Illinois is young.
Illinois has suspended players.
Both are signs of the massive rebuild at hand, and directly influenced Saturday’s opening performance against Kent State.
Yes, youth is still an excuse for the ills of the product that Illinois puts out on the field, but that youth needs to show more progress on and off the field, and there weren’t trustworthy signs of that progress in this past weekend’s 31-24 victory over Kent State.
To address the most disappointing part of the Saturday theater — fans are trying to be patient with the football program — a handful of the team’s best players are “indefinitely” suspended for off the field actions or academic concerns. There isn’t enough talent on the team to have 3-of-the-4 top NFL likely players out for any period of time, especially not when continuity is so imperative. While Lovie Smith won’t provide too much more information, it’s rumored that those players (Bennett Williams, Louis Dorsey, and Nate Hobbs) won’t return before a pivotal clash against South Florida. If that’s the case, the immaturity has dealt a serious blow off-the-field.
That immaturity pretty obviously bleeds onto the field, where despite squaring off against one of the MAC’s worst teams, a second-half comeback was necessary to avoid a season-crippling loss. Besides for Auburn transfer Woody Barrett, I don’t know how many Kent State players would even make the Illinois roster, and yet for large swaths of time, they looked like the better and more prepared team. Youth is an excuse for the eventual loss to Wisconsin — when 22-year-old men are predestined to push around Illinois’ 19-year-old big kids — but youth can’t can’t be used as an excuse against Kent State; we’re supposed to be past that part of the rebuild, and we’re not.
The same mistake made by the also suspended Carmoni Green last year was made by Dominic Stampley, when a kickoff was fielded deep in Illinois territory along the sideline, instead of letting the ball go out of bounds and picking up a few first downs worth of yardage. That’s the most glaring example of repeat mistakes, but upon closer examination, repeat mistakes are still plentiful on both the offensive and defensive lines.
There is unbelievable youth throughout both units. But again, this was Kent State, and I was expecting more progress between last November and now.
Where is the rebuild confidence supposed to come from when repeats of Year 1 and Year 2 are already nightmarishly replaying in Year 3? It’s still early, and maybe it’s been rust, but you should see more improvement from this team apart from recruiting in a fifth-year quarterback who’s a realistic Big Ten starter.
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