Just by looking at the numbers, one might think that the Illinois offense is sorely lacking playmakers. The unit entered Saturday’s 35-24 loss to Rutgers as the 119th-ranked scoring offense at 17.8 points per game and was 123rd overall in total offense.
The fact is, Illinois’ offense is filled with young playmakers that simply haven’t been given the ball enough, and that rings especially true for Illinois’ player of the game against Rutgers, freshman wide receiver Ricky Smalling.
Smalling hauled in five passes for 111 yards and a touchdown and put on an aerial display of snagging passes out of the air to give the Illini big gains. Just look at this touchdown -- the first of Smalling’s young career:
Breakout game alert: @SuccessfulRicky is showing out.— Illinois on BTN (@IllinoisOnBTN) October 14, 2017
He Mosses a Rutgers defender for this @IlliniFootball TD: pic.twitter.com/x8X9AHuIU6
That’s like a cheat code. The coverage is air tight, and the throw from quarterback Jeff George Jr. isn’t anything spectacular, but Smalling’s effort here makes all the difference.
How about another highlight from earlier in the game, where Smalling reels in a toss from George Jr. down the sideline again with a defender draped all over him:
HE'S A FRESHMAN— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) October 14, 2017
And this was an incredible one-hand catch by @IlliniFootball's @SuccessfulRicky: pic.twitter.com/rixKfSWTjg
While this was Smalling’s best game of the season, Illini fans have seen tantalizing flashes from him earlier in the season. The freshman from Brother Rice took a simple screen pass against South Florida and raced 76 yards before being brought down inside the 5-yard line. Against the Bulls, Smalling was one yard away from reaching the century mark on three catches.
Taking a look at the Illini weapons this season, and there are quite a few dangerous options.
Senior Malik Turner has over 1,600 career receiving yards and Mike Dudek topped 1,000 yards in a single season. Smalling has shown the ability to take the top off the defense and fellow freshman Carmoni Green has seen an uptick in playing time in recent weeks. 6-foot-6 freshman Louis Dorsey is the most utilized tight end at Illinois in years. There are good options here.
Where Illinois has fallen short this season, however, is in its quarterback play and Smalling and his fellow wideouts are only as good as the service they’re given, whether it’s Chayce Crouch, George Jr., or yet-to-be-played-but-might-soon-be-starting freshman Cam Thomas.
George Jr. has much more arm strength than Crouch and has been able to get the ball down the field with some success, but his erratic accuracy and alarming turnover rate hamstring Illinois’ production. Smalling, Green and Dorsey are only freshmen, and if Illinois can find a reliable signal caller to get them the ball in the near future — look out.