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Misguided Optimism Part 2: The Star Turns

A few high-profile Illini will break out this season. Really.

Syndication: HawkCentral Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

It’s time for another Illini football season. Which means it’s time for an entirely new set of ridiculous expectations and grandiose predictions that will leave us all feeling empty by December.

But I am here for all of the pain. I’m a lifelong Illini-loving masochist, so I invite the misery of another year of optimism gone awry the same way I invited 8:00 lectures at Foellinger: with healthy skepticism and the unshakable confidence that disaster is on the horizon.

While recruiting under Lovie Smith was much maligned, some of his staff’s signings have wound up in the NFL. Some have been highly impactful college players. Others are still on the Illinois roster looking to make a big impact. Here are three big-time pedigree pieces on the Illinois roster who could be in line for a breakout.

Calvin Avery, DL

The big Texan was a metaphorically and literally huge get for the previous staff. The 4-star beast was one of the highest-rated prospects signed by the prior regime.

Avery’s productivity has yet to match the hype, but that could change in 2022. With the “multiple” looks hotshot DC Ryan Walters is bringing to the B1G, perhaps this is the year Avery steps into the spotlight and makes his NFL potential real.

Of course, this is also his last chance—he’s about to run out of eligibility. So the spotlight will be brighter than ever. Will he deliver? Whether he does or not, we’ll always have this amazing quote.

Illinois v Penn State
DL Calvin Avery
Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Shammond Cooper, EDGE

Cooper has been a fan favorite ever since he announced his commitment at the Under Armour All-American game. But the former Trinity Catholic star hasn’t been able to carve out a permanent niche on the defense despite his 4-star talent.

Enter Kevin Kane, a new defensive alignment, and a position switch.

Cooper’s speed and football instincts could help him finally make his star turn as an edge rusher. Cooper may still need to add strength, but playing opposite Seth Coleman in a new-look Illini pass rush scheme could be just what the doctor ordered for the St. Louis native.

Luke Ford, TE

I know, I know. Shocking, right? I’m predicting a great season for Luke Ford.

If his breakout happens this season, it will bring such immense joy to Illini nation. He’s a native son of the state of Illinois with a true passion for the colors he wears. He’s also one of the most fan- and media-friendly personas the Illini have had in quite a long time.

Oh, and there’s the matter of him pancaking fools on a regular basis last season. And yes, he has to do more as a receiver to become the all-conference player everyone believes he can be. But it’s easy to dream of him catching a walk-off touchdown against the Gophers to cap off another amazing Illini Homecoming weekend. Or maybe he’s the one who makes a key block and a red zone score for the Illini breakthrough win against Iowa or Wisconsin.

Either way, the former top-100 recruit has a date with Roger Gooddell in his sights, and a big season could make that into reality.

Also, is anyone else wondering what his future WWE ring name will be?

NCAA Football: Illinois at Iowa Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports