Things are a bit out of order here. I am still waiting on a response for the Nebraska Q&A, but I have the next few games in line and ready to go, so we’ll soldier on. Today Brandon Birkhead of The Champaign Room stops by to talk about the Illini.
T-Mill: Lovie Smith went with the extreme youth movement last season. How does it pay dividends this year?
Brandon: I guess the obvious answer is all those young players are now a year older. The 15 true freshman that started (led the nation in 2017) and 22 who played (also led the nation) will be sophomores and should improve with their first full offseason with Illinois. This makes it so Illinois doesn’t have as many key departures as most programs do each year (but many of the transfers Illinois had do hurt).
However, these players are still just sophomores, and while they have more game expereince than typical sophomores or redshirt freshman have, they are still an inexperienced group overall. I’m not sure that it pays off this year. The move to play all the young guys was clearly looking to the future, and not just the short-term. The team is still talent deficient at several positions including most importantly QB. This doesn’t appear to be a year that Illinois can expect to compete in a bowl game or even be competitive with every team they play.
The move was made with 2019 and 2020 in mind, not 2018, and Illinois fans have another rebuilding season ahead of them.
T-Mill: The passing game was... not good. Cam Thomas can run a bit, but can anyone throw it?
It may not matter as much as it does for other offenses, giving new OC Rod Smith. In the Rich Rodriguez system -- which Rod Smith has been a part of since he played QB for Rich Rod at Glenville State and then coached with Rich Rod at three different schools -- the QBs ability to run the football comes first over their throwing ability, and Cam Thomas as you said can run a bit. He may be the fastest player currently on the offense. Pat White and Denard Robinson are the molds are successful QBs in this offense, and Khalil Tate is the ideal mold and all three of those are far better runners than passers.
That being said you do have to be able to throw it a little bit, and Cam Thomas’ accuracy was poor last season. With some of the comments from the coaching staff that were made recently about Thomas’ need to continue to improve his accuracy I’m not convinced as I was a few months ago that he will be the starting QB.
Grad-transfer AJ Bush may get the nod. He’s been at Nebraska and then transferred to Virginia Tech after a year in JuCo. Now he comes to Champaign. Despite all the stops, he hasn’t played much only throwing 11 passes in his D-1 career. Reports are that he has a strong arm and he has as much experience in this offense as anyone, so they may throw him in to start. Illinois also has three new freshman QBs who could all potentially see time given the new Redshirt rules.
T-Mill: I said in our preview that the Illinois defense reminded me of Purdue’s under Hazell in that it could hang for a half or three quarters, but wore down due to the offense. Is that pretty accurate?
Brandon: The defense is certainly better than the offense, but I’m not sure that they are good. They ranked 89th in S&P+ on defense last season. The defensive numbers usually are worse for teams with bad offenses because these teams usually lack time of possession and the defense can tire out, but in Illinois case, the offense may have been so bad that this isn’t necessarily true.
In many games, Wisconsin especially, after teams built a decent lead against Illinois, they went ultra-conservative on offense. Wisconsin only scored 24 on Illinois, but they didn’t try to score more. After scoring 14, the game was out of reach, so Illinois didn’t see the really Badger offense. If Wisconsin wanted to they could have put up big numbers.
I think this was also true in many other Illini games. The offense was so poor for the Illini that as you as the opposition got to 20, it was over. Illinois only scored 20 points in one Big Ten game against Rutgers.
Now the defense has a lot of young exciting pieces. The future looks good, but the defense isn’t good enough just yet to make up for the woeful offense. So maybe this year we will see a better defense that can hang in the game for a bit, but fall apart at the end due to fatigue. The defense as I said is ahead of the offense, but I still think this is a inexperienced below-average unit in 2018.
T-Mill: What does Illinois need to do this year to keep Lovie employed, or is he safe due to the youth movement?
Brandon: Unless there is a major scandal or Lovie Smith loses one of the first two games in route to a 1-11 or 0-12 season he will not be fired. Athletic Director Josh Whitman is 100% committed to this rebuild. Whether that is right or wrong is up for debate, but that is the situation.
At this point it will all come down to 2019. 2019 is year 4 of 5 of the Lovie Smith contract, and we all know coaches can’t recruit on a one year deal so Illinois would end up with a extend or fire situation. It may be setting up as a bowl game or bust year or at least I hope it is. Extending a coach who has four straight losing seasons on his record will only make a lethargic fanbase care even less and could damage recruiting.
T-Mill: A Purdue win would actually tie the all-time series for the first time since 1906. That’s pretty cool, right?
Brandon: something something we are better at engineering than you even though you are an engineering school
T-Mill: Is there hope for Illinois this year or is the program lost until Lovie is gone?
Brandon: This isn’t really much hope for this year in terms of making a bowl game. Illinois will not be favored in any conference game and will also be dogs against USF. You can beat the odds maybe one or twice, but I don’t see a young team with a new offense doing that four times.
However, because of the youth movement and some decent recruiting for the 2019 class so far, I don’t think all hope is lost for Lovie just yet. In 2019 the core of the team will be juniors and sophomores with a lot of game experience. If Illinois can figure out something at QB, whether that is someone currently on the roster or highly ranked 2019 commit Isaiah Williams, there is enough talent around the team to get back to a bowl game and finally get some positive momentum going.
I’m not sure that happens. Maybe there is only a 50/50 shot at it, but there is at least a shot. Lovie Smith took over an almost impossible situation to be successful in and the margins for error are so thin and his awful hire of Gerrick McGee may have doomed him from the start, but Illinois fans are going to have to wait it out and hope it does indeed work out. If it doesn’t, at least Illinois will just be another really hard job for a coach rather than a totally impossible one.