It wasn’t easy to constantly revisit the miserable 2017 Illini football season, but I can certainly say that I’m glad I went back.
Actually, looking through statistics and watching the film since the season ended has opened my eyes to much more about this team and its future. In particular, Bennett Williams really does have all-conference potential, Tymir Oliver was an unsung hero on the defensive line, and Del’Shawn Phillips will be critical to defensive improvement in 2018.
Outside of the defense, I saw that Malik Turner left big shoes to fill, but Ricky Smalling is up to the challenge. I also saw that we should have relative stability at the kicker and punter positions for years to come.
None of these glimmers of hope should outweigh the overwhelming reality that this team has a long way to go.
Many of the starters next season will again be freshmen or sophomores, and the departures of Tre Watson, Julian Jones, Tito Odenigbo, Pat Nelson and others will only exacerbate the scarcity of experience on this roster. Youth inevitably leads to gut-wrenching mistakes as inexperienced players learn the ropes:
NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO ILLINOIS FOOTBALL NOOOO! pic.twitter.com/vftMdl2BBi— IllinoisLoyalty (@IllinoisLoyalty) October 14, 2017
Aside from the young roster that will once again hamstring Lovie in 2018, a bevy of other important questions remain unanswered. Can Rod Smith call plays effectively? How will the offensive personnel pick up his spread option scheme? Are any of the quarterbacks ready to play in the Big Ten? Is the depth at linebacker sufficient?
Spring ball will offer some clues and training camp will provide a few more, but we won’t have firm answers to these questions until the fall. Although it’s tempting to believe that the team will only improve from now on, it’s important to temper those expectations by considering the many obstacles that this team is facing.