Illinois’ had a very unproductive passing game to say the least. Part of that is on the quarterbacks; AJ Bush isn’t the most accurate passer, and MJ Rivers wasn’t consistent as a freshman. The offensive line’s struggles in pass protection didn’t help either, but the main reason that Illinois passing attack struggle was the poor production out of the wide receivers.
As a unit, Illinois receivers combined for 136 catches for 1606 yards. UMass’ Andy Isabella had 1698 yards himself. The leading receiver for Illinois - Ricky Smalling — ranked 31st in the Big Ten in yardage. The receivers struggled to get open, and when they did there was yet again a consistent problem with drops. We are either cursed or mental issues with drops continue with this team year-after-year no matter which players are in. It’s dumbfounding really. Illinois desperately needed a player who could get open quickly and make plays in the screen game, but no one was able to deliver for Rod Smith and the offense.
It could have been different. It could have been SO MUCH DIFFERENT. Illinois had Mike Dudek get injured with a season-ending knee injury AGAIN after only one game. Transfer and projected starter Sheadon Meadors had a season-ending injury as well before ever stepping onto the field. Freshman Edwin Carter who made two touchdown catches in his first college game had another season-ending knee injury. That’s at least two — potential three — starters out after only the second game of the year.
Not many teams can cope with that, but sadly, two of those players graduated and the other had a very horrific knee injury that may take a bit longer to recover from than a normal ligament tear. Illinois is going to have to get more production out of the players who played last year and incoming freshman if this passing game is to improve.
Even with what will be another wide-open QB competition from now until the start of the 2019 season, the biggest question mark for the Illinois offense is the wide receivers.
Ricky Smalling Receiving 2018
A very common question on fan’s minds during the season was “What the hell happened to Ricky Smalling?”
This is a bit unfair. Smalling caught more passes this season in one fewer game than his freshman season. He also had 5 touchdowns vs. 2 in 2017. His yardage was down by about 100 due to him losing a bit over 4 yards a catch compared to 2017, but this wasn’t that shocking as Smalling received most of the attention from opposing defensive backs as the only real Illini receiving threat to worry about.
I think fans simply in their head thought that Smalling would greatly improve over his freshman season. We always think players get better each season with another year of conditioning and practice, and Illinois fans fell in love with the idea of what a sophomore Ricky Smalling would be and when it turned out it would be much similar to his freshman season, we were disappointed, even though we probably shouldn’t be.
We were projecting what to expect from Ricky Smalling based on the idea of an improved sophomore Ricky Smalling in mind rather than the actual Ricky Smalling.
Smalling is a ball-winner who excels in catching passes and winning the battle one-on-one against the defender when the ball is in the air. He doesn’t possess above-average speed or route running and is not a guy to get open quickly. He doesn’t possess the talents of a true go-to-number-one guy, at least not yet. He is best as a number two or three option that can be a real threat and playmaker on down the field throws and make tough catches in traffic. He very much reminds of of Geronimo Allison in that way. Like G-Mo I don’t think Smalling is ever going to be a 70 or 80 catch a season, number one target, go-to-option type of player, but in the right role he can play a huge part in an offense.
Smalling needs to be combined with another get-open quick style option to be more effective, but if Illinois can find that along with better pass protection and QB play, I think Illinois can get a lot more out of Smalling in the next two seasons and hopefully we can see more of the Smalling who had 7 catches, 72 yards and a touchdown against Northwestern rather than the Smalling who only had 3 catches in a 3-game stretch against Purdue, Wisconsin and Maryland.
Carmoni Green Receiving 2018
Carmoni Green was a highly regarded recruit coming into Illinois in the class of 2017. He was a high three-star by most outlets and a four-star by Rivals. He didn’t make an impact in his freshman season, but it can take some players, even highly-rated recruits who are talented, some time to adjust to college and the speed of the game, so there wasn’t much worry.
But now after his sophomore season where again he didn’t make an impact even with the lack of depth and production out of the receivers ahead of him, there is a lot of concern. There have been some whispers and speculation that he may look to transfer, but I for one hope he stays. Illinois needs a lot more production from wideouts in 2019, and even if there is a small chance Green puts it together and has a breakout year, there is still a chance, and lord knows Illinois can use all the chances it can get.
