Each week, I’m tasked with finding the performer of the game for Illinois. The first two weeks were simple: Mikey Dudek made big plays in his first game in over two years, and Mike Epstein dazzled against Western Kentucky in week two.
Praising an individual after a 47-23 defeat Friday night to No. 22 South Florida seemed like the equivalent of “Good job, good effort” after the Illini were smoked on national television, but I’ll bite. I’m opting for the full moral victory and tell you that the Illini’s performer(s) of the game Friday night were the true freshmen that played.
And, holy hell, there were a lot of them.
Illinois started 10 freshmen — the most in program history, breaking a record set last freaking week — Larry Boyd, Nate Hobbs, Tony Adams, Isaiah Gay, Bobby Roundtree, Mike Epstein, Bennett Williams, Louis Dorsey, Ricky Smalling and Alex Palczewski. (Quick side note: Getting a start is fairly subjective because it’s literally who is on the field for the first play, but it’s still a good indicator of youth on a team. For example, Dorsey might not start next game if the Illini don’t open the game with a tight end on the field.)
Just for context, this is probably the youngest team in Illinois history. Not only was the 10 freshmen starting a record for one game, it’s a season record, breaking the mark set in 1980.
Illinois started five freshmen on offense for the first time ever.
Illinois started five freshmen on defense for the first time ever.
Illinois started three true freshman defensive backs, yep you guessed it, for the first time ever.
So while I’m not the first to say this, it’s worth repeating that anyone who is questioning Lovie Smith’s “progress” at Illinois, just remember that he is playing with half a team that was in high school five months ago.
It’s not like Lovie has a choice, by the way. There are a grand total of nine seniors on the Illini roster. Jaylen Dunlap was injured for the first two games, James Crawford has been suspended, Nathan Echard left the Western Kentucky game with an injury and Kendrick Foster has been passed by Epstein. There just isn’t a lot of experience on this roster.
And the Illini are relying on true freshmen in major areas. Epstein has already assumed the role of feature back and recorded two of the Illini’s three touchdowns Friday. Williams led Illinois with 12 tackles, while Gay blocked a field goal and has been one of Illinois’ most consistent players for the first three weeks. Adams had a sack and an interception.
Here’s the punch line: We might see even more youth going forward. Dawson DeGroot was the latest to have his redshirt burned Friday night and Doug Kramer (a veteran redshirt-freshman) will become a key piece along the interior of the offensive line when he returns from injury. The dark horse (and, for the record, I don’t think this will happen) would be to lift the redshirt off quarterback Cam Thomas and give him some valuable reps in Big Ten games going forward.
The point is, get used to some of these names, they will be the backbone of Illinois’ football team for years to come.
Big thanks to Illini Stats & Notes (@IlliniStats) for much of the information in this article. If you like numbers and Illini athletics, they’re definitely worth a follow.