A new year begins for Illinois football, and a new set of tantalizing subplots will capture the imagination of the Illini faithful for the next few months. Each subplot is ultimately related to the same overriding issue: the quality of the Illini football product.
But taking a more nuanced look at the team will help us to gauge how far the team is advancing (or not) in the overall direction of improvement.
The Quarterback Situation
This was the glaring issue throughout all of last season. It is a critical area for improvement that held back the offense — and really, the entire team — throughout last season. Cam Thomas is young, but with refinement and experience he can turn into dangerous running quarterback later in his career. With that in mind, he will likely continue to struggle next season as he learns a new offense and improves his passing game.
Fortunately, AJ Bush seems pretty good, at least through two days of camp:
Bush to Smalling. pic.twitter.com/RYqHOacdXy— Robert (@ALionEye) August 4, 2018
Hopefully Bush can stay healthy and take the reigns this season, while the staff can bring Thomas and some of the freshmen along slowly. This offense is going to struggle again without consistent production out of the quarterback position, and there won’t be much that Rod Smith or anyone else can do about that other than finding or developing the right player for the job.
The Linebacker Corps
The Illini seem dangerously thin at linebacker right now, and I’m genuinely confused why the staff has been moving linebackers to other positions recently. Justice Williams seems to be embracing his new role as a wideout fairly well, but I don’t see the rationale for moving Marc Mondesir, who was recruited by Hardy Nickerson as a linebacker, to the currently log-jammed defensive line.
Illinois’ scholarship linebackers: Phillips, Harding, Hansen, Knight, Marchese, Hollins, Tolson.— Bob Zuppke (@BobZuppke) July 30, 2018
One missed all of last year with an injury, one played safety last year, one was a walk-on last year, two are true freshmen.
I like the combo of Del’Shawn Phillips and Jake Hansen along with backup minutes from Dele Harding, but injuries to one or two of those players could seriously throw the position group into disarray. I’m going to be following the linebackers closely this season and keeping my fingers crossed that no one gets hurt.
We don’t know a whole lot about the type of offense Illinois’ new coordinator will run. The shift of emphasis back to larger, stronger wide receivers seems to indicate his style of play on the perimeter, but the offense as a whole will likely remain somewhat of a mystery until his entire playbook is opened up in Big Ten play.
I’m especially curious to see how he uses Mike Epstein, and in particular if Smith uses him much in the passing game. Epstein has the athleticism to be a receiving threat out of the backfield similar to Josh Ferguson if he’s used properly, and I’m hoping Smith can do just that. Lou Dorsey is another great athlete that Smith can’t afford to waste, although Caleb Reams’ shift to wide receiver tells me that he might not use his tight ends in the passing game much.
These are the three major storylines swirling around Illinois football today, and they will be key to any improvement that we see out of the team. But I’m also keeping my eyes on the two 4-star defensive linemen, and especially Verdis Brown, to see if he might be following Kendrick Green’s path to the other side of the ball. The offensive line also must take a step forward, but I’m fairly comfortable with the personnel at that group. They’ll need time to develop and get stronger, but I see the makings of a legitimate Big Ten line there.
And as always, I’ll be expecting the unexpected this season. It’s going to be a wild ride, and I can’t wait it to get started.
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