Introduction

Year Three has been the key.

In 1979, when "The Deer Hunter" won best picture and I was in kindergarten (and when my kindergarten class took a field trip to see "The Deer Hunter") (no, not really), Gary Moeller went 2-8-1 in his Year Three and lost his job. 3-8, 1-8-2, 2-8-1, fired.

Since then, Year Threes:

Mike White – 7-4, Liberty Bowl

John Mackovic – 8-3, Hall Of Fame Bowl

Lou Tepper – 6-5, Liberty Bowl

Ron Turner – 7-4, MicronPC Bowl

Ron Zook – 9-3, Rose Bowl

Tim Beckman – 6-6, Heart Of Dallas Bowl

And it's not just that they made a bowl game. The last three coaches all inherited the program after the previous coach was fired. Their buildup to Year Three:

Turner – 0-11, 3-8, 7-4.

Zook – 2-9, 2-10, 9-3.

Beckman – 2-10, 4-8, 6-6.

Lovie Smith – 3-9, 2-10, ???

Three coaches who have averaged 7.3 wins in their third season in Champaign. They averaged 1.3 wins their first season, 3 wins their second season, and then a leap to 6, 7, and 9 wins their third year.

Year Three is the key, right? If Lovie doesn't win in Year Three, Lovie needs to Moeller his way on out of town, right? Somebody make some Win Six Or Hit The Bricks shirts.

But is it that simple? There's the "Lovie was hired four months after the Coaching Carousel stopped spinning, so Year Three is really more like Year Two" crowd. But then there's the "ahem, Jeff Brohm?" crowd – Purdue was bad for years and then Jeff Brohm won six his first year in West Lafayette. Isn't it as simple as, "hire a good coach, win immediately"?

And then there's the theory I floated out there midway through the Tim Beckman era. All of these Illini coaches won their third season and then all of these Illini coaches failed. Is it better if an Illini coach DOESN'T win in his third year? Is the guy who fails to win in Year Three the guy who finally builds a long-term program?

(Insane statement, right?)

Let's try to think through all three of these. I feel like one of those corporate phrases would be perfect here, but I work in a small office. Let's… peel the onion on these (that's awful).

It's Really Year Two

There's merit here. There really is.

I'm partially in the "it's really Year Two" camp. In order to give Lovie a fair shake, one must acknowledge the limitations he inherited. It was a program with a lame-duck recruiting class brought in by the interim coach who had just been given an extension on his interim status. And he got the job in March. We need a deeper dive here (sorry).

In any discussion about the state of the program when Lovie took over, the Beckman/Cubit fiasco must be acknowledged. Scandals – especially scandals that cost the athletic director his job – always leave baggage. Rutgers after Dave Rice, Baylor after Art Briles, even the Arkansas football program since Bobby Petrino crashed his motorcycle – it takes a while to clean up the mess.

And that last one is a pretty good example of how a scandal can kill a successful program. Arkansas is flying high – 10-3 in the 2010 and then 11-2 in 2011, finishing the season ranked #5 – and then Petrino crashes his motorcycle with his mistress on the back, tries to cover it up, and loses his job. Their interim year with John L. Smith is a complete disaster (4-8 after being ranked #5 the year before) and Arkansas hasn't returned since. Bret Bielema's five years: 29-34 and then fired. They're rolling along, top-25 recruiting classes, playing in November games like #1 LSU vs. #3 Arkansas with national title implications… and now, after one scandal, it's seven years later and they still haven't recovered.

I mentioned Baylor above, and that might be a good way to highlight how the March hiring date added a little more pain to Lovie's rebuild. Matt Rhule inherited a much better program (Baylor under Art Briles was slightly better than Illinois under Beckman. Very slightly. Like, three times the wins), but Rhule had to deal with an uglier scandal. And the situation was similar (coach fired, assistant named the interim for a season, athletic director resigned). The biggest difference: Rhule got to recruit his own recruiting class; Lovie had to take the players recruited by the lame-duck coach.

And yes, it was Rhule's recruiting class. He inherited exactly one recruit when he took over the Baylor job in early December 2016. He then added 26 players over the next two months, with many of them finding the field last fall during their 1-11 campaign (Baylor was second to Illinois in number of freshmen on the field). It might not seem like much, but that simple difference (adding 26 of your own players vs. inheriting a lame-duck class of 24 from the previous interim) is a big deal. December vs. March is a big, big deal.

So yes, there are arguments to be made for "this is really more like Year Two." I'd say that Rhule's second year this fall (with all of those freshmen becoming sophomores) is very similar to Lovie's third year this fall (with all of those freshmen becoming sophomores). Baylor has a bit of a head start roster-wise – there were 20-plus four-stars still on the roster when Rhule took over; not so much in Champaign – but I'd say the two seasons are very similar. Played a crazy number of freshmen last year, looking for a big step forward this year.

In that sense, Lovie is hired in March, has 24 seniors, rolls with a mix of those seniors and some of the underclassmen as he attempts to identify which players will fit what he wants to do, and then his second season was his starting-over season.

Now, those are still seasons. His staff is still developing players. Just because they've been throw-away, building-towards-the-future seasons doesn't excuse the staff from building. I can't completely get down with "it's really Year Two" because there have been 30 months of development. Offensively, sure, we've struggled to find a quarterback from the QBs Bill Cubit hand-selected, and it's hard to get a true freshman ready. But on defense, this fall, there are a lot of players who have played a lot of snaps in this defense. We need to see some Year Three stuff there.

Win Six Or Hit The Bricks

I understand a lot of the arguments from this angle as well. As one friend put it (clean version), "if Tim (bleeping) Beckman can get to a bowl game in Year Three in Champaign, (anyone) can do it." Even if you're playing a lot of freshmen early, those freshmen will have a lot of experience by the third season.

Just ask Josh Whitman. He was one of those freshmen in 1997 that went winless. And then they won three games in 1998. And then they won eight games in 1999 behind mostly true juniors and redshirt sophomores. Any old coach can do it (see: our last six coaches).

And other coaches can do it in less than three years. Jerry Kill went 3-9 in his first season at Minnesota, but in 2012, he squeaked out four non-conference victories (beating UNLV in overtime, Western Michigan by 4 and Syracuse by 7) and went to a bowl game despite a 2-6 conference record. Winning close games is what it's all about. 2012 Minnesota was basically any of the 4- or 5-win Illini teams of recent memory… but they won six games because they found a way to squeak out wins.

And speaking of squeaked-out wins, Jeff Brohm went to a bowl last year at Purdue in his first season. Yes, I spent an entire page on that in last year's preview (my prediction: Brohm would win 4 or 5 games – more than Lovie – because he inherited experience and supplemented with 11 jucos and fifth-year transfers but 2019 would be the season where we'd see if each coach was building something). But all of that falls to the wayside when you look at November 4 – Purdue 29, Illinois 10. Throw out all of the "well, technically, when you look at the way they're building the programs…" and just stare "Purdue 29, Illinois 10" in the face. Brohm's first year, Lovie's second year, Brohm is well ahead of Lovie already.

(Which, can I just say, is still so weird to me? The 2011 team was probably the closest I've covered a team. I had more time on my hands, and there were a lot of players who were really forthcoming in their interviews, and I felt like I had a good feel for the leap to 6-0 and the disaster of 0-6. And that whole time I had this sense that the offensive staff was falling apart with no answers. The offense performed well in 2010, had a lot of players coming back, started fine in 2011, and then just fell completely apart, capped by the infamous "152 total yards" performance in the finale against a Minnesota defense ranked last in the Big Ten. And THAT'S the staff that produces Jeff Brohm, Offensive Genius, plus Chip Long, Notre Dame Offensive Savior? Paul Petrino (OC) – who did, to his credit, rebuild the Idaho offense – plus Brohm (QB coach), and Long (TE coach) couldn't figure out Minnesota's clownshoes defense but now they're offensive coaching superstars? How? At the bowl practices and during the bowl game I got zero sense that Brohm, who was the OC at that point since Petrino was gone, had any ideas to get that offense moving. The offense scored 13 points and we won that bowl game because of a Terry Hawthorne pick six. But then Brohm proves to be a QB guru? I'll just never understand.)

Anyway, yes, this whole thing could be very simple. Hire a good coach and you win. Hire a bad coach and you lose. We've gone 3-9 and then 2-10 while Purdue went 6-6 which means that if we don't win in Year Three, we probably need a better coach. Jerry Kill went 3-9 but then 6-6, Jeff Brohm went 6-6 in Year One, Lovie is 3-9 and then 2-10. It could very well be just that simple.

Let's Try NOT Winning In Year Three

Lastly, let's go through my crazy "win too quickly" theory. First, some disclaimers.

For starters, this only applies to programs like Illinois. Kansas. Oregon State. A program that has tried and tried to rebuild but can't ever seem to figure it out. There are a few peaks here and there, but there's never a consistent program.

At Illinois, it's been the same pattern now for 25 years. Good team the third season. Then some players graduate, so it's a step back in Year Four but maybe then another good season in Year Five (2001, 2010). After that, nothing. There's no program at all. It's just putting together a few good teams. Take the best of the players you inherited, add some jucos, get to a bowl, and then look around and wonder how to do it again after those players are gone. You pretty much have to repeat the pattern. Play the underclassmen, get them experience, take your lumps, win after they get 25 games of experience, lose again once they graduate.

Last year in the preview I looked at some longer rebuilds. Teams that didn't get there until Year Four (or later). Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin didn't have a winning season until his fourth year. David Cutcliffe at Duke didn't get there until Year Five.

The average wins for all of the "moribund programs like Illinois who got it turned around" (Colorado, Washington State, etc.) that I reviewed:

Year 1: 2.8 wins

Year 2: 4.3

Year 3: 4.6

Year 4: 7.4

That led to me revisiting my hypothesis. Have we somehow… won too quickly before? That sounds INSANE (see above: hire a good coach, win football games), but when rebuilding a crap program, it seems like Year Four is always the target, while we've consistently hit on Year Three.

I mean, look at that Year Three to Year Four leap up there– 4.6 wins to 7.4 wins. Many of the coaches I studied had really poor Year Threes. David Cutcliffe was 3-9 in his third season at Duke. Mike Leach was also 3-9 in his third season at Washington State (and then 9-4, 8-5, 9-4). Even when you go back to Big Ten teams rebuilt 20 to 30 years ago, Year Four was it. Barry Alvarez – Year Four at Wisconsin. Kirk Ferentz – Year Four at Iowa.

So why have we always rebuilt by Year Three? Why is the pattern that we're always leaping in the third season and not the fourth? Why was Turner's fourth season five wins? Why was Zook's fourth season five wins? Why was Beckman's fourth season (coached by Cubit) five wins? Why does most every team I studied make a big leap in Year Four and yet the last three Illini coaches have all taken a step back?

Wait – it's the last five Illini coaches. Lou Tepper went 7-5 in 1994, his best team. And then in 1995, in his Year Four, he won five games. John Mackovic won a share of the Big Ten title in 1990, his third season. And then, in Year Four, he had his worst year – 6-5.

So what is it with Illinois? Why are all of the other fans of "will we ever be good again?" programs reliant on a big leap in the fourth season (I mean, look at Wake Forest and their eight wins last year in Clawson's Year Four), and we've gotten worse in our fourth year each of the last five coaching regimes?

I really think the answer is "they built a team, not a program." Jucos were added, and for every juco added, that's a freshman not being developed. Lots of sophomores were played the first year (for all of those coaches), and those sophomores were seniors in Year Three (remember all the seniors on the Rose Bowl team in 2007?), and then the fourth season is a step back.

Remember, I'm looking at how bad programs are rebuilt, not good programs. I'm not looking for how Nebraska can be rebuilt by Scott Frost. A program like that (which recruits itself) gets one year of readjustment before Things are expected in Year Two. As Ron Zook learned, Dan Mullen will get two seasons of "don't worry about it – he's rebuilding" at Florida, but if he's not going somewhere the middle of his third season, he'll be fired. Willie Taggart at Florida State needs to win, like, now.

That's not the model I'm looking for. I'm looking for the long, slow rebuild that will last, not the "yay, we're good – oh no we suck again" roller coaster we've been on for 25 years. I studied teams ranging from Washington State under Leach to Wisconsin under Alvarez because I want sustained success once it's built, not peaks and valleys.

And the secret, it seems, it to make a huge leap in the fourth season. You can win before that – many, like Jerry Kill, got to a bowl by Year Two. But nearly across the board, Year Four was the huge leap forward to prominence. And here we've been Year Three leapin'.

Las Vegas puts the Illini over/under on wins at 3.5. This is Year Three. If Illinois wins three or four games this season, which is it? "It's only year two, so this is pretty much 2006"? "Jeff Brohm is already winning – fire Lovie and find someone who can really coach like Jeff Brohm"? "This rebuild being slower than the last four is actually a good thing – we've gutted everything and are starting over, just like we've needed to do for 25 years"?

I don't really have the answer. I lean towards the third, but you knew that. I'm on board with this roster having 78 underclassmen and 24 upperclassmen. Keep building with big classes (and lots of walk-ons) who were recruited to run these systems. Players specifically recruited to run certain systems is the answer to nearly every college football question. This process might mean more losses early (because of the youth), but that also might mean many more wins later because you've finally built a sustainable program culture.

Or, you know, good coaches win, and this coach isn't winning, so find a coach who can win, like Brohm. It might honestly be that simple and here I am writing a massive preview for a program coached by an NFL guy who just couldn't make it work in college.

I don't think we'll have our answer until late in the 2019 season or early in the 2020 season. Until then, I guess all I can do is keep writing. Like, maybe 10,000 words on the 2018 offense.

The Offense

I know what you're thinking.

I just extolled the virtues of installing systems and recruiting to them for five full recruiting cycles… and Illinois has a new offensive coordinator in Lovie's third season.

Let's start with that.

The good news: the systems are somewhat similar. Well, they're not "similar," but they're designed to do the same thing: run the ball utilizing an athletic quarterback and let everything flow from there. The path to get there is different – Garrick McGee flipped his offensive linemen from the strong side to the weak side depending on where the tight end lined up, Rod Smith does not; Garrick McGee utilized twin tight ends a lot, Rod Smith spreads things our much more – but the goal is the same. After utilizing quarterbacks recruited by Bill Cubit for his system the last two years (Wes Lunt, Chayce Crouch, Jeff George Jr.), Lovie now has five athletic quarterbacks who can run. And he has an offensive coordinator who wants to run with the quarterbacks.

There are other subtle differences which will make this season, especially September, an adjustment for the offensive players. Rod Smith seems to prefer smaller, quicker offensive guards, and Lovie just got done recruiting mountain men like Kievan Myers and Jordyn Slaughter (which is why someone like Kendrick Green was moved to offense, which we'll cover much more in a bit). There are fullbacks on the roster but this offense doesn't have any fullbacks anymore. It's not an exact replica.

But for the most part, Lovie has been recruiting for this offense. Run the ball with quicker tailbacks like Mike Epstein. Short throws to quick-in-and-out-of-their-cuts receivers like Ricky Smalling. Speed and mismatches are everything, so when the choice is between size and speed, go speed. Garrick McGee was trying to be Louisville; Rod Smith is trying to be West Virginia. Those two are close enough that recruiting for one works for the other.

Which is something we haven't seen lately. Tim Beckman spent his half of the 2012 class and the entire 2013 class recruiting to the Billy Gonzales/Chris Beatty spread… and then he hired Bill Cubit and tossed all of that in the trash (including the star spread QB, Aaron Bailey). And then after three years recruiting to that Cubit offense, another complete change was made in switching to Garrick McGee's offense.

This isn't that. The play calls are different, the formations are tweaked, but the point is the same: an athletic QB who can run makes the whole thing go.

And speed.

Let's begin, as every great offensive preview should begin, with the quarterbacks. The last four seasons have been, um, a huge struggle under center. (Have you heard?) Is Lovie on his way to fixing that?

Wait. Back up. I think I actually want to start with the offensive line this time. We'll get to the quarterbacks second and then go through all the skill positions, but I think we need to start with the offensive line. Because it always starts with the offensive line.

Offensive Line

Here's a thing I've been researching: the hit rate of Tim Beckman's offensive line recruits. Or, should I say, the lack of "hits" in Tim Beckman's offensive line recruiting. Or, should I say, the single biggest reason the Illini offense has performed so poorly the last three seasons. Of the 16 offensive line recruits brought in by Beckman, I believe only four started five games or more? Let's just go through the full list.

And by the way – if you're the parent of an offensive lineman recruited by Tim Beckman, just skip down to where it says "quarterbacks." The is going to be a cold, hard look at what has transpired.

Starting with the 2013 class, Tim Beckman recruited:

Jesse Chadwell – Had to take a medical hardship scholarship and retire from football after an injury.

Austin Schmidt – Solid 2.5-year starter on the offensive line. This is what Beckman needed from all of his recruits.

Christian DiLauro – We're on a roll. Here's a 3-year starter on the offensive line. This is easy. Most everyone panned out, right?

Dallas Hinkhouse – Junior college transfer who was too small for tackle, moved to tight end, played sparingly, and graduated.

Ryan Klachko – Transfer from Nebraska who suffered multiple concussions in practice during his sit-out year and retired from football.

Ryan Nowicki – The infamous player who Tim Beckman went to visit in State College when the Penn State thing was blowing up. Never even made the two-deep, left school.

Peter Cvijanovic – Simon's brother (Simon was a Zook recruit), I believe he left school after the Simon thing, a quick Google search shows he didn't play football anywhere else.

Nick Allegretti – OK, now we're back on track. Should be somewhere around second-team All-Big Ten offensive lineman this season. Probably the best player on this list.

Zach Heath – Junior college transfer, tore up his knee in his second game of his first season, never returned to the field.

