Illinois Football: Illini roster ready for shortened offseason

There is a lot of uncertainty when it comes to the upcoming campaign for the Illinois football team.

When I speak of uncertainty, I don’t mean within the team. I mean with the season itself. The Covid-19 pandemic has torn through the world killing over 100,000 people. On a much lesser scale of importance, it has also disrupted the sports world.

With college sports being canceled in the spring and professional sports yet to start back up, this made the fall season for Illinois football a big question mark. But, back on May 22, the Illinois Division of Intercollegiate Athletics announced that there is a plan to start bringing back student-athletes on June 3. I won’t go through the details of the plan, but this at least gives us hope that the fall season will continue on.

The norm has changed completely when it comes to college football. There wasn’t spring practice, which gives the veteran players a chance to knock off some rust, it gives the coaches the opportunity to see who fits well where and it gives some of the prior year redshirt players a chance to show what they can do.

Spring practice didn’t happen, though. All of that training, the game, none of that went on because of Covid-19. This has to hurt teams, but could Illinois actually be okay without the traditional spring practice this year?

I believe the main reason spring practice his helpful is that it enables the teams who lost a lot of talent after the previous campaign to be able to see who is going to step up into the spots of the departed. Teams who have had a lot of players depart; it benefits them the most.

Illinois had a total of 13 seniors on the roster in 2019. If you mix in the couple of transfers, Illinois lost around 15 players for the previous regime. That is a staggeringly low number. It is also one of the reasons we could only sign 13 players for the class of 2020.

Out of the roughly 15 players that departed the Illinois program, there were only a few who played big-time snaps for the Illini last season. Reggie Corbin was probably the biggest loss, as he started at running back. We also lost depth at defensive tackle with the departure of Kenyon Jackson, Jamal Milan and Tymir Oliver. But let’s look at who is returning.

The main area is the offensive line. Vederian Lowe, Kendrick Green, Doug Kramer and Alex Palczewski are the starting offensive line and all but Green are seniors. Illinois added graduate transfer Blake Jeresaty to possibly start at right guard as well. The experience is there for the offensive line.

At quarterback, Illinois has Brandon Peters back, who is a senior. Josh Imatorbhebhe, Ricky Smalling and Trevon Sidney should be the starting wide receivers for the Illini, and they are all seniors. The experience is there at the skill positions.

Luke Ford and Daniel Barker should be a great one-two punch at tight end for the Orange and Blue. Ford doesn’t have a ton of experience, but with a skill set that he has, you don’t need too much practice. Barker is entering his junior year and had a solid 2019 campaign. The talent and experience is there at tight end.

The running back position is the only area that took a hit. But there is still experience at this position. Mike Epstein could start the season at running back. He is a junior who has looked great when he is on the field. I can’t wait to see what incoming freshman Reggie Love can do on the field. I also think Chase Brown could get some starts too. He is a transfer from Western Michigan who has experience running the ball.

On the defensive side of the ball, Illinois is still sporting a lot of experience as well.

Isaiah Gay, Christian Bell and Owen Carney Jr. are all seniors on the team and they should form a solid rotation at defensive end. Behind them are some redshirt freshmen who would have benefited greatly from spring practice, but they will just have to wait for now.

Defensive tackle has more experience than what I am giving them credit for too. Jamal Woods, Deon Pate, Calvin Avery and newcomer Anthony Shipton are all juniors. They all have experience playing college football. While we lost a lot of talent at defensive tackle, I think we will be okay.

Illinois took at hit at linebacker with the departure of Dele Harding. He was a great tackler, but the Illini shouldn’t miss a beat without him. Jake Hansen and Milo Eifler are both seniors and should do their thing. Shammond Cooper should step into a more prominent role, even though a spring would have helped him. Khalan Tolson, Lavar Gardner and Derrick Smith are all juniors and should be in the rotation. This area has solid experience.

And, finally, defensive back has a lot of experience. Nate Hobbs and Tony Adams are both seniors and return for their final season. Newcomer transfer, TreSean Smith, has experience and will help in the secondary. Marquez Beason is healthy and ready to go. He is someone like Ford who can get thrown into a situation and his talent will take over.

The depth at defensive back has experience too. Quan Martin and Sydney Brown are both juniors and will be in the rotation. Devon Witherspoon had a great freshman campaign and should continue to improve as a sophomore. Look for Kerby Joseph to have a good junior year too. The defensive back grouping has a ton of experience.

Next: Byron Murphy II keeps Illini in his top 10

Covid-19 has a lot of college football programs scrambling because they didn’t have a spring to figure out which veteran will step up. Illinois doesn’t have that problem. Very few players departed the program after the 2019 campaign. Most of the starting positions return for the Illini from last year. The truncated offseason has probably hurt most teams, but Illinois should be just fine.

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