1. Josh Whitman and Lovie Smith are 100% committed to building this from ground zero, no matter what. And that was a painful proposition for everyone surrounding the 2017 Fighting Illini football team. But, as Whitman and Smith have concluded, it’s a necessary evil for future payoff. It’s too early to declare whether or not these sacrifices will pay dividends, but the approach is sound.
In Whitman’s introductory press conference for Lovie Smith, he announced that Illinois football has been plagued by inconsistency, experiencing the highest highs like trips to the Sugar and Rose Bowl, and experiencing the lowest of lowly lows (I don’t even need to list examples). How does a program escape from that torturous roller coaster and become an Iowa or a Wisconsin? There isn’t necessarily a recipe, or everyone would follow it, but what they’re banking on is that it starts with a complete excavation of the diseased program, that takes its lumps with promising freshmen and then stacks classes with systematic repetition. Competing with the rest of the Big Ten be damned, we’re doing this the way we think it will work. For Illini football’s sake, it better work, because if not, we’re completely out of ideas.
2. Illinois has a promising program foundation of freshmen, and will continue to value youth until their depth is built organically. There are only a few Beckman/Cubit holdover players that fit both the system and expectations of Lovie’s regime. The rest of the players have either been replaced with freshmen or are transferring out (which we’ll see play out this week).
I think it’s safe to say that the freshman class of 2017 will outplay its national ranking. Guys like Bennett Williams, Louis Dorsey, Mike Epstein, Alex Palczewski, Bobby Roundtree and Larry Boyd have all proven criminally underrated and should have exceedingly bright futures in Champaign. This is Lovie’s plan in action, and proof of the increased recruiting resources now in the building.
The freshman class of 2018 is still a work in progress, but already there are several prospects that have the look of guys that deserved more P-5 offers and will be nice pieces to stack under the 2017.
3. The staff needs to shuffle and improve. The money is there, the quality is not. Without naming names, there are a couple assistants that need to be replaced with better recruiting coaches. Additionally, that 10th assistant position needs to be a guy that can pitch in and land studs to increase the talent coming in. Apart from additions and subtractions, this staff needs to look back at 2016 and 2017 and reevaluate some approaches to both practice and games. Something like poor tackling should spark an intervention that leads to change, like possibly tackling in practice (such a novel idea).
4. Questions remain at the most important position. Not all of Illinois’s past and future problems rest with the quarterback position, but until Lovie and Garrick McGee figure that out, it’ll be an issue. Cam Thomas had a brief and imperfect opportunity towards the end of the year. There wasn’t much around him, and the coaching staff’s handling of Thomas, Jeff George Jr. and even Chayce Crouch was bizarre. But what Thomas did show was that he’s got juice in those legs, and a strong (but inaccurate) throwing arm. Some people are looking to high school seniors or transfers for next season, but Thomas is too alluringly toolsy for me to move on yet. Thomas has a huge offseason in front of him to improve. Other options for next year could be incoming freshman Coran Taylor and MJ Rivers, two more toolsy prospects with video-game stats.