Jordan Fagan – OK, now we're in the middle of a run of jucos (like Heath) who were going to fix our OL problems in 2015. Fagan started two games (one in 2016, one in 2017) but that was it.

Connor Brennan – Part of that same juco class with Heath and Fagan. Was probably the best of the three. He didn't play much in 2015 but did start four games in 2016 as a senior.

Zeke Martin – Has been at Illinois for four years (this is his redshirt junior season), hasn't really contributed.

Adam Solomon – Has been at Illinois for four years (this is his redshirt junior season), hasn't really contributed.

Gabe Megginson – He did start 11 games in his two seasons, so he was a contributor. But after losing his spot to a freshman last year, he transferred to Illinois State.

Jake Cerny – Veballed to Beckman before he was fired, stuck with Cubit and signed with Illinois. He showed some promise this spring, but we haven't seen it on the field yet.

Kurt Gavin – Same as Cerny – verballed to Beckman, Beckman was fired, stuck with his original commitment. And hasn't produced anything on the field yet.

That's the full list. Out of 16 offensive line recruits, you need around 9-10 of them to be legitimate Big Ten linemen. There can be some busts, but you need maybe seven of them to eventually become starters and two or three to become reliable backups (spread over several years, of course, since they were recruited across four classes). Looking at this list, honestly, I'd say you had three reliable Big Ten starters (Schmidt, DiLauro, and Allegretti) and then two reliable backups (Brennan, plus that's how I'll categorize Megginson). The young guys could eventually produce and make their way onto this list, but with Lovie already playing freshmen in front of them, it doesn't look likely.

So I feel like the offensive struggles for Illinois from 2014 through 2017 (using the S&P+ metric, those offenses ranked 68th, 96th, 114th, and 124th) have a lot of reasons behind them (Cubit and McGee struggled at the coordination part of offensive coordinating, quarterback play was spotty, etc.), but of those reasons, I believe "Illinois really only had three total Big Ten linemen over four seasons" was number one.

(There are other factors here, of course. It's not completely on the players. The coaches have to develop them and build a cohesive line. It's about maxing out potential, and Illinois just hasn't done that.)

But when you look at those 16 names, really, it's hard to say anything more than "we didn't recruit Big Ten linemen, and without that, you really have no shot against Big Ten defensive lines." It pretty much stops right there. Four years where Illinois was clearly 14th out of 14 teams in the Big Ten in terms of offensive line play. What can you do when that is the hole you're in?

And that's a serious question – what could Lovie Smith do? What are his options at that point? The first year he didn't get a recruiting class, so he pretty much had to play mostly MAC- or FCS-level linemen. His second year he addressed the problem immediately, starting four freshmen (plus Allegretti). This year, more of the same (the line will be Allegretti plus three sophomores and a redshirt freshman). As soon as he could, he worked on fixing the issue, with the only problem being that he had to start four freshmen.

It's one of the reasons I wasn't the Garrick McGee hater that most fans were. I'm just not sure what he could have done with the 2016 and 2017 lines. Play four freshmen in 2017, yes, build for the future, yes, but when you do that you're tossing another season out the window because no four-frosh offensive line in the country could be successful. Not even at Alabama if they were playing four five-star freshmen. Eighteen-year-old kids just aren't ready.

I remember posing this question back in 2016 when the offensive line was struggling so much: when will Illinois not finish 14th in (my imaginary) Big Ten offensive line rankings? I knew it wasn't going to be 2017 because of all the youth that was going to play. So at the absolute earliest it would have to be this season. Clearly the worst in the conference from 2014 to 2017 – in 2018, maybe Illinois will be better than Minnesota or something?

Is this on the coaches? Probably some. Tom Brattan, AJ Ricker, and Luke Butkus all probably share a little blame for not getting the line where it needs to be. Was there bad luck involved? Certainly. Klachko could have really contributed but had to retire from football, Megginson was a top recruit but just didn't mesh with the blocking scheme, Heath's injury, etc. But beyond all of that, more than any one thing, I think it's as simple as "Illinois recruited MAC and FCS linemen and tried to build an offense around them."

This is a point I could belabor for 20 more minutes. Average our offenses the last four seasons and they're the 101st-best offense (out of 130 FBS teams). I'm guessing only Kansas would be worse if you're looking at just Power Five conference teams. And I'd say that 70% of the reason is the bodies on the offensive line. There have been a few (Teddy Karras is with the Patriots, Christian DiLauro is still in camp with the Browns, Nick Allegretti should have an all-conference type of year this year), but there have not been enough.

It makes me wish there was a way I could quantify it. Like, make a list of "Big Ten Linemen In The Big Ten" or something where every lineman on every roster who proves to be Big Ten worthy gets some gold-star designation. And then you add up all the gold stars on every Big Ten roster the last five seasons. I honestly think the list would look like this:

1. Wisconsin 21

2. Ohio State 19

3. Michigan State 17

4. Michigan 17

5. Nebraska 16

...

12. Maryland 11

13. Rutgers 9

14. Illinois 4

I feel like this is THE issue. This is the main reason for everything. Yes, there have been defensive struggles. Yes, this is just a massive flashing red light pointing to how recruiting has been poor (current offensive linemen on the verbals list for 2019: zero). And yes, schematically, we've had all kinds of issues. But if you asked me to pick one single thing, I'd point to the inability to find and develop Big Ten offensive linemen.

Which is why I always come back to "what else could Lovie do?" Every time I read a "hot seat" article, every time I see someone lazily mention "well, he's an NFL coach in a college football world," I think of this issue. Take the person writing that article, give them a deep dive on our offensive line in Lovie's first two seasons, and I guarantee that at the end of it, they'd be saying "besides ‘recruit five junior college linemen to come in and take over immediately,' I'm not sure what else Lovie's staff could have done to build an offense that would put up even 300 yards per game."

I believe they would all make the same decision that Lovie did: you have Allegretti, and you have DiLauro, and you don't have the ability to add any linemen for your first season because you were hired in March, so your only option is to recruit five freshmen for your second season and then use four freshmen in your top six (with DiLauro and Allegretti). When you play four freshmen on the offensive line you're guaranteeing yourself a bottom-20 finish in the offensive rankings, but really, it's the only decision you can make. There's no patchwork fix, there's no "I'll just make these players I inherited Big Ten linemen instead of MAC and FCS linemen" – your only option is to start over, even when you know that starting over will destroy any chance at having a good offense. Biting the bullet is really the only way you can go.

Well, again, I guess you could go juco. That's what Tim Beckman did (which somewhat led to this mess). He saw that he didn't have many Big Ten linemen, so in the 2015 class he signed three jucos (Brennan, Heath, and Fagan). But they didn't work out, and when jucos don't work out, that's three spots where you could have been developing freshman linemen but instead are sticking the next coach with an OL reboot. Lovie could have done the same and tried to find some junior college guys who could contribute immediately (and he did offer some), but that's just a Band-Aid. The only way to truly fix it is to go find Big Ten talents and develop them.

And I believe that's what he's doing. I think Vederian Lowe and Alex Palczewski are certainly already gold-starred. Larry Boyd has the body for it, so he was very close to a gold star last year after starting so many games, but the off-the-field stuff seems to be keeping him from that gold star (it needs to be noted, though, that physically, he's probably #1 on the list as far as "go find Big Ten linemen" – he certainly has an NFL frame and footwork). Kendrick Green could earn his gold star this season. Several of the incoming freshmen (Jordyn Slaughter, Reuben Unije) are certainly ahead of some of the inherited players size- and agility-wise (doesn't mean much yet, but it's something). I believe Lovie is building a stable of gold-star linemen. The potential is certainly there.

Will it show up this season? Perhaps. There were certainly times in training camp where I'd turn to an imaginary friend next to me and say "now THAT'S what a Big Ten line should look like." There were things that made me think of the 2011 camp with Jeff Allen and Graham Pocic and Jack Cornell and Hugh Thornton – where you could see the line matching up with most every Big Ten team.

But that's only part of the battle. The next part is for Luke Butkus to turn them into a Big Ten line. And I have a few reservations there. Let's just get into this and then we can talk about that.

At tackle, I can't hide it – I'm excited. I believe Vederian Lowe and Alex Palczewski have the chance – not saying they certainly will, but a chance – to be the best Illini tackle tandem in… 15 years? Strong words, I know, but you need to get to practice and watch these guys. There is a very long and winding road between here and there, and they'll need to stay on the same trajectory they're on now, but seriously, there's a chance for something special here.

Starting with Vederian Lowe. Lowe arrived in Champaign at 345 lbs. He wasn't participating most of training camp in 2017 (rehabbing an injury), so I mostly only observed him on the sidelines watching practice. The Vederian Lowe I saw this training camp looked like a completely different person. Gone is the baby fat, here is the muscle, and instead of 345 he's around 315 lbs.

And instead of right tackle, he's now at left tackle. That's something I should have noted from the beginning here. With the new offense (how am I this far into the preview with only casually mentioning the new offense?), there is no longer a "strongside" and a "weakside" to the offensive line. That was a Garrick McGee thing, and now that McGee is gone and Rod Smith is here, flipping the lines is a thing of the past.

