ARE YOU READY FOR SOME FOOTBALL?! I certainly am. Hopefully we aren’t asking “Are you already looking ahead to basketball season?” by 2 p.m. on Saturday.
There is actually some semblance of — gasp! — optimism when it comes to the 2019 Fighting Illini, and they have a great opportunity to start the season with confidence when the Akron Zips come to Memorial Stadium. Akron is coming off a 4-8 campaign, with the highlight being a 39-34 upset win at Northwestern.
There are a lot of unknowns for the Zips (TCR’s Matt Rejc touched on them here) as they enter this season, but MAC teams have given Illinois trouble in recent years. Akron certainly wants to continue that trend.
When Akron Has The Ball
Redshirt junior quarterback Kato Nelson threw for 2,300 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. However, Nelson completed only 52 percent of his passes and threw eight interceptions. He does have some running ability and is certainly capable of executing some big plays against an unproven Illini defense.
Illinois’ biggest vulnerability was against the run, but the Zips had a very ineffective ground game in 2018 — Nelson is the team’s leading returning rusher, finishing with only 303 yards last season. Oregon State transfer Deltron Sands will be the RB1 to begin the year, but averaged less than 12 yards per game. Rising sophomore (and former Illini recruiting target) Keyondre White, redshirt freshmen Abraham Alce and Devanier Floyd, and newcomer Peter Hayes-Patrick could be called upon to help jump-start the running game.
Akron does have a big-play receiver returning in Andre Williams. The 5-foot-10 junior hauled in 46 passes for 649 yards and six touchdowns. No one else should really scare the Illini secondary all that much.
This is a middling offense that was held to 17 or fewer points SEVEN times, making their 39-point effort against “that team up north” all the more confounding.
When Illinois Has The Ball
This will be Brandon Peters’ time to shine. Offensive coordinator Rod Smith lauded the Michigan transfer’s performance in camp and the team was confident enough to appoint Peters as the Week 1 starter ahead of freshman Isaiah Williams. The coaching staff went with experience over allure — let’s see if that was the correct move.
That isn’t to say we won’t see I-Will at all, but it’s likely more of a situational fit. I’m certain that Rod Smith has a package of plays ready to go for Williams, and you could well see him get heavy snaps if this game is a blowout. But there’s also something to be said about limiting the amount of tape opposing coaches can see. There doesn’t need to be a quarterback controversy here. Williams is the better overall scheme fit for the offense, but Peters is a veteran who wants to prove he’s more than just a bridge quarterback.
A quarterback’s best friend is a solid running game, and we all know the Illini have a bevy of talented backs. Reggie Corbin and Mike Epstein headline Illinois’ deepest position group. Corbin averaged 8.5 yards per attempt last season and scored four touchdowns of 70+ yards. Through 12 career games, Epstein has totaled 757 yards and averaged 6.5 yards per carry. That’s a duo most teams would be thrilled to have.
Illinois has seen the most change at the wide receiver spots. USC transfers Josh Imatorbhebhe and Trevon Sidney add experience and athleticism to an inconsistent receiving corps that struggled to make plays last year. Freshman Casey Washington has impressed in camp and could make an immediate impact. Donny Navarro is an intriguing prospect who may see serious time after transferring from FCS Valparaiso. Truth is, we don’t quite know who the top targets will be. But it just feels better.
The Zips return their leading tackler, linebacker John Lako. Lako tallied 126 stops last season, 41 more than any other Akron defender. He’s going to be all over the field and the Illini would be wise to try to stay away from No. 40.
Safety Alvin Davis, Jr. is on the preseason watch list for the Jim Thorpe Award, given annually to college football’s best defensive back. Davis had four interceptions last season, including two that were returned for touchdowns against Northwestern.
The Illini are 17-point favorites in Saturday’s game. To me, that’s a sucker bet. There’s no doubt that Illinois is the more talented team. But with (another) new quarterback and a lot of position battles still yet to be settled, it might take a while for the team to work out its kinks. Illinois won’t need to play a perfect game in order to win, but they can’t be in a lull, either. Dictate the pace early, use the running game to set up chunk plays in the passing game, and Illinois should get 2019 off to a good start.