This is a time for great optimism. It’s also a time for tremendous skepticism. There is a path to actually winning the Big Ten West. There is also a path to being bona fide cellar dwellers. In other words, the first fourth of the season has been a roller coaster the likes of which…well, the likes of which you are thoroughly accustomed to if you have been an Illini football fan for any length of time. While the highs have been high, the gut punches have been particularly painful in this young campaign.
So now I’ll put on my professor hat and dish out some grades. Please note, I’m not the toughest grader in the world. I’m like your Rhetoric 105 TA who is too hungover to properly analyze your comma splices.
Running Back - Let’s just get this part out of the way: Chase Brown is excellent at football. He is averaging over 160 yards per game on the ground. We’ll see where he stands after more teams have played three games, but thus far he has been an utterly dominant force. His performance alone is enough to give this position group an A. However, there are some concerns moving forward. When will primary backup Josh McCray be available and productive again? Can Chase Hayden up his performance to earn a permanent spot in the rotation? Will one of the true freshmen make an impact carrying the ball later this season? Either way, the emergence of Reggie Love has been a welcome addition to a productive RB room. Look for this group to continue to be the engine of Coach Lunney’s offense.
Grade - A
Wide Receiver - It’s been quite a roller coaster. With highly touted freshman Shawn Miller out for the season, the infusion of new talent may make less of an impact than previously expected. But the returning players have created a formidable unit. Isaiah Williams, Pat Bryant, Brian Hightower, and Casey Washington have all had their fair share of positive moments. Although, let me say that when Isaiah Williams was carted off the field after suffering an apparent injury against Wyoming, I saw my whole life as an Illini fan flash before my eyes. Anyway, the downside here is that this group of receivers has put the ball on the ground far too often this season. Between the drops and the fumbles, oftentimes the Illini receivers don’t do Tommy DeVito any favors. The receivers need to step up their ball control game in order for the Illini offense to reach its full potential.
Grade - B-
Tight end - The Illini tight ends had 77 yards and two touchdown catches against Virginia. This could be considered a breakout game for the unit as a whole. The Luke Ford individual breakout hasn’t happened yet, but he did catch all four of his targets against the Cavaliers. Again, there have been some drops and disappointing blocking performances here. But overall, the Tip Reiman/Luke Ford/Michael Marchese combination has the potential to grow in importance during conference play.
I think the long-term relationship between Ford and Lunney will pay off in some big moments. But for now, the TE room is not operating at its full potential.
Grade - B-
Offensive Line - This group has actually performed well. Isaiah Adams has been a revelation and has shown nothing short of Sunday form so far this season. Despite a terrible penalty against Virginia, Adams had a 73.1 PFF grade, the highest among the Illinois offensive line. The performances of Chase Brown and Tommy DeVito can largely be attributed to the excellent line play. Alex Palcewski’s return and the infusion of Adams and Zy Crisler have stabilized a line that lost multiple players to the NFL during the offseason. Depth is still a concern, but the current rotation has done a solid job.
Grade - A-
Quarterback - Tommy DeVito has been pretty much as advertised. The former Syracuse QB has been accurate with the football and confident in the huddle. His receivers have let him down with some of the drops, but he hasn’t let that shake him. He has a 6:2 touchdown:interception ratio in his first three games as Illini starter. He has shown a penchant for spreading the ball around as his six touchdowns have gone to six different receivers. His health could be the key to the Illini overachieving this season, so hopefully the offensive line continues to perform at a high level.
Grade - A
Defensive Line - This is the unit that a lot of people had concerns about. Outside of “The Law Firm” of Johnny Newton and Keith Randolph, it was unclear where the defensive line productivity would come from. Well, Calvin Avery has started playing more reps, and has been causing havoc. He played a big role in helping the Illini avenge their loss to UVA by getting in Brennan Arnstrong’s face on multiple occasions. Newton and Randolph are just playing at a different level. They will soon become a new sell on the recruiting trail for Bielema as he pursues defensive linemen: these two guys will be gone soon, so come in and play immediately.
While the pass rush got off to a slow start against Wyoming, the Illini front has gotten better as the competition has evolved. I do caution everyone: Bryce Ball, a walk-on ex-tight end, has played his way into the rotation. So the depth isn’t quite where you would like it to be. Hopefully, this progress is a sign of things to come.
Grade - B+
Linebackers - Ezekiel Holmes going out for the season has hurt Kevin Kane’s group. But freshman Marvel superhero lookalike Gabe Jacas has been productive in his time on the field. The true freshman (who was once committed to Tulane, if you can believe it) had a pair of sacks against Virginia, and looks to be in line to assume Holmes’ starting position. Seth Coleman is also showing flashes of why he was a four-star recruit. Those two will be counted on to provide edge pressure in Big Ten play, and both seem poised to do so.
But if there is one major concern I have about this defense now, it’s the inside linebackers. Once perceived to be a potential strength, Tarique Barnes, Isaac Darkangelo and CJ Hart have been missing far too many tackles. When Braelon Allen, Jalen Berger, and similar players face the Illini, those missed tackles could result in chunk plays and massive swings in points. Hopefully, Coach Buh, Coach Walters, and Coach Kane can get the group rolling by the rest of the B1G season. Also, maybe #FreeShammondCooper
Grade - C+
Secondary - Prized recruit Jyaire Hill should be watching very carefully. Ryan Walters and Aaron Henry have the Illini secondary looking like worldbeaters. Sydney Brown and Quan Martin are both playing like NFL safeties this season. Taz Nicholson and Devon Weatherspoon are continuing the Illini streak of evaluating “lower-rated” recruits in the secondary and turning them into guys who can play on Sundays. The Virginia and Wyoming games were masterclasses. Unfortunately, the Indiana game fell apart. There were some missed assignments that led to large gains late in a game the Illini will want back.
But the defensive backfield has been the best unit on Ryan Walters’ defense thus far. Freshman Matthew Bailey, who scored on a fumble recovery against Virginia, could push for more reps for this unit as the season moves forward.
Grade - A
Special Teams - Hugh Robertson shanked a couple of punts early on. But outside of those two mistakes, he’s averaged 40+ yards per punt. So the “issues” with him may be overstated. But Caleb Griffin missing half of his field goals is a major problem. Big Ten play comes down to inches and close games. A kicker with accuracy issues can mean the difference between bowl eligibility and cellar dwelling.
Not to put any pressure on Caleb Griffin or anything.
But as of now, the kicking game has to improve for this roster to win the close games they lost last season. Recent recruiting trends seem to reflect this philosophy.
Grade - C-
Overall - This has been a solid start. If Illinois can beat Chattanooga next week, they could have a 3-1 cushion going into the dog days of cold weather and 9-7 scores. Put another way, going 4-5 for the rest of the season would mean bowl eligibility. So far, the ship seems to be pointed in the right direction. But Tommy DeVito seems to have steadied the ship at quarterback just as Ryan Walters has on defense. Exhale, a bit, Illini Nation. Things look pretty decent.
Overall Grade - B