OK, now I need to backtrack on THAT one and describe what that means for those unfamiliar. In the Bob Petrino Sr. coaching tree – which includes Illinois' 2010 & 2011 seasons (offensive coordinator Paul Petrino) as well the 2016 & 2017 seasons (offensive coordinator Garrick McGee) – there are no "right tackles" and "left tackles" (and no right guards and left guards). The Petrino coaching tree uses the defensive concept (flip your line based on the play formation) on offense. So the way you will see a defensive line all switch positions when the offense comes to the line (for example, the tight end is on the left instead of the right, so the strongside end flips over there and the weakside end goes to the other side), McGee/Petrino would do that for the offense. If the tight end (or a receiver bunch) is on the left instead of the right, then the right tackle switches sides and becomes the left tackle (and vice versa).

So if you picture a pass play where a tackle has to shuffle step to the outside to form a pocket, McGee's tackles had to learn to shuffle both ways because sometimes they were on the left and sometimes they were on the right. The advantage: the strongside tackle is often paired with the tight end so they're using combo blocks on both sides. The disadvantage – the lineman has to learn how to do things to the right and do things to the left. Any tackle will tell you that learning the shuffle step is hard enough one direction – learning it both ways is like learning how to switch it.

So Vederian Lowe will now only have to learn it one way because he's likely anchored on the left side of the line for the next three years. He played mostly "strongside" tackle last season, which meant that he was often lined up at right tackle, but this season he will be on the left side while his fellow sophomore Alex Palczewski lines up at right tackle. Palczewski is moving there from left guard last season. Sorry, "weakside" guard. This is getting confusing. I need to approach this a different way.

Rod Smith's blocking scheme is different. It's similar, but different. And that's not just the "strongside" and "weakside" thing. The way it's set up, he requires different skillsets at different spots. Certain players were tried in certain spots in the spring, the coaches looked at the film, and when they arrived at training camp this summer, they made some decisions. I'm imagining the conclusions were something like this:

1. Vederian Lowe needs to be the left tackle, not the right tackle. He's what we need in a left tackle for this offense.

2. Alex Palczewski needs to be a tackle, not a guard. He had a fine freshman season at guard, but where he can help us the most is at right tackle.

3. Kendrick Green needs to be on the offensive side of the ball. He was playing a lot with the first string at defensive tackle in the spring, but with Palczewski no longer at guard, Green is who we need there.

This left two players in the same spot as last year: Nick Allegretti at right guard and Doug Kramer at center. Kramer's role remains exactly the same, and the only change for Allegretti is that he'll no longer need to flip to the other side when they go strongside/weakside. Right guard on the right side from now until he graduates.

There. I think I did it. I can now break down the depth at each position because I've explained how the coaches came to their line decisions.

There is no depth at each position.

OK! Let's move on to the quarterbacks. No, not really. But when people ask me what concerned me the most at training camp, my answer without hesitation is "depth on the offensive line." Go back to the opening discussion here. If Lovie Smith only inherited two usable players for this 2018 line (Allegretti and Kramer), then he must turn to his 2017 and 2018 recruits. And with two of the 2018 recruits sidelined for much of training camp with various injuries (neither apparently serious, but both Reuben Unije and Jordyn Slaughter missed significant time), and a third 2018 recruit still having academic issues and not on campus (Kievan Myers), then… there are no 2018 recruits to turn to yet.

Yes, one or two of them might be like Vederian Lowe last year – missed a lot of training camp, had his own "training camp" in September, and by the fourth game, he was ready to go in (which he did, and then he started the final seven games) – so the depth might arrive this year like it did last year: freshmen who are ready mid-season. But as of right now, it's the five starters I listed above and then, honestly, no idea. Perhaps the biggest "no idea" of the 10 training camps I've covered. No idea no idea.

I feel like the starters are mostly known. Lowe and Palczewski are the promising tackles for the future that I listed above. Allegretti should have an all-conference season. Doug Kramer continues to be a reliable center and, at least as far as training camp goes, Kendrick Green looks the part of a Big Ten offensive guard (please note that this could change significantly when the season starts and the real football begins – there's nothing setting Green in stone like there is Lowe or Palczewski). I've never seen a camp where the first-string line stays the same for nearly every snap. They wanted to get these five, in those five positions, ready to play next to each other.

Behind them? Seriously no idea. Your guess is as good as mine. It SHOULD be Larry Boyd. He started nine games as a freshman and was in line to probably start 45 games in his Illini career. But he never got a snap above the third string this camp. Which means that the rumors that he's facing a long suspension are probably true. You can tell when the coaches are getting a player ready to contribute, and they didn't appear to be getting Big Larry ready to contribute. There have been rumblings on how the coaches believe a redshirt year would be good for him. So, for now, we can't really list him as an option.

And when I move on from that and look for the Next Man Up on the offensive line, I really can't find one. At least not a certain Next Man Up. Because I'm an optimist, I'll go though this with some best-case scenarios:

1. One of the redshirt juniors steps forward

Adam Solomon, your table is ready. Zeke Martin, it's your time. If one (or both) of the recruits from the 2015 recruiting class were to see the light bulb come on and make a big step towards contributing, that would be amazing. Jack Cornell took a big leap his redshirt junior season. Even guys like Jake Feldmeyer and Connor Brennan took a big leap their fifth (redshirt senior) seasons. There's always time for a fourth- or fifth-year player to make a leap. Right now would be great.

2. One of the redshirt sophomores steps forward

Jake Cerny, this is the moment. Andrew Trainer, time to leap. Kurt Gavin, let's do this. Maybe you were all a bit confused by the strongside/weakside scheme but now that you've had a full spring and summer with the new offense, big strides will be made. Nothing would be better for this line than for someone like Jake Cerny to make the bold statement that they're ready to push for starter minutes. Cerny got a lot of first-string reps in the spring (not so much in the summer), but if he can prove that he's ready to take 30% of the tackle snaps this year, giving Lowe a breather here and giving Palcho a breather there, that would be such a positive development for this offense. Yes, there's always a chance for these three to make a big jump their junior or senior years as well. But depth is needed right now.

3. A freshman surprises

As mentioned above, this happened with Lowe last year. Having not seen him at camp (besides a guy around 350 lbs. rehabbing from injury on the sidelines), I'm not sure I even mentioned him in the preview. He ended up starting seven games and is now anchored as the left tackle of the future. So if one of the three freshmen (Jordyn Slaughter, Reuben Unije, and Kievan Myers) could have a Lowe-like in-season transformation, man, that would that be a shot in the arm. Myers could have a Lowe-like story, I guess. He missed all of training camp with an academic issue, but if that's somehow cleaned up and he joins the team soon (this is around the time that Lowe joined practice last season), a second-half surge from a reliable backup lineman pushing the starters for minutes could be a godsend.

4. A walk-on out of nowhere

Would you believe that this is the most likely scenario of any of the above? I'm always looking for who the coaches are using as a "sixth man," and at the big summer scrimmage in Memorial Stadium at the close of the open portion of training camp, that sixth man was… redshirt freshman walk-on Jake Stover. I think I'm out of ways to say "would be such a shot in the arm" at this point, so I'll just say that as an Illini fan I'm desperate for someone to be the reliable sixth man on the offensive line and if it comes from one of the walk-ons, that right there is a story I'd love to write.

Will it be Stover, or is his heavy rotation in the lineup going to motivate the scholarship players to push past him? Is it maybe Jordyn Slaughter, who was simply limited on snaps due to a few nagging injuries but, once healthy, will find himself as the sixth or seventh guy? Maybe the light comes on for Adam Solomon and he says "besides Nick Allegretti, I've been here the longest, so it's my turn to be the guy"?

Wherever it comes from, Luke Butkus and Rod Smith need it to arrive. There are five starters who are honestly very promising. They have the chance to end the season as the best Illini offensive line in maybe five years. But beyond that, I can't recall more unknowns in 10 years of covering training camps.

OK, this is the spot where you parents-of-offensive-linemen can begin reading again. Let's go to the QBs.

Quarterbacks

In the spring, there was one. In the fall, there are five. And that will hopefully make all the difference.

The quarterbacks have mostly followed the same path as the offensive linemen laid out above. Tim Beckman had an idea of what he wanted in a quarterback, and that's who he recruited, and none of those quarterbacks worked out in Lovie's system, and now Lovie is starting over with five guys of his own.

Actually, the above should probably say "Bill Cubit." Beckman changed to Cubit's system in 2013 and then let Cubit choose his quarterbacks. Cubit's first move was to land Wes Lunt as a transfer from Oklahoma State, and after that he added Chayce Crouch, Jeff George Jr., Jimmy Fitzgerald, and Eli Peters. Those last four SHOULD be the quarterback room right now but Crouch retired from football and George Jr., Fitzgerald, and Peters all transferred out. Which is why the quarterback room this spring had the QB from Lovie's first class (Cam Thomas)… and no one else.

