Rod Smith’s offense in 2019 wasn’t spectacular and in some ways took a step back from 2018, but they played well enough to reach the goal of getting to six wins. The connection between Brandon Peters and Josh Imatorbhebhe was a revelation, and senior breakouts from Dre Brown and Reggie Corbin gave Illinois threats on the ground and through the air. After stacking recruiting classes for years, Lovie Smith has built a deep offensive roster that should improve in 2020.
Offensive Line: A-
An effective offensive line is often the difference between a successful offense and a unit that struggles to score points. Fortunately, Illinois had incredible stability at this position group in 2019 and look to return Vederian Lowe, Kendrick Green, Doug Kramer, and Alex Palczewski next season. Richie Petitbon filled in admirably at the guard position, and those five developed some great chemistry over the course of the season, giving Peters time to pass in the pocket and creating holes for backs like Dre Brown. Illinois marginally increased its overall points per game over last season from 26.00 to 26.69, and much of the credit for that improvement should go to the offensive line.
Next season, the line’s production should be comparable to 2019, with the only question concerning who will replace Petitbon at guard. Illinois has a number of potential players, including Jake Cerny and Jake Stover, but I like former four-star recruit Verdis Brown to take the role.
Brandon Peters unequivocally proved himself to be the best quarterback on the Illini roster in 2019. Peters passed for 1,884 yards and 18 touchdowns last season against 8 interceptions, and ran for a further 213 yards on the ground. Although Matthew Robinson brought a stronger ground game when he played, the offense noticeably struggled when he lined up behind center as it did against the Northwestern Wildcats. Isaiah Williams saw some designed run packages at quarterback, but opposing defenses clearly saw what was coming and limited his effectiveness.
Peters will start at quarterback in 2020 as long as he’s healthy, but Illinois will need a reliable backup in the event that he goes down for a few games again. Without the need to limit his appearances any longer, expect Williams to play almost every game next season either behind center or in the slot as a sort of modern-day Eddie McGee. The pressure will be on for Robinson and Coran Taylor to find roles on this team at quarterback or elsewhere.
Running Back: B+
The storybook emergence of Dre Brown in his final year at Illinois after countless surgeries and lost seasons was phenomenal. Brown rushed for 584 yards and five touchdowns in 2019, often stealing the show from Illinois’ leading rusher, senior Reggie Corbin. Corbin continued his impressive 2018 campaign with 675 rushing yards and seven touchdowns in 2019, and figures to find a spot at the next level. Ra’Von Bonner provided a reliable change of pace as a third back, totaling 225 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
Corbin and Brown leave massive holes at running back in 2020, and Mike Epstein could seamlessly fill the lead back role if he can stay healthy. If Epstein is unable to play significant minutes next season, then Bonner figures to at least partially fill in as lead back. Although Bonner is a very tough runner who now has three years of experience playing at this level, he lacks the agility and breakaway speed that make Corbin, Brown, and Epstein so dangerous no matter where they were on the field. Western Michigan transfer Chase Brown, brother of Illinois defensive back Sydney Brown, will be in his third year next season and should make an impact in the backfield.
Younger players like Kenyon Sims, Jakari Norwood, and Nick Fedanzo also sit waiting on the depth chart, but none of those guys made much of an impression last season. Incoming freshman Reggie Love could push for playing time as well.
Wide Receiver: C+
Josh Imatorbhebhe was another major revelation on offense in 2019 for the Illini, as he racked up 634 receiving yards and nine touchdowns last season. He featured prominently in memorable moments against the Michigan State Spartans and Michigan Wolverines, and will certainly be Illinois’ go-to receiver in 2020. The players who we thought would feature prominently, Ricky Smalling and Trevon Sidney, were either injured or ineffective for much of the season, but their absence allowed players like Donny Navarro and Casey Washington to burst onto the scene. Navarro had the second-most receiving yards on the team with 345 and two touchdowns last season, including a memorable one against the Wisconsin Badgers.
Questions abound at the receiver position in 2020 outside of Imatorbhebhe. Presumably, Smalling and Sidney were limited by their injuries last season and they’ll be able to complement Imatorbhebhe next year along with Navarro and Washington. Expect to see Isaiah Williams used in the slot when he’s not needed behind center as well, similar to how he was used in the Redbox Bowl against the California Golden Bears. Players like Dominic Stampley and Carlos Sandy will need to find roles in 2020 if they want to make an impact.
Tight Ends: B-
Rod Smith has developed an interesting method of using tight ends in his offense at Illinois, as he’s shown a willingness to line them up almost anywhere on or behind the line. Of course, Daniel Barker emerged as the go-to receiving threat at the tight end position, as he caught 18 receptions for 273 yards and four touchdowns. Senior Justice Williams also made an impact as a receiver, catching 14 passes for 136 yards and a touchdown. Griffin Palmer and Bobby Walker also contributed by blocking in the run game.
Barker and Georgia Bulldogs transfer Luke Ford will certainly be the starting tight ends in 2020, with Ford likely playing a major role in the receiving game. Griffin Palmer and Griffin Moore will need to complement Ford and Barker by continuing to help open holes in the run game.
Illinois’ offense will bring some serious talent to bear in 2020, and Illini fans should be excited to see how Rod Smith will replace the production of Corbin and Brown. With so many seniors playing on offense in 2020, the Illini are primed to take the next step in 2020.