The receiving corps gave fans a mix of promise for the future and plenty of frustration during the 2018 season. Injuries to key players impacted the receivers early on last season, as the Illini lost Appalachian State graduate transfer Shaedon Meadors before the season started and promising freshman Edwin Carter after a devastating injury in the Western Illinois game.
On-field performance issues were also apparent last year, as Ricky Smalling regressed from 510 yards on 31 receptions in 2017 to 406 yards on 33 receptions in 2018. Dropped passes were also a major factor that limited the group’s potential last season. Even though AJ Bush was not a pass-first quarterback, many of his receivers repeatedly dropped even well-placed balls, and in turn, often stalled offensive momentum that the ground game established behind Reggie Corbin and others.
So crack out that ball, Illinois pic.twitter.com/G8qGi4o3aW— IllinoisLoyalty (@IllinoisLoyalty) November 24, 2018
Rod Smith certainly took notice of these limitations as well and made roster moves to inject additional experience and talent to the position group. Notably, this involved the additions of immediately-eligible USC Trojans transfers Trevon Sidney and Josh Imatorbhebhe. Both of the former four-star recruits saw limited playing time at USC, but jumped on an opportunity in Champaign as they both figure to play major roles in Rod Smith’s offense. Sidney will play in the slot receiver position, and will likely be heavily targeted. Imatorbhebhe is one of the larger receivers at 6-foot-2, 215 pounds and will likely be used primarily as a perimeter blocker and short-yardage threat.
Freshman Kyron Cumby was a great recruiting win during this past offseason, as Andrew Hayes-Stoker held off several other P5 schools to obtain the services of this shifty Texas track star. Cumby will likely play behind Trevon Sidney at the slot receiver position, and he could be in line to take the position over when the latter moves on after the 2020 season. Also new this season is true freshman Casey Washington, who has been turning some heads at camp with his possession abilities.
40 minutes into the first practice and I’m probably ready to admit I was wrong about Casey Washington. When a receiver absolutely snatches the ball out of the air I’m all .— Robert (@ALionEye) August 2, 2019
Dalevon Campbell was a late addition to the 2019 class, and he should provide critical depth as he learns Rod Smith’s scheme.
These newcomers will supplement the returning players, headlined by junior Ricky Smalling, who has accumulated 916 receiving yards and 7 touchdowns during his Illini career. Smalling figures to be a likely starter yet again as he looks to bounce back in 2019.
Senior Trenard Davis was one of the most dependable receivers last season, grabbing 30 receptions for 278 yards. Although his emergency quarterback skills likely won’t be as necessary as they were in the past, he still has the ability to throw on trick plays. One such play last season earned him his first and only career passing touchdown against Penn State.
Junior Dominic Stampley emerged in 2018 with 311 receiving yards, which includes a massive game against Maryland in which he caught 4 passes for 153 yards and 2 touchdowns. The Champaign native looks to build on that performance during the upcoming season.
Senior Caleb Reams was moved to wide receiver from tight end last season, but his impact was limited to 5 receptions in 2018. His larger frame should help him to secure passes on short routes like the one below.
Caleb Reams pic.twitter.com/c7kjbrVjwj— IllinoisLoyalty (@IllinoisLoyalty) November 24, 2018
Outside of these known players, it’s tough to gauge exactly who else will be getting significant looks at the receiver position. The athletic sophomore Carlos Sandy returned punts and kickoffs last season, and may continue those duties in 2019 while he also likely increases his involvement at the receiver position. Edwin Carter appears to be back to 100 percent following his severe injury last season, and should compete for playing time as well. Walk-ons Donny Navarro and Jordan Holmes have also shown flashes of ability, and figure to make serious pushes for scholarships in 2019.
All players at this position group must improve their possession skills in 2019 if the team is going to move forward. Too many catchable passes were dropped last year in key situations. Hopefully added experience with Rod Smith’s systems will help the returning players to think less about their route or responsibility, and play looser, more relaxed football.