Dominic Stampley Receiving 2018
Stampley transferred to Illinois from Juco with three year of eligibility, and in his first year with the Illini, the Champaign native had some flashes. He had a big game against Maryland with 4 catches for 153 yards and 2 TDs. Before that game he only made two catches on the season.
He followed that up with a 8 catch effort against Minnesota, but only was able to haul in five passes over the last three games.
Illinois needs someone to step-up in the slot and Stampley looks to be the most likely to make a jump next year.
Sam Mays Receiving 2018
Another rare senior on the team. We were always waiting for the Mays breakout season — ugh this sounds similar to Carmoni Green — and never quite got it. Mays started out the season with two four catch, forty-plus-yard performances, but never made a big impact in any game until the last one again Northwestern, (4 catches, 69 yards).
However, he was the second-leading receiver for Illinois with 331 yards and 27.6 yards per game, which about sums up the lack of any big-time or consistent playmaking from the wideouts in 2018.
Carlos Sandy Receiving 2018
Sandy saw the field mainly as a punt and kicker returning in his freshman season without having a kick return longer than 26 yards or a punt return longer than 7. He did muff a punt in the Nebraska game.
He has some speed and quickness that would seem to make him ideal for the slot receiver role, but despite Illinois desperately needing help, he only made one catch. He’s was still just a freshman, and perhaps he should have redshirted, but the need for return man may have forced the coaching staffs’ hands.
He is the favorite son of the “We Know You Have Sand Illinois” podcast, and as such we still have high hopes for Sandy moving forward. Someone needs to step up in that slot receiver role and by the man to get open quickly for Illinois and make plays on screen passes.
Caleb Reams Receiving 2018
Caleb Reams didn’t do much as a pass catcher, but he was one of the better blocking receivers this year which is key to this offense that should rely on screen passes way more moving forward than they did this season.
Trenard Davis Receiving 2018
Davis is going the Miles Osei route of transitioning to WR, and in his second year in the posistion he had the second most receptions on the team. In several games, Davis was the most reliable option, but when your most reliable receiver is a converted quarterback who averages less than 10 yards a catch....well....
He did throw a TD pass against Penn State on a reverse, and Rod Smith could look to use his passing ability in more plays like this in Davis’ senior season.
We at TCR have made it clear that we love Dudek and want him to have everything in life. The kid has a heart of gold and it made us feel even worse for what he had to go through over his career with these damn knee injuries.
He played in only one game this season, the first against Kent State. He made 4 catches for 65 yards and made a key fourth-quarter catch on a high-ball from he had no business going for considering his injury history, but go for it he did. He’s Mike Dudek, after all. Illinois scored after Dudek brought the ball to the 10-yard line to take the lead and eventually avoid the upset over Kent State.
I know one thing for certain, Mike Dudek will be fine. He hasn’t let anything set him back before and this won’t either. He’ll be successful in whatever he chooses to do after his last season at Illinois.
Williams moved to wide receiver from linebacker before the season, and there was a lot of camp hype about him, so much so that I and several others projected him to be a starter for the Illini after Meadors’ injury was announced.
All the hype amounted to Williams making one catch for four yards against Kent State. He played a role on special teams, and will do so again in his senior year in 2019, but expecting anything out of Williams as a receiver would be wildly optimistic.
Walk-on senior didn’t see the field in 2018.
In his first college football game, Carter had a dream start with two touchdown on his first two catches. Sadly, he suffered a horrific knee injury on the second, but was still able to hold onto the ball for the score.
This injury appears to be much more severe than the average ACL tear, and it’s possible, even likely that he tore multiple ligaments. Hopefully he can be ready for the season next year and continue to progress, but it can take at least two years after an injury such as that to get back to where you were athletically before.
Freshman walk-on didn’t see the field.
Jordan Holmes Receiving 2018
Because of the many injuries to the wide receivers, Holmes saw action in 10 games in his freshman year as a walk-on.
Freshman walk-on didn’t see the field.
Navarro is a walk-on for now. He had to sit out the season due to his transfer after playing one season at Valparaiso. His story so far is similar to Clayton Fejedelem in that both started their college football careers at lower levels before transferring to Illinois as walk-ons, taking a bet on themselves. The bet worked out for Fejedelem who was named to the All-Big Ten second team as a senior and now plays in the NFL for the Cincinnati Bengals.
Hopefully Navarro will have a similar story with Illinois.