Fast forward six months and there are now five Lovie quarterbacks: a fifth-year transfer (AJ Bush) and three true freshmen (MJ Rivers, Coran Taylor, and Matt Robinson). This is probably a good place to pause and talk about this same phenomenon across all positions.

Want to define the 2018 Illini team? It's the year where this happened at every position. Pick a position. Defensive line? This past offseason, James Crawford graduated, Tito Odenigbo transferred to Miami, Sean Adesanya transferred to Central Michigan, and it's now down to one Beckman recruit (Jamal Milan) two Cubit recruits (Tymir Oliver and Kenyon Jackson), and everyone else is a Lovie sophomore, redshirt freshman, or freshman. Safety? This past offseason, Pat Nelson transferred to SMU, Julian Hylton transferred to Southern Illinois, Harvey Clayton left the program, and now it's zero Beckman recruits, one Cubit recruit (Stanley Green), and everyone else is a Lovie sophomore or freshman.

So it's not just offensive line and quarterback. Across the board, this has been a massive roster overhaul. We'll cover that a lot when we get to the defense. Nearly every remaining Tim Beckman recruit on the defense left in the offseason, leaving only two Beckman defensive players – Jamal Milan and Cam Watkins – on the roster. In a normal situation, the new coach, entering his third season, would have maybe 15-18 inherited players on his defense. That's more or less what Beckman had in 2014 and Zook had in 2007. Lovie has two.

The entire offseason I've told people that the quarterback room can be their guide if they want to understand what's happening. In a normal coaching transition, by the third season, you'd normally see two or three of the former coach's guys (let's say Jeff George Jr., Jimmy Fitzgerald, and Eli Peters) and then two of the new coach's guys (Cam Thomas last year and then let's say Coran Taylor this year). Instead, for Lovie, they're all gone (every single one), replaced by one quarterback from the 2017 class, three quarterbacks from the 2018 class, and a fifth-year transfer from Virginia Tech. That's the approach here across the board: Lovie is going to play his recruits as soon as humanly possible.

Including, this year, most likely, that fifth-year quarterback he brought in from Virginia Tech. I drove up to camp expecting to see a QB battle between Cam Thomas, AJ Bush, and maybe one of the freshmen, with Thomas eventually winning out because of his experience this spring running the offense. After two days of practice, I was ready to declare AJ Bush the clear starter.

Let's start with the obvious: his odd throwing motion. On certain throws, everything looks normal. On other throws, it looks like his feet aren't synced up with his arm (because they aren't). He'll often throw the ball without driving his lower half, screeching his body to a halt like a javelin thrower trying not to step over the line.

That's the bad. The good is that, in practice, he consistently delivers the ball in the correct spot. Now, he's doing this against no pass rush (while wearing an orange jersey that prevents him from being touched by any player on the field). It's very possible that once there's a real rush, the throwing motion issues rear their ugly head and off-target throws are being picked left and right.

But it's also possible that he consistently moves the ball this fall. He's athletic, he can create something out of nothing, and perhaps most importantly, he's the most confident quarterback I've seen in orange (and, eventually, blue) in a long time. In practice he would constantly chase his receivers 30 yards down the field after a big play to celebrate (as long as a different quarterback had the next rep, of course – otherwise the coaches would be quite displeased). You want your quarterback to be the clear vocal leader, and in camp, he was absolutely the clear vocal leader. Like, times 50.

None of that means much if he comes out in the first quarter against Kent State and throws two bad interceptions. This is still someone who didn't win the job at Nebraska and didn't win the job at Virginia Tech. Because of that, I drove to training camp highly skeptical. But I came away believing that the third time will, in fact, be a charm.

If it's not, there are options. Many options. Young, inexperienced, green options, but options. Let's put them into categories.

If Rod Smith Is Going To Have His Quarterback Run More Than Throw Then He's The Guy: Cam Thomas

If you followed Arizona football at all last year, they were 2-2 after a bad home loss to Houston and a frustrating home loss to Utah with their "QB who could sling it around a little bit" (Brandon Dawkins) struggling. So for their next game, a road game at Colorado, they switched to sophomore Khalil Tate, Rod Smith's Guy Who Could Run More Than He Could Throw for the 2017 season. In that Colorado game, Tate only threw for 154 yards… but he ran for 327 yards (on only 14 carries!) and Arizona's season turned around. Tate now finds himself on preseason Heisman lists for 2018 (and Rod Smith finds himself as the offensive coordinator at Illinois instead of Arizona).

So the answer to the "who will start at quarterback?" question might really be "who runs it best?" AJ Bush runs it fine… but Cam Thomas runs it better. The issue for Thomas: he really struggled hitting his receivers in camp. I'll say it: significantly worse than last year. Remember how Juice Williams only hit 39% of his receivers as a freshman but that jumped to 57% the next year? Remember how Kurt Kittner only hit 44% of his receivers as a freshman but then that jumped to 55% the next year? Well, Cam Thomas only hit 42% of his receivers in his four games as a true freshman last year… and if I added up his stats from training camp I'm guessing he maybe hit 48% of his receivers? And that's with no real pass rush. The issue last fall was still the issue this spring was still the issue this summer: if he can't consistently hit open receivers, he's not going to win the job.

Now, that's not a massive concern just yet. He's only a true sophomore with four games under his belt and he's learning a new offensive system. I said after the spring scrimmage that the best-case scenario for Thomas would be that AJ Bush wins the job and he can spend a year as the understudy. It seems that's clearly the case.

And I'll be honest. I can see a scenario where AJ Bush is making one too many turnovers, and we're not really moving the ball against Rutgers, and the coaches turn to Cam Thomas who leads a 77-yard drive with only one pass and the rest with his feet. To re-emphasize: he's the best running quarterback. And that might be really important in this offense. Well, that almost certainly is really important in this offense.

A Tall Guy With A Big Arm Is Always The Answer To Every "Who Should Be The Starting Quarterback?" Question: MJ Rivers

On the flipside here, let's talk about MJ Rivers. If we're just looking at raw talent – natural resources, as I like to call it – Rivers is to the arm what Cam Thomas is to the feet. He's the most natural thrower of the five QBs. I'll say it this way, even though it might make you cringe, but hear my point for what I'm saying: if Bill Cubit was the offensive coordinator, I think MJ Rivers would be the starting QB. Cubit was a sucker for a tall QB with a good throwing motion and thought he could build the rest around that. That's what MJ Rivers brings.

So if we were ranking "arm," Rivers would be #1. It's not a Juice arm or even a Lunt arm, but it's an "effortless throwing motion" arm. There's about 73 other things he needs before he's ready to start a game in the Big Ten, but it's a start.

Running the ball? I'd rank him fifth of the five QBs. What could Rod Smith do with the "best" arm and the "worst" feet? Not sure. He'd have to restructure the offense a bit. But that's what Rivers brings.

Height Is For The NFL – If A Shorter Guy Can Make Plays With His Arm And Feet Then Who Cares About Height: Matt Robinson

Robinson easily has the most "wow factor" of the three quarterbacks. Should wow factor be in quotes right there? I should have taken a writing class at some point. Or maybe just one journalism class. I have a guy editing this for me this year, and he's laughing right now because he knows if wow factor should be in quotes and yet I have no clue. Hey guy – don't edit this section. It's part of my charm.

(Editor's note: "wow factor" is just fine in quotes.)

Robinson easily has the most "wow factor" of the three quarterbacks. He's a playmaker. Look off the safety, keep the eyes downfield while sidestepping the rush, find the open receiver, release a nice, tight spiral. He's the guy from the neighboring town you go to see in high school because he looks like Baker Mayfield out there. How does he make play after play?

The question now that he's in college: is he tall enough? Is he big enough to withstand a beating? Is he fast enough to make the running game work? On that last one, I think he is. If we're talking "quicks" – not especially top-end speed but quickness on the football field – I think he might rank second or first on the QB roster. He's really quick. Probably not beat-the-Penn-State-cornerback-chasing-him-down-from-behind fast, but quick.

As for the first question (is he tall enough?), the answer is "no." Which means he'll have to work around it. You and I can both name college QBs who were successful despite being less than 6 feet tall, but for every one of those, there are 10 great high school quarterbacks who just couldn't make it in college because they were too short. He'd have to overcome it with some Jason Verduzco-like playmaking ability. (Which he might have. Seriously.)

It's Time For A Quarterback Who Runs People Over Instead Of Around Them Just Like Juice Williams – Coran Taylor

In the final fall scrimmage (in Memorial Stadium, with officials calling penalties, with 100 plays from scrimmage), Taylor was the sixth quarterback to take snaps behind the four quarterbacks above and walk-on Cam Miller (he of the touchdown at Ohio State last year when all of the other QBs were injured). That's a credit to Miller – he was here in the spring and knows the offense better than the freshmen at this point – but also maybe a sign that Coran Taylor is headed for a certain redshirt.

