Illinois is coaching a team with so many suspensions and so many injuries that once again it’s tough to tell what a full-strength Illini squad would look like against Kent State and Western Illinois. While I lambasted the discipline of the team last week — and that’s still an ongoing issue — it’s time to turn the page and praise a couple positive rebuild signs that shined especially bright in Week Two.
It’s incredibly hard to forecast how a 16-year old is going to look at 21. That’s why football recruiting is an inexact science, and the wider net you’re allowed to cast helps to sort out those that didn’t continue to develop (and transfer) from the guys who grow three inches and shave .3 off their 40 yard-dash. There are laundry lists of 2-star recruits who blew up into NFL All-Pro caliber players. Central Michigan alone brought in the unheralded Antonio Brown and JJ Watt, and it’s not a function of being better scouts — it’s a function of educated guessing and numbers.
This is also why the health of the walk-on program is so essential to building a team like Illinois. There are only going to be so many scholarships that you can give out every year, and you’re not going to consistently get the no-doubt blue-chip players who carry the highest certainty of panning out at the highest level.
This is also why it was so encouraging to see Lovie Smith revamping the walk-on program, and finding decent depth to fill in when the times get rough. What you saw with Michael Marchese, Jordan Holmes, and Nolan Bernat is extremely encouraging. If you get one walk-on to contribute from each class, you’ve added four players who wouldn’t otherwise exist. You’ve also made practice competitive — I assure you, no scholarship player wants a walk-on taking their spot.
The other positive sign from this past Saturday is more obvious.
MJ Rivers is young, talented and already a massive upgrade over what we’ve seen for some time. When you’ve got a problem being billed as a year or two away, you need evidence of that in the quarterback room, and until Western Illinois we haven’t had that tangible evidence.
I downplayed Rivers on my recruiting articles from last year, probably because I didn’t see him spin it like he did this past Saturday. That arm is much better than I anticipated, and for the first time in a long time, I’m excited to watch a quarterback with ability to develop within the program. Add to that that I’m also anxious to see Matt Robinson, Coran Taylor and Isaiah Williams, and it’s inarguable that Illinois has massively improved the most important position in football.
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