayce Crouch. A leader and a gritty quarterback, Crouch brings a dynamic set of wheels and a wealth of enthusiasm to the Illini offense. Look for him and Senior Kendrick Foster to impose their will with the run on the offensive side of the ball. Wide Receiver Mike Dudek aims to return to the field for the first time since the 2014-15 season, which will be a welcome sight. Dudek was a supremely talented freshman, but has been struck with two season ending injuries. It is hard to say what to expect from the one time star receiver, but seeing him on the field healthy has to bring a smile to any fan.
On the defensive side, Coordinator Hardy Nickerson has the tough task of integrating a pile of freshmen with six returning players. Nickerson will have to place his faith in the young guns as most of the freshmen are actually more talented than some of the returners. Their opponent, Ball State, employs a run-heavy offense, powered by Junior running back, James Gilbert. Gilbert is known as one of the premier players in the MAC conference after rushing for 1332 yards last season, and eclipsing the 100 yard mark in six games. The Cardinals will rely heavily on Gilbert, as their quarterback threw a mundane 13 touchdowns with 12 interceptions. The young front line of the Illini will certainly be tested as the Cardinals will try to win on the ground.
In all, the Illini will look to play solid defense to create turnovers while also limiting turnovers on the offensive end. The Illini are not really capable of doing anything overwhelming on either side of the ball, even against a MAC program. Defensively, the Illini will need to show improvements from their run defense, which ranked an abysmal 103rd in the nation, to stop Gilbert and the Cardinals. Look for Ball State to put up an unexpected fight that will keep this game competitive, but look for the young Illini to notch the victory here in week one.