But I feel like a camp where they're basically playing two-hand touch is unfair to a QB like Taylor. He's a muscular athlete designed to run through you as well as around you, and he really can't show that when they're not tackling. If this was live football, perhaps Taylor would be the freshman on top at this point because his ability to break tackles and move the chains. The thing to constantly keep in your head: the offenses put together by Rich Rodriguez and Rod Smith at West Virginia and Michigan and Arizona always relied on a quarterback who could run. If he didn't have elite skills running the ball, his arm didn't much matter. He has to be able to run. And Taylor can run.

All told, I think the QB room is playing out like the QB room should be playing out. The fifth-year senior seems to be taking the job and running with it, taking pressure off the sophomore to have a year where he can relax and learn the offense, taking pressure off the freshmen to be ready at a moment's notice. That's really good for the other four quarterbacks' development… but also maybe bad for next year because it will be another "no quarterbacks with much experience at all – who will be the QB?" camp.

Which is why I'm hoping that Lovie and Rod Smith utilize the new redshirt rule with the young quarterbacks. In the offseason, the NCAA changed the rule for redshirts:

Old Rule: You have five calendar years to play four seasons on the field. Once you play a single down, that counts as one of your four years. The only way to get a season back once you played in a game would be a "medical redshirt." Jamal Milan played in the first game of the 2015 season before an injury knocked him out for the rest of the year. Because that injury happened before he had played in 30% of his team's games, and because it happened in the first half of the season, he was able to gain a "medical redshirt" and return the next season as a freshman. Had that injury happened in the seventh game, he would have been out of luck, but thankfully, he didn't lose a year of eligibility by playing in one game. He's now a junior instead of a senior this year because of it. BUT, that was the only way to regain that eligibility.

New Rule: Medical redshirts are no longer a thing. There's one rule and it holds for every player. You still have five calendar years to use your four seasons of eligibility, but you can now play in four games and retain a year of eligibility. And those four games can be at any point throughout the season, even a bowl game. For a Milan-like injury situation, as long as he hasn't played in four games, it's an automatic redshirt season. For a guy suspended for eight games who plays in the final four games of the season – he gets a redshirt and doesn't lose a year. For a backup quarterback who comes in for mop-up duty in the second, fifth, ninth and twelfth games of the season, he keeps a year of eligibility.

So this could be a scenario where Cam Thomas plays in the second, fifth, ninth and twelfth games and returns as a redshirt sophomore next year. And Matt Robinson gets some time in the third, sixth and eleventh games and comes back as a redshirt freshman. And on and on.

At Alabama, this rule will probably used like September call-ups in baseball. Starting with their twelfth game (the Iron Bowl), they then have access to their entire roster. Need that freshman linebacker on special teams? You can now use him in the Auburn game, the SEC title game, and both College Football Playoff games and then he returns the following year as a redshirted freshman.

At Illinois, hopefully, the rule will be used to get players' feet wet while keeping them around for five years. Cam Thomas only played in four games last year – if this new rule was in place, he'd be a redshirt freshman this season and would retain his eligibility through the 2021 season. As fans will see from Mikey Dudek and Nick Allegretti this season, having a kid around for his fifth year can be so important to a team. Just imagine this season without Dudek and Allegretti. Fifth-year players are so important.

SO, that's where I'm hoping Lovie implements this rule. If AJ Bush is the starter, manage all of the backups so that none of them exceeds five games. If Bush is failing and Thomas or Robinson needs to be the starter, then by all means, use them. But if not, keep the number four in mind and retain everyone's fifth years in the future.

OK, I'm this deep into the offense and have only covered the line and the QBs. I keep getting off-track with each section. Time to focus and knock out the skill players.

Running Backs

Has anyone ever used The Four Horsemen to describe four college football players? They haven't? Well, let's make some t-shirts! This could be huge.

Really, I don't think it will be a four-man rotation. It will be one guy getting the bulk of the carries, and then two other guys getting backup carries and a fourth guy maybe getting spot duty here and there. But in camp, I think there were clearly four tailbacks who made the statement that they were in the running for carries this season.

1. Mike Epstein

I think Illini fans would love to see a repeat of last September's Mike & Mike show. Before both were lost for the season to injury, Mike Epstein and Mikey Dudek were the focus of the entire offense.

In his 4.5 games before the injury (JUST past the line for a medical redshirt), Mike Epstein put up 346 yards on 57 carries (6.1-yard average) with three touchdowns, plus four catches for 59 yards an another touchdown. There were two plus playmakers on the offense (Mike and Mike), and the offense showed signs of life through the two of them. After Epstein's injury, though, and especially after Dudek's injury sat him down for the remainder of the season, the offense showed zero signs of life.

I should note that "signs of life" here doesn't exactly mean "the offense would have been awesome if they were both healthy." It was going to be the 14th-best offense in the Big Ten from the start. I'm just saying that when you have an offense like that and you lose your two best weapons, it's 10 times more "over" than it already was. That offense needed all the help it could get, and it lost its two best helpers.

Now, with Epstein healthy, I think he becomes the "guy getting the bulk of the carries". It's a new offense with a new offensive coordinator, and that OC might want a platoon system instead of a one-guy system, but if he does feed the hot hand, I think the hot hand will be Epstein's.

2. Reggie Corbin

Corbin was the odd man out last season. 86 carries as a freshman in 2016 and then only 18 carries in 2017. Part of that was the emergence of Mike Epstein, but once Epstein was out for the season, Corbin still didn't get carries. My gut tells me that if Garrick McGee were still here as the offensive coordinator, Corbin would be somewhere else.

But McGee is an analyst at Missouri and Corbin is still here. And, honestly, for a player with his skillset, I can't really imagine a better offensive coordinator hire. Rod Smith wants quick tailbacks who can also line up in the slot and catch passes. Reggie Corbin isn't going to run anyone over, but he's a quick tailback who can also line up in the slot and catch passes.

So while this was never really intended to be a 1-2-3-4 ranking, perhaps Epstein is 1 and Corbin is 2 this season.

3. Ra'Von Bonner

In the final camp scrimmage, when the first-string offense ran out on the field for the first time, it was Ra'Von Bonner taking the first snaps, not Epstein or Corbin. Some of that might be motivational, some of it might be taking it easy with Epstein coming off the broken foot, but some of it might be "the coaches love Bonner, he was voted a captain for several games last season as a true freshman (meaning his teammates believe in him and that's huge for a coaching staff), and they think he's had a better camp than any of the other tailbacks."

Bonner is a bigger tailback, although he's not your prototypical "big back." He's a little more "run over you instead of around you" than the other three, but he's certainly not some Jason Ford bruiser tailback. I think you'll see them use him in third-down-and-short situations (which have been the death of Illini offenses the last three years). Will he be the feature tailback? After Epstein's five games last year, I doubt it, but we don't exactly know how Rod Smith will use his tailbacks yet. So anything is possible.

4. Dre Brown

After missing all of the 2015 and 2016 seasons with separate ACL injuries (both knees), and after a few other clean-up surgeries, Brown finally got on the field midway through last season. And when he did, even though the offense was in a deep funk, he was a bright spot – 76 yards at Ohio State (really, the only offensive player to do anything that day), and then 51 yards against Northwestern. And in addition to the 51 yards against Northwestern, he brought two kickoffs back to the Northwestern 49-yard line that day.

So I'll start there with Brown. He needs to be the kickoff returner. No negotiation – it needs to be him. You bring two kickoff returns 50-plus yards in the last game, you'd better be the kickoff returner in the next game. Beyond that, don't count him out for a lot of carries. When he verballed to Illinois all those years ago, one service had him as a four-star running back. Just… don't forget about him.

Beyond those four are the two freshmen. Jakari Norwood is the (tiny) tailback from Florida who is more speed than power (well, all speed, no power), and Kenyon Sims is the tailback from San Diego who signed on with Rod Smith at Illinois once he got the Illinois OC job. Given the logjam ahead of them, I'm expecting both freshmen to redshirt. But Lovie doesn't really view redshirts like that, so if there's a chance for them to contribute, they're going to play.

If I had to guess the carries in order this year, I'd go with Epstein, then Bonner, then Corbin, then Brown. But really, I think all four contribute. And that's a good thing for Rod Smith.

Tight Ends

Let's do tight ends first and then finish with wide receivers. Normally I'd roll from running backs into fullbacks, but this offense doesn't have fullbacks anymore. Every guy playing fullback last season (like Austin Roberts) now finds himself playing tight end.

The tight ends have a new role in a new offense and they're being coached by a new position coach (Cory Patterson). And, until we see the real offense on the field, it's hard to get a read on how they'll be used. I know it will be different than last year, and I doubt we'll see many two-tight-end sets like last season, and I KNOW we won't see any of those three-tight-end sets, but beyond that, I'm not sure we know much yet.

Well, besides Lou "don't call me Louis anymore" Dorsey. That's a great tight end name, right? Lou Dorsey? Sounds like a boxer from the ‘60s. Maybe we can call him Sweet Lou Dorsey. Great left jab, that kid.

