It’s not a secret that Lovie Smith, well, loves to run the football. But this Fighting Illini team has an opportunity to have one of the better passing attacks in the Big Ten. The departures of Jordan Holmes and Ricky Smalling leave holes to fill at punt returner and (possibly) starting wideout. But incumbent QB Brandon Peters has no shortage of playmakers to throw to.
This group of skill players is athletic, strong, experienced, and difficult to defend. It’d be impossible for all this talent to be lined up on the field simultaneously, but I don’t recall “too many toys” ever being a bad thing. Rod Smith is a creative offensive mind and is more than capable of designing concepts to help Illinois ascend to the next level in 2020 (or whenever the team gets to actually play). Let’s meet the crew.
A highly-touted transfer from USC, “Bhebhe” quickly became the alpha male of the receiving corps. The 6-foot-2, 215-pounder paced the Illini with 33 grabs, 634 yards, and 9 touchdowns (second-most in school history), averaging a whopping 19.2 yards per catch. Imatorbhebhe was instrumental in Illinois’ record-breaking comeback against Michigan State, amassing two touchdown receptions (46 and 83 yards) and this catch on 4th-and-16 to extend what proved to be the game-winning drive.
Imatorbhebhe started the first 11 games but missed the final three contests — including the Redbox Bowl — due to injury. The Illini lost all three of those games. Now...did Illinois lose solely because of Bhebhe’s absence? Of course not. But his playmaking ability was sorely missed. If he can stay healthy, even in a truncated or displaced season, Imatorbhebhe is undoubtedly one of the top wideouts in the Big Ten.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the Illini offense was Donny Navarro. The Chicagoland native began his collegiate career at FCS Valparaiso before transferring to Illinois in 2018 as a walk-on. Navarro’s best game of the season came in Illinois’ comeback win against Michigan State, registering 7 receptions for 49 yards, but his long touchdown grab against Wisconsin helped sparked the biggest upset of the season.
With Illinois’ receiving corps ravaged by injury, Navarro took advantage of his opportunity. He played in all 13 contests, finished second on the team in catches (27) and receiving yards (345) and was surprised with a scholarship by Lovie Smith last November. Navarro’s work ethic can’t be questioned, and the redshirt junior should have an even bigger role this season.
Another former USC Trojan, Sidney had 10 total catches in two seasons at Southern Cal before reuniting with Imatorbhebhe at Illinois. While Bhebhe is a physically imposing downfield threat, the 5-foot-11 Sidney fits the mold of the smaller, speedier, slot receiver. Unfortunately, he was also bitten by the injury bug.
Sidney was limited to just five games in 2019 before being shut down due to a torn hamstring. The former four-star recruit hopes to build on a 16-catch, 123-yard season.
The 6-foot-2 Texan played in 10 games during his true freshman season, starting five. Washington totaled 11 catches for 132 yards in 2019, and his 4 receptions for 55 yards against Northwestern were each career-highs.
Washington emerged as a threat late in the season and has terrific long-term potential. Illini coaches and fans hope to see a significant uptick in Washington’s receiving numbers.
Desmond “Drew” Dan
A graduate transfer out of New Mexico State, Dan played just three games last season before suffering a broken forearm. He tallied 5 receptions and 47 yards in his injury-shortened 2019 season with the Aggies but put up solid numbers during 2018 (37 catches, 491 yards, 3 TDs).
Dan came to C-U to show that he can produce at the Power Five level and should compete for starting reps. Dan is also a candidate for a medical redshirt, meaning he could apply for a sixth year of eligibility in 2021.
Other receivers on the roster:
Dalevon Campbell (SO): The 6-foot-4, 200-pound wideout saw action in five games in 2019 — primarily on special teams — but did not record a catch.
Edwin Carter (R-SO): Missed 2019 recovering from a leg injury sustained in 2018 versus Western Illinois on one of the best catches you’ll ever see. Carter scored a pair of touchdowns in the Illini’s 34-14 win over the Leathernecks.
Kyron Cumby (R-FR): Speedy slot threat finished last season with 2 receptions for 31 yards and 2 punt returns for 11 yards. Cumby was redshirted after playing the maximum four games. He could be one of the players that benfits most from the departure of Jordan Holmes.
Carlos Sandy (R-SO): The 5-foot-9, 180-pounder missed the entire 2019 regular season but did suit up for the Redbox Bowl, catching 4 passes for 22 yards in Illinois’ loss to Cal.
Dylan Thomas (R-SO): The Monticello, Ill., native has yet to play during his first two seasons. Thomas missed all of 2019 due to injury.
James Frenchie (FR): A St. Louis product, Frenchie played for Trinity Catholic under then-head coach and current Illinois tight ends coach Cory Patterson. Frenchie is an exciting prospect and a potential redshirt candidate.
John Bickel (FR): A state track qualifier at Tinley Park Andrew HS, Bickel committed as a preferred walk-on back in January.
Ty Lindenman (FR): Another PWO, the diminuitive 5-foot-7 Lindenman clocked a 4.4 40-yard dash time and averaged more than 30 yards per kickoff his senior season.
Barker helped complete last season’s historic comeback versus Michigan State. His touchdown catch in the final seconds capped off the Illini’s 37-34 win against the Spartans and secured Illinois’ first bowl bid since 2014. The 6-foot-5 Barker blossomed in 2019, earning his role as the starting tight end and finishing third on the team in receiving yards (273) and second in yards per catch (15.2) and TDs (4).
Barker is a legitimate threat in the passing game but does need to improve as a blocker, and there will be added competition this season. Speaking of which...
If you’re a fan of The Good Place then you’d likely agree it’s forking bullshirt that Luke Ford was ruled ineligible following his transfer last spring — hmm...maybe he should have tried playing quarterback for Ohio State?
Nevertheless, the Carterville native is back home and itching for the opportunity to make the impact he was unable to make at Georgia. The top-rated tight end in the 2018 class played nine games for the Bulldogs, catching just one pass for 4 yards. At 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds, Ford is the kind of freak athlete the Fighting Illini have yearned for.
In addition to being a titanic target in the red zone Ford is also a strong, physical blocker when his number isn’t called. Ford and Barker make for a formidable combination — possibly the best tandem in the conference — and will likely see the field together, thus bolstering the pass and run game.
The newest addition to this list, Daniel Imatorbhebhe announced in late July that he would be leaving USC to join his brother, Josh, at Illinois. Daniel is the larger of the two, listed at 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds.
He’s missed the past two seasons due to a combination of injuries and academics, but flashed big-play potential with the Trojans — Imatorbhebhe the Elder caught 25 passes for 394 yards (15.8 yards/rec) and 4 TDs in his two healthy seasons in SoCal, including a touchdown in the highest-scoring Rose Bowl ever, USC’s 52-49 win over Penn State. A sixth-year senior, Imatorbhebhe gives the Fighting Illini another veteran pass-catcher and starting-caliber tight end.
Other tight ends on the roster:
Griffin Moore (R-FR): An in-state three-star recruit out of Bloomington, the converted high school quarterback sat out the 2019 season as a redshirt.
Alex Pihlstrom (R-JR): The 6-foot-6, 240 pounder appeared in one game last season but didn’t record a catch.
Tip Reiman (FR): The former high school linebacker from South Dakota joins the Fighting Illini as a preferred walk-on.