Let’s take a look at Illinois’ veteran wideouts, shall we.
- Seniors: Trenard Davis (former QB), Justice Williams (former LB), Caleb Reams (former TE)
- Juniors: Trevon Sidney (USC transfer), Dominic Stampley (JUCO transfer), Josh Imatorbhebhe (USC transfer), Ricky Smalling
Which one of these things is not like the other?
Smalling is the only upperclassman wide receiver who has played....
- His entire career with the Illini
- His entire career as a WR
Now, I’m reading into that. I really don’t think it matters all that much. Tons of guys switch positions, based on need for the team or just how their career ends up panning out. But there is something to be said that the Illini have just one guy who has played multiple years as a WR in Champaign.
And, to be honest, those years haven’t been all too bad, given what the Illini have had under center throwing to Smalling.
As a freshman, Smalling hauled in 31 balls for 501 yards and two touchdowns, becoming just the fourth true freshman in program history to lead the team in receiving yards. And his 31 catches tied him with Malik Turner atop the team.
Looking back at his sophomore campaign, I think we all expected a big jump. That probably wasn’t fair to Smalling. He appeared in 11 games in 2018, making 33 receptions (up from his freshman year) for 406 yards (12.3 yards per catch) and five touchdowns (also up). When it mattered most, Smalling came to play, with two TDs against Penn State and a big 67-yard TD in the Illini’s upset win over Minnesota. Assuming he could have played against Western Illinois (he missed the game due to injury), you’re looking potentially at 35 catches, 500 yards and six touchdowns. For AJ Bush — a run-fire QB — under center, that’s not bad at all.
Also, Illinois had just 10 receiving touchdowns last year. Smalling accounted for half of that. Edwin Carter had two vs. WIU before he went down for the season with injury. Any criticism directed toward Smalling — yes, I know about the drops — is unfair. I’m not being a homer, I’m being real that the passing game was atrocious.
Let’s get a Brandon Peters or Isaiah Williams running the offense and 6-foot-1, 205-pound Smalling might be in for another big year.
(Edit: Maybe he’s bigger than 205.)
Two WR observations: Ricky Smalling has put on some serious muscle and Trevon Sidney catches basically everything. #Illini— Scott Richey (@srrichey) August 2, 2019
And let’s not forget that there’s a (more) legitimate wideout room existing now for Andrew Hayes-Stoker. (See above.)
He’s got personality too.
The Ricky Smalling Show?— Illinois Football (@IlliniFootball) August 3, 2019
Reggie & Ricky Show?
Reggie, Ricky & Stamp?
No matter what you call it, we're tuning in.
@SuccessfulRicky @Quiick_6 @JuicedUpReg #Illini x #JointheFight pic.twitter.com/FYmOE2rvTU
If anything — like absolutely anything — Smalling, like several other now-upperclassman, has been one of the men who stepped up and stepped into an awful program. Any success the program sustains over the upcoming years should be attributed to those like Smalling, who were nearly there from the start.
It might not be pretty, but without a Dudek, Geronimo or Malik, it’s time for Smalling to be the big name on the outside for the Illini. And finally, he’s got some help.