Dorsey had a freshman season worthy of many Freshman All-American lists – 22 catches for 395 yards (an outstanding 18 yards per catch for a tight end) with three touchdowns. With that kind of size, and that kind of speed, and that kind of agility, Dorsey is certainly on the radar of NFL scouts. It's sounds crazy to say that about an Illinois tight end (we throw to the tight end?), but his very promising freshman season puts him in that discussion.

One issue: he was suspended for the spring and did not practice. Both he and defensive end Isaiah Gay had to sit out the spring while they took care of some things that Lovie deemed more important than football. It's Lovie, so no one is going to know if it was academic issues or behavioral issues or attitude issues or team rules issues, but Dorsey missed the spring (which meant that he missed a large part of the Rod Smith offensive install). He's back in camp now, trying to catch up, and is clearly the most talented of the tight ends.

Behind Dorsey there are even more questions. Mostly because, as I said above, we're not exactly sure how Rod Smith will use his tight ends. If he needs guys who can come across the line of scrimmage and make the kick-out block, it will be converted fullback Austin Roberts, a senior. If it's more of an H-back type, he might dip into the wide receiver pool and use someone like junior Caleb Reams. If it's your prototypical end-of-the-line tight end, sophomore Griffin Palmer is your guy. If it's a smaller guy who can block and run precise routes, it's walk-on-turned-scholarship-player Bobby Walker. Maybe he wants a thicker player who can still run – that's freshman Daniel Barker. Or perhaps the longer, leaner athlete who can run a little bit – that's sophomore Brandon Jones, a converted defensive end. And don't forget about the walk-ons who have proven they can block somebody, like redshirt freshman Alex Pihlstrom.

There are options. There are no experienced options besides Roberts, a fullback last year, and Walker, a blocking tight end last year who was put on scholarship Christmas Day, but there are options. I feel like I have a very good read on the player rotations (or at least "which players will be in the rotation") for most every position. But at tight end, beyond Dorsey, I'm just not sure what happens. We'll find out Saturday, I guess.

Wide Receivers

Here's the thing about the wide receivers. I'll watch Mikey Dudek and Ricky Smalling on the field together and I'll think "this needs to be the focus of the offense – I don't care about running the ball, find me a quarterback who can get the ball to Dudek and Smalling." I know that's not the Rod Smith offense, but that's the feeling you get when watching Smalling and Dudek do their thing. If there's a pair of players on the Illini team who reach "could probably start most anywhere in the Big Ten," it's Dudek and Smalling.

That's one reason I lean so heavily towards AJ Bush as the starting QB (as does everyone else). I get that Cam Thomas is a better runner, and running the ball from the quarterback position is a big part of how this offense puts up yards, but there are two really big weapons lined up at wide receiver and you have to get them to ball. Remember Paul Petrino's "feed the studs"? Dudek and Smalling need to touch the ball. I don't care how – just get it in their hands.

The biggest question mark on the offense might be the third receiver behind those two. Both of them are capable of putting up an 8 or 9 season (on a scale of 1-10) this year. Is there anyone else who can even put up a 5? It seems like it's two knowns and then eight or nine complete unknowns.

The Knowns

Mikey Dudek you know. You might need some reminders, but you know. Freshman All-American, capable of one of those 100-plus catch seasons, adjusts to the ball in the air like no receiver in Champaign since Brandon Lloyd, crazy over the shoulder catch vs. Iowa as a freshman, crazy punt return to beat Ball State last year – you know him.

I've often thought about Dudek on the 2013 team with Nathan Scheelhaase throwing to him. Or the 2001 team with Kittner as the QB. Or the 1990 team with Jeff George throwing it to him. Put him on one of those teams where the quarterback A) is accurate, and B) has time in the pocket and I really do think you'd see some insane 100-plus-catch season this year. He'll be open. He's really hard to cover. He knows all the tricks to gain separation from the defensive backs. All he needs is someone who can get him the ball.

After only one season, I think you know Ricky Smalling as well. Ball-winner in the air. Deep threat. Made that Indiana DB (or was it Rutgers?) so angry when Smalling ripped out a certain interception. 31 catches for 510 yards as a true freshman on pretty much the worst offense in major conference college football.

Which is why I imagine him on one of those great Illini passing teams as well. What if it's Dave Wilson throwing him the ball in 1980? What if it's Eason or Trudeau? Someone who puts up 31 catches for 510 yards on last year's offense is going to put up 84 catches for 1,450 yards on the 1982 team. Even as a freshman.

Those are the two knowns. Both receivers are capable of an all-conference season this year. Is there someone who can get them the ball? And if that quarterback can get them the ball, will he have enough time to make the throw or will he be running for his life?

The Unknowns

I'm not really sure where to start with this. The third receiver was going to be Appalachian State transfer Shaedon Meadors, but an injury this summer (before training camp began) cost him his final season. Such a gutpunch story. Transferred from App State because he wanted a shot at major conference football, found a spot that needed a receiver, wanted to prove that his most recent season at App State where he led the team in receiving was no fluke, and his final season is over before it even began.

So the search began at training camp for a third wide receiver. If Rod Smith's offense is anything like the Rich Rodriguez offense (which it is), there will be three receivers on the field at nearly all times. So if we know that one will be Mikey Dudek and another will be Ricky Smalling, who will be the third? I really have no idea. Let's go oldest to youngest.

Will it be Sam Mays? Mays announced he was transferring after last season… and then he didn't transfer. He's played three seasons, two for Lovie, and certainly has the most experience of any of the receivers who might fill that third spot. But he had exactly zero catches last season.

Will it be Justice Williams? Williams spent three years at linebacker before making the transition to wide receiver this spring. I didn't expect much, to be honest (what linebacker makes a great receiver?), but I was pleasantly surprised at camp. He made two plays in particular (both against two defensive backs, both where he came down with the ball) that convinced me he could play. But route running, blocking, settling down in open spots – can he do any "receiver" things?

Will it be Caleb Reams? Reams seems caught in no-man's-land between wide receiver and tight end. He's gone back and forth between those two positions at least four times in his three seasons. Last fall he moved to wide receiver from tight end. Then, this spring, with a new offense, back to tight end. Then, this summer, for some reason, back to receiver. If someone is caught in no-man's-land, will they really be the dependable third receiver?

Will it be Trenard Davis? He also got caught between positions his first few years (defensive back, wide receiver, even emergency quarterback), but now he's settled at wide receiver for a second season (the first time he's returned to training camp at the same position as the year before). He caught 10 passes last season. Can he double that? Triple it?

Maybe it's Carmoni Green? He was certainly the highest-rated recruit of anyone I'm listing here for third receiver. Green (and his high school teammate DE Owen Carney) were a big coup for Lovie Smith in South Florida. Green is unfortunately remembered for last year's freshman mistake of all freshman mistakes – trying to fall on a punt that was rolling to a stop and fumbling it for a free turnover. If that's behind him, he has the speed and the athleticism – can he be the third guy?

What about junior college transfer Dominic Stampley? Stampley, who is from Champaign, joined the team just this summer (meaning he didn't sign in February and was a "blueshirt" recruit who joins the team once fall camp starts). Stampley certainly has the quicks (very fast in and out of his cuts), but after several dropped balls during training camp, can the coaching staff count on his hands?

Will it be Carlos Sandy? There are two freshman receivers, and he's the "short and fast" one.

Is it maybe Edwin Carter? He's the "tall and long" one, and that's maybe the kind of receiver they need in that third spot with Dudek and Smalling.

Could one of the walk-ons do it? Freshman Jordan Holmes has looked the best (as in, "that kid will be on scholarship some day" best), so maybe he could come out of nowhere and get in the rotation? Maybe local boy Dylan Thomas from Monticello? It's wide open, so could he raise his hand and say "hey, I'd like to play"?

I know one player who it won't be. It won't be Valparaiso transfer Donny Navarro. Navarro is doing the Clayton Fejedelem thing. After one season at a lower level of football, he thinks he can give the big time a shot, so he transferred to walk on at Illinois (and has to sit out a year). But keep that name in the back of your mind.

I honestly can't figure out the rotation beyond Dudek and Smalling. If I had to pick right now, I'd say they lean on the upperclassmen (Mays, Davis, Reams, and Williams) plus Carmoni Green. But if you wanted me to put down a bet on which player will be out there with Dudek and Smalling for the first play against Kent State, I wouldn't do it. It could be… anybody.

OK, so I think we've covered the entire offense. New coordinator, new quarterback, new emphasis, new direction, with very promising starters on the offensive line and also massive offensive line depth problems. Should be fun, right?

Defense

Here's the thing I think I think: I think there's a new offensive coordinator in Rod Smith, and I think that Illini fans are all talking about the difference Rod Smith will make, but nobody is talking about Gill Byrd. And I think Gill Byrd might make as much of a difference, scheme-wise, as Rod Smith this season.

OK, that's probably an overstatement. Smith is completely overhauling the offense; Byrd is tweaking the defense. But did you even know that Byrd is tweaking the defense?

