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Illinois Football: All Eyes on the Sophomore Class Entering Summer

Lovie’s tenure early on will be judged on the success of this class.

NCAA Football: Illinois at South Florida Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

It’s tough to look back and dwell on the 2017 Illinois football season. Two wins. Ten losses. Not one win against a Big Ten foe, and that included games against Rutgers and Minnesota.

Some games were better than others. For instance, the Illini didn’t look half bad against Iowa (a game they still lost 45-16), nor did they look horrible against Wisconsin or Purdue. The talk around town, in The Champaign Room and the Illini Twitter-sphere was about how many freshmen Lovie Smith and his coaches were forced to play.

Remember during last year’s football season reading tweets like this?

OR THIS??:

Illini fans struggled to find glimmers of hope in an otherwise disappointing, frustrating 2-10 season. These were 17 and 18-year-old kids going up against experienced players playing for experienced Big Ten head coaches.

Entering the 2018 season, it’s not necessarily time to put up or shut up, but it is time for those freshmen, now sophomores — the first complete class Lovie Smith and his coaches recruited — to take the next step.

Here are some of those names to watch out for:

Redshirt Freshmen

Kendrick Green (DT): Kendrick Green was one of the top-rated recruits of the 2017 class. Green held offers from Minnesota and Iowa among others and took official visits to Iowa City and Minneapolis before committing to Illinois. With the Illini having so much depth along the defensive front a season ago (the only position on the team where that was the case), the coaching staff opted to develop Kendrick Green on the side and in practice. He has four years of eligibility remaining and figures to have an impact in 2018.

Lere Oladipo (DE): Lere Oladipo is in a similar situation to Kendrick Green. Oladipo held numerous Big Ten offers, including one from Penn State. An incredibly speedy edge rusher, Oladipo was a guy who needed to hit the weight room in order to develop into the physical specimen Lovie Smith and Hardy Nickerson want to see from their D-linemen. Oladipo will have plenty of opportunities to impress and win a regular job in the rotation.

Sophomores

Offensive Linemen

Alex Palczewski (OG): A two-star recruit from Mt. Prospect, Illinois, Palczewski held just three Power Five offers: Illinois, Vanderbilt and Syracuse. Palczewski started 11 games at guard for the Illini, getting better and more experience with each repetition against Big Ten foes.

Doug Kramer (C): Illinois was the only Power Five school to offer Doug Kramer a scholarship. That didn't stop him from starting eight games at center for the Illini during the 2017 campaign.

Larry Boyd (OT): It’s clear Illinois has a pipeline with Trinity Catholic High School down in St. Louis, largely thanks to Larry Boyd and his choosing to go to Illinois over offers from schools like Missouri, Arkansas, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Kansas State and several others. Boyd started nine games and played in all 12 last season for the Illini. His development is key for the offense moving forward.

Vederian Lowe (OT): Lowe was one of the first commitments of this class, important considering he hails from Rockford. Lowe started seven games, his first start coming against Iowa at Kinnick Stadium. Boyd and Lowe figure to be bookends on the Illini offensive front for years to come.

Offensive skill players:

Cam Thomas (QB): The Illini were especially weak at the quarterback position a season ago. Thomas’ numbers (0 TDs/5 INTs) might scare people away, and for good reason. Things going for Cam Thomas are:

A. He’s blazingly fast and in a run/option game he can thrive,

B. The quarterback competition this offseason will be better considering transfer A.J. Bush and true freshman M.J. Rivers are in the fold, that should push Thomas each and every day. And

C. New offensive coordinator Rod Smith comes in with a fresh mindset and blank canvas for which to tailor certain plays and schemes to Thomas’ strengths.

Louis Dorsey (TE): Louis Dorsey is an athletic freak, plain and simple. He displayed those physical skills in Game 1 versus Ball State and again versus Indiana. He’s one of the few players listed here all of Illinois’ Big Ten opponents are well aware of. A tight end is often a quarterback’s best friend. Dorsey needs to have a huge year in 2018.

Mike Epstein (RB): One can argue Mike Epstein was the best player on the Illinois roster a season ago before getting injured halfway through the season. Epstein finished with 405 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns. This hard-nosed back is a standout kid.

Ricky Smalling (WR): Expect a lot more than two touchdowns from Ricky Smalling in 2018. Smalling showed flashes of his speed and great hands in 2017, and he figures to improve by leaps and bounds under Rod Smith and the new coach’s short-passing game system. On a team largely devoid of playmakers, Ricky Smalling stands out.

