As the football season is winding down and Illini basketball is picking up, most Illini fans I talk to have all but given up on football.
I get it.
Unlike football, basketball had a glimpse of hope with a blowout win over Southern on Friday night. Football, on the other hand, dropped its eighth game of the season and moved to 0-7 in conference with a loss to an equally unimpressive Indiana team.
It’s hard to blame people for feeling this way. In many ways, I’m guilty of losing interest, too. I find difficulty in what to write for a column, how to react on social media or even how to justify watching the games in their entirety.
Late last night I was watching Oregon State get pummeled by Arizona, dropping the Beavers to 1-9 on the year. “At least we have two wins,” I thought to myself. What a depressing thought.
As I was brainstorming and considering what to say to you, the greatest fan base in the country, about what appears to be a hapless football program, I thought about the future. I know I’ve used the “p” word (I promised I wouldn’t say it) in previous columns, but I wanted to forget about the outcome of the game yesterday and give you some of my thoughts about what direction the program is headed - not necessarily things I saw in the game, but what I foresee for the future of the program. It’s not fun to talk about losing all the time, so why bother? Here’s what I’m looking forward to:
Development of the offensive line
For much of the season, the line has been dominated by freshmen and sophomores. After the first few games, freshmen Vederian Lowe, Larry Boyd, and Alex Palczewski have been getting a lot of reps. Redshirt freshman Doug Kramer has played a lot of center, and the only upperclassman has been junior Nick Allegretti. Gabe Megginson is only a sophomore, too.
It’s fairly common knowledge that there is great value in an offensive line growing together. With all these young guys developing together, many of which have great size (Lowe and Boyd are each listed at 340 pounds), there’s a lot of potential for what they can do for the running game. Runners like Mike Epstein will take advantage of gaps and good blocking as he develops, as well.
Martin O’Donnell, a former Illini offensive lineman, posts some good analysis of blocking from his Twitter account. Here’s an example from the Purdue game:
Nice double team here by 53 and 72. First priority is to take care of the down lineman. pic.twitter.com/idwWHCfsRa— Martin O'Donnell (@MartinOD64) November 7, 2017
Allegretti and Megginson make a great push here.
In short, there’s a ton of room for the offense to be anchored by this line. I’m as excited to see them grow as any part of this team.
Quarterbacks (and, in turn, the offense)
Easily the biggest issue this season with the offense has been the quarterback situation. Chayce Crouch, although he impressed me in certain situations last year, showed he couldn’t compete at a high enough level through the first part of this season. I’m not going to even get into Jeff George’s stats - we all know his touchdown to interception ratio. Cam Thomas, although he has shown he has deceptive speed and can even throw the ball a bit, definitely needs more time to develop.
Cam Thomas pic.twitter.com/YQUv1R98k0— ILLINI BASKETBALL UNDEFEATED (@IllinoisLoyalty) November 4, 2017
He’s shifty on the run and can read the option better than Crouch.
Cam Thomas to Dominic Thieman pic.twitter.com/bLhmKg4U20— ILLINI BASKETBALL UNDEFEATED (@IllinoisLoyalty) October 21, 2017
This was the first pass I saw from Thomas that impressed me.
Thomas will come into next year with more experience. I hope that he can come back for the last two games of this year, but even so Illinois has two very impressive incoming freshman next year: Coran Taylor and MJ Rivers.
Taylor is part of the “Peoria Pipeline” that has been a big narrative for the football team in recruiting. If you haven’t seen his highlight tape, take a gander. At 6’3”, he has size, he’s athletic, and he has big play ability:
MJ Rivers (Frisco, Texas) has been equally impressive in high school. He’s a very similar style of quarterback to Taylor - he stands at 6’4” and actually outweighs Taylor by about 20 pounds. He’s been getting a lot of love from Illini fans lately on social media.
I want my message clear. Think Cam Thomas is gonna be good. Love Coran Taylor- Think he can be REALLY good. I believe MJ Rivers has all the tools now and can be special at Illinois. That's why I believe he wins the job and starts next season https://t.co/ovVsAcd5p0— Ryan Evan (@illscoopRyan) November 12, 2017
And, just in case you don’t believe it, here’s his highlight tape from last year as well:
Everyone knows that the quarterback is the most important part of the team, so as soon as this position gets in order I believe there will be much greater improvement in how the offense functions. It doesn’t hurt either that whoever is running the show will have guys like Louis Dorsey, Ricky Smalling, and Mike Epstein to help him out. I’m really upset I missed this play yesterday, so for my own sake I’m going to put this here:
Louis Dorsey 77-yd Touchdown from Jeff George Jr pic.twitter.com/TZF7SNelrg— ILLINI BASKETBALL UNDEFEATED (@IllinoisLoyalty) November 11, 2017
There’s a lot I could talk about here; I’ll keep it brief. The defense this season has - shocker — not been terrible. Overshadowed by an offense that can’t stay on the field or finish drives, there’s been a lot of positives to look at on the defensive side of the ball.
Bennett Williams is legit, and Nate Hobbs has improved significantly as the season has gone on. I think the secondary is in good hands moving forward.
The defensive line has become better at blowing up the backfield and getting a push at the line of scrimmage. Jamal Milan, Tymir Oliver and Kenyon Jackson have impressed me, personally.
Oliver is excellent here. Penetration in A gap is way to stop this play. Able to push LG back messes up RB. pic.twitter.com/pzixsP81mi— Martin O'Donnell (@MartinOD64) November 7, 2017
If the offense could put up more than 17 points per game, I think the defense has a better stat line than allowing 28.4 points, with nearly 200 rushing yards and just over 200 passing yards per game.
Okay, I’ll stop here while I’m ahead. I guess the overall point of this column was to try and put each of you at ease at you sink into your couch tonight to see Underwood’s offense take on the Skyhawks of Tennessee-Martin. Hopefully, you can start to have a little bit of faith in football as I know you do in basketball.