Expectations aren’t high for Illinois in 2017, nor should they be. The Illini graduated six starters offensively and seven more defensively from a team that wasn’t good last season, going just 3-9 in coach Lovie Smith’s debut season.
Smith’s second year will be marked, at least initially, by fresh faces and renewed hope. A whopping 54 freshmen and redshirt freshmen dot this roster. Just 25 upperclassmen, including a paltry nine seniors, will be there to show all the callow youngsters the ropes.
Some would call this rebuilding, but considering what this program has been since it fired Ron Zook following the 2011 season, can you really call it rebuilding when the past five years have more resembled a house of cards going one-on-one with Hurricane Katrina circa 2005?
Simply put, this is more like a total reconstruction.
Smith has athletic director Josh Whitman on his side. He has plenty of experienced assistants on his staff, and he should have a better handle on things than he did last year, when players wore their names in tape on the front of their helmets during fall camp so he could identify them.
“What a difference a year makes,” Smith said. “A year to work with the players off the field to establish how we’re going to win football games … pretty important. We’ve seen marked improvements, strength and conditioning-wise, which should help us an awful lot.”
It would also help if Chayce Crouch can take control of the offense. Crouch will start at quarterback after the graduation of Wes Lunt. Crouch won his only start last year in a game at Rutgers after Lunt went down with an injury, but Crouch missed the final six games with an injury of his own.
Illinois appears to have capable running backs and receivers, particularly with the return of wide receiver Mike Dudek (knee) from a two-year absence. A healthy Dudek could pair with Malik Turner to form one of the Big Ten’s top receiving duos, although Crouch has yet to prove he can carve up college secondaries.
Kendrick Foster and Reggie Corbin could also form a solid duo at running back. But can a largely inexperienced offensive line, aside from tackle Christian DiLauro and guard Nick Allegretti, create creases in the run game and keep Crouch upright in the pocket?
The questions continue defensively, where the Illini are tasked with replacing five senior linemen who combined for 37 starts. Smith liberally mixed in youngsters on the back seven down the stretch last year, so that area should be able to hold its own, particularly with senior Jaylen Dunlap back to anchor the secondary at cornerback.
The schedule isn’t horrible. Illinois doesn’t have to play Michigan or Penn State, and could realistically win five games if it plays well, even with its inexperience. But there will be growing pains, and plenty of them.
“We’re in a place right now in our program where we recruited guys that will get an opportunity to play early,” Smith said. “We can’t wait to see how many of these guys can really step up.”
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Chayce Crouch — This is his team, for better or for worse, at least as long as his offensive line and judgment can keep him upright. Crouch is your classic dual-threat quarterback, capable of running for more than 100 yards in a game and — the coaches are hoping — equally capable of making use of a good receiving corps. The caveat is that he’s started exactly one college game against last year’s Rutgers, which wasn’t exactly like butting heads with Michigan or Ohio State, so three words are going to apply for a bit: Jury still out.
BREAKOUT STAR: WR Mike Dudek — This also comes with a qualifier — his health. As a freshman in 2014, Dudek caught 76 passes for 1,038 yards and six TDs, playing a big role in the only bowl appearance of the Tim Beckman era. But Dudek’s knee exploded brutally during 2015 spring practice and it cost him not one, but two seasons. So there is rust of sorts to chip off, but coach Lovie Smith says Dudek has regained the speed he had three years ago. If that’s the case, the Illinois offense got a whole lot better.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: OT Larry Boyd — The 6-foot-5, 310-pound true freshman was handed a starting spot upon arrival at preseason camp. But he missed more than a week of workouts after sustaining a concussion and is now a backup to another freshman, Alex Palczewski. However, Boyd figures to play sooner instead of later because he’s a guy who has the body to hold his own right away and possibly help the offense control the ball on the ground. Boyd also represents an important coup for the program from the St. Louis area that coach Lovie Smith wants to recruit more successfully.
–WR Sam Mays (leg) has missed some of training camp and could find himself losing ground in the battle to be the third receiver. Mays caught 13 passes for 158 yards last year, including the game-winner on Nov. 5 against Michigan State.
–DE James Crawford (hamstring) missed practice on August 15, but coach Lovie Smith isn’t reading much into it, saying it’s just a byproduct of camp. Crawford started four games at linebacker last year but was moved to end as the coaching staff looks for an edge rusher to pressure the quarterback.
–OT Christian DiLauro (leg) missed some practices early in camp, but has returned to action and appears to be 100 percent. DiLauro, who has started 31 straight games dating to the middle of his freshman year, figures to be a leader for the offensive line..
–WR Carmoni Green has made a nice impression on the coaching staff with his ability to make tough catches. The true freshman from Miami was one of four signees who went through spring practice and it has apparently accelerated his development.
–Illinois visits Minnesota on October 21st.
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