Carmoni Green (WR): It took a bit longer for this former four-star recruit to get going, but Carmoni Green was outstanding against Iowa. He had four receptions in that game, and, like Ricky Smalling, he should see an even larger role in his sophomore season.

Defensive Front Seven:

Isaiah Gay (DE): Isaiah Gay was one of the most impressive freshmen on the Illini roster a season ago. He was a monster and played regularly. He moves well and earned every rep he got. He even made an impact on special teams, blocking a kick early on in the season in the loss to South Florida.

Bobby Roundtree (DE): Roundtree made the Big Ten All-Freshman Team in 2017. He had 50 tackles in nine starts, including four sacks, which tied James Crawford for tops on the team. Roundtree was a menace coming off of the edge.

Owen Carney Jr. (DE): Owen Carney hails from Miami, and he was the recruit with the most accolades and hype coming into the season last year. He enrolled early and saw the field in 10 games, without making much of an impact. His presence further proves how much D-line depth Hardy Nickerson has at his disposal in 2018.

Defensive Backs:

Bennett Williams (S): Williams was Illinois’ best defensive player last year. He made ESPN and BTN.com’s Big Ten Freshman All-American teams. His best performance came on the road at Minnesota, a game where he had 14 tackles and a forced fumble. Williams swarms the field, sideline to sideline and can do so many things well in open space. The California native oozes with talent, and only figures to get better with more experience under his belt. The Illini might even snag his younger brother.

Nate Hobbs (CB): Nate Hobbs started 10 games at cornerback in 2017. He’s a physical cornerback and a sound tackler. Against Nebraska, Hobbs had eight tackles. Hobbs will also be in the mix to earn kick/punt returner duties this fall. Last season he returned kicks and punts in most games, including a 31-yard kick return against Rutgers. He’s a prototypical utility player, and even scored on a blocked extra point against South Florida.

Tony Adams (CB): Tony Adams was playing great until he suffered an injury in the Iowa game. He had an interception and a sack against South Florida, and he was the first Illinois cornerback to start a season opener as a true freshman since Vontae Davis did it the year before the 2007 Rose Bowl season. A healthy Tony Adams has the tools to be a reliable starter in Lovie Smith’s defensive backfield.

Special Teams:

Blake Hayes (P): Save the best for last? Who says punters aren’t football players? Take one look at Blake Hayes and you’d hardly believe this 6-foot-6, 230-pound athlete was a punter. Hayes started all 12 games for the Illini last year. His punting stats against Big Ten competition were as good as anybody could have hoped or expected: Eight punts of 50+ yards, and 18 punts were pinned inside the 20-yard line. Blake Hayes is Illinois’ secret weapon — a punting guru from Melbourne, Australia. Football is a game of inches. Having a punter like Blake Hayes could be the difference in a close football game.

Conclusion:

Last season was tough to deal with. If it wasn’t easy for the fans, it sure wasn’t easy for the players and coaches who physically, mentally and emotionally pour everything into every game.

For years it seemed like Illinois was dealing with an inferiority complex: How can a team like Illinois compete with Ohio State, Michigan and Notre Dame for recruits and talent in the midwest? Illinois has tradition, but compared to those three schools?

Here’s what’s happening. I listed 18 players above. Of those 18, seven are from Illinois and five are from Florida. Similar to the Ron Zook years, Illini coaches are going into Florida and finding players who are ready to play at the Big Ten level from Day 1.

In the Zook years, Illinois found a lot of talent in the Washington D.C. area: Vontae Davis, Arrelious Benn, Clay Nurse, Nate Bussey all hailed from that part of the country. Expect, especially with the addition of former Trinity Catholic High School head coach, now Illinois Tight Ends coach Cory Patterson in the fold, the St. Louis area to become what D.C was to Illinois in the mid-to-late 2000s. Of course, St. Louis is geographically a lot closer to the University of Illinois than Washington D.C is, but the point is that the head coach is hiring assistant coaches with deep roots to certain parts of the country and locking down talent.

Illinois was overwhelmed last season, but that freshmen offensive line went through those battles together. They’ll get bigger and stronger. They’ll get smarter under what appears to be a much better offensive coordinator than what the Illini had the last two seasons.

Who’s ready for 2018? It’s go time.