Yes, Rod Smith was hired as "offensive coordinator" and Byrd was hired as "safeties coach," but Byrd was also given the title of "passing game coordinator" (meaning defensive passing game coordinator, not offensive passing game coordinator). I should explain what that means.

Titles are often resume-based. To get Billy Gonzales to leave LSU for Champaign, Tim Beckman offered him the title of "co-offensive coordinator." That's a step up from wide receivers coach (and a step towards getting a head coaching gig some day), so Gonzales left LSU for Illinois.

Sometimes, coaches are given the title of "passing game coordinator" or "run game coordinator." That's very similar to "co-offensive coordinator" and helps the resume along. And it also indicates why that person is being hired. The coach at, I don't know, Texas Tech wants to change line coaches and in the interview the guy he wants said, "I'd like a say over how we set up the run game" so he works it out with the OC that he will continue to coordinate the passing attack while the new OL hire gets a big say in how the run game is set up.

The same thing happens on defense. When Lovie was hired, he was fortunate in that one of his former long-time assistants, Mike Phair, was sitting in the defensive coordinator chair, promoted to that spot by Bill Cubit when he was named the permanent interim (not ideal). Tim Banks was let go, Phair was promoted, so Lovie came to Champaign with one of his guys already here.

Lovie wanted Hardy Nickerson as his defensive coordinator, but he also wanted to keep Mike Phair, so Phair was given the title of "run game coordinator." Lovie's defense, Nickerson would run the pass defense side (and coach the safeties), Phair would have heavy input on the run defense side (and coach the defensive line). They switched things up the second year (Nickerson moved to coaching the linebackers instead of the safeties), but Phair held onto the title of "run game coordinator."

This offseason, Phair left for the Indianapolis Colts. And Lovie went young with his replacement, landing Austin Clark, who was a graduate assistant at USC. He also shifted things around on his defense and hired a new safeties coach in Gill Byrd. And Byrd was given the title of "passing game coordinator."

So when you say to yourself "this defense looks different" on Saturday, a lot of that has to do with Gill Byrd. Many times at training camp the defense would be split into two halves – the run game guys would be working with the inside linebackers and defensive line over here (Hardy Nickerson running that side of things with Austin Clark assisting him), and then the passing game guys would be working with the outside linebackers, corners, and safeties over here (Gill Byrd running things with the now-departed Donnie Abraham assisting him).

I think I even tweeted this from practice one day: It seemed clear that Gill Byrd was not only coaching the entire secondary (I made the comment to a friend that Abraham was almost at graduate assistant status out there, which made a lot more sense when Abraham announced he was leaving the next week), but he was coordinating the passing side of things. To me, he's basically the co-defensive coordinator. It's still Lovie's defense, and he's in charge, but I really do think that Nickerson runs the run side and Byrd runs the passing side.

(I should pause to clarify the above. When I say "made a lot more sense when Abraham announced he was leaving the next week," I mean that it made sense that he was already on his way out the door and they were adjusting on the practice field, not that he got mad and left.)

So while we're all talking about Rod Smith and the changes on the offense, I believe there are significant tweaks made by Gill Byrd on the defense. I won't tell you what those are (I don't want to write a single word that could be used by Kent State coaches), but you'll see it on Saturday.

Most important coaching hire of the offseason: Rod Smith. Second-most important coaching hire: clearly Gill Byrd in my mind. Well ahead of Austin Clark and Cory Patterson. He's every bit the co-coordinator in my view.

That's not to say Clark and Patterson won't be important. Recruiting is part of the equation, the ability to coach technique is part of the equation. I'm just saying that nobody is talking about the Gill Byrd hire, and I think everyone should be talking about the Gill Byrd hire.

I'm tempted to start with the defensive backs because of that, but I won't. A defensive preview should be three (long) sections: Defensive line, linebackers, and secondary. Let's do this.

Defensive Line

Mike Phair to the Colts, Austin Clark to the Illini. A 15-year coaching veteran goes out the door and a 0-year coaching newbie comes in. That's… an interesting choice.

The last time I said that, when tight ends coach Greg Nord left in 2010 and was replaced by a graduate assistant from Arkansas named Chip Long, I was critical of the move. Why not go for more coaching experience? Why hire the kid? Well, seven years later, Chip Long is an offensive wunderkind, having moved from Arizona State to Memphis to now Notre Dame offensive coordinator (where Notre Dame had to fight off Alabama to keep him this offseason). So sometimes these GA hires can work out.

I guess my worry is that the most important developmental coach on this team right now is the defensive line coach. This is a young, youthful, and young defensive line. They need to make strides from game to game and get better in a hurry. And it feels a little risky to hand that development to someone in his first coaching job.

OK, that's enough on that. I'll stop. Let's talk defensive line.

Junior – junior – junior, sophomore – sophomore – sophomore – sophomore – sophomore – sophomore, redshirt-freshman – redshirt freshman, freshman – freshman – freshman – freshman. That's the defensive line. Perhaps that's better listed like this:

Fifth-year players: none

Fourth-year players: Jamal Milan

Third-year players: Tymir Oliver, Kenyon Jackson, Ayo Shogbonyo

Second-year players: Bobby Roundtree, Isaiah Gay, Jamal Woods, Owen Carney, Marc Mondesir, Lere Oladipo, Deon Pate

First-year players: Calvin Avery, Verdis Brown, Ezekiel Holmes, Julian Pearl

So not only is it "three juniors," it's "one single player entering his fourth or fifth season." Every Iowa and Wisconsin defensive line the last 15 years has relied on fourth- and fifth-year players who have developed and developed and developed and then were unleashed on the Big Ten. This year, at Illinois, one player qualifies for that (Jamal Milan), and as of right now, he's out with a knee injury.

If you're someone who draws the line at the third year – every lineman needs two years of development before they're ready, so count your redshirt sophomores and up as the ones who are probably ready – there's just four players who qualify: Milan, Oliver, Jackson, and linebacker-turned-defensive end Shogbonyo.

In two years, when Roundtree, Gay, Woods, Carney, Mondesir, Oladipo, and Pate are all fourth-year players and Avery, Brown, Holmes, and Pearl are all third-year players, man, watch out. I'm already preparing my "Illinois – best defensive line in the Big Ten West?" articles. Two years prior to that moment? I'm nervous.

The good news is that only two players left from last year (when most of these guys were playing as true freshmen). James Crawford (who was a very important piece to that defense and was voted defensive MVP) and Tito Odenigbo (whose flag-tossing incident where he tossed a flag back at an official who threw it was his last moment in an Illini uniform before transferring to Miami) have departed, and honestly, both were big losses. There's a reason Odenigbo landed at the best transfer spot of any of the 15 players who transferred out, and there's a reason Crawford is currently in camp with the Packers.

So at the start of the year, with those two gone, I think there's a slight step back for this defensive line. Yes, everyone is a year older, but with the new coach, players in new positions, and unknown status of the anchor of the defensive line (Milan), I think the line is in for a rough September. November 2020, "is this the best line in the Big Ten West?" September 2018, "uh, why are they struggling with the Western Illinois offensive line?"

That sounds too harsh. I don't really think they'll struggle with the Western Illinois offensive line. I'm just trying to say that they're still young. Guys like Dawuane Smoot and Carroll Phillips didn't really know what they were doing yet in 2014. Then in 2017 they were both playing for the Jaguars. All I'm saying is that it takes time.

Is the talent there? You bet. I'm about to go into one of those excitement bursts where my fingers can't keep up with my brain as I excitedly type out player name after player name.

Let's start with Lere Oladipo. Last year, 21 of the 24 scholarship freshmen played, while three redshirted – Deon Pate, Kendrick Green, and Lere Oladipo. We've already covered how Kendrick Green is going to start as a redshirt freshman on the offensive line – would you believe that Lere Oladipo is close to that level on the defensive line?

Yes, part of that is Jamal Milan's injury, and there are other players who will likely be in front of Oladipo this year. But I start with him because he's this great example of the depth on the defensive line. One of the three who didn't play last year, makes a big push at training camp, gets lots of snaps with the first string, a second-year player who had offers from Penn State and Michigan State – that's the kind of depth you need if you want to win in the Big Ten. You need to be at the point where you say, "but will Oladipo even play this year behind {names five defensive linemen}?" if you want to win in the Big Ten. Every good team has this "problem."

If Milan is healthy, our "problem" at defensive tackle is this rotation:

Jamal Milan – anchor of the line, hopefully back soon

Tymir Oliver – 2017 captain, the most underrated player on the defense

Kenyon Jackson – shorter tackle who plays the "pest" role quite well

Jamal Woods – hybrid DE/DT who started several games last year and will start many more

Lere Oladipo – redshirt freshman who spent as much time with the first string this summer as anyone

Calvin Avery – four-star freshman who is the top recruit at Illinois since 2013

Verdis Brown – four-star freshman who decommitted from Florida State and ended up at Illinois

Deon Pate – the only guy who hasn't made a statement yet, but only a redshirt freshman so there's time

That's how you build depth. That's what every position should look like. My panic about only having five offensive linemen above? Well, I'm pretty sure we have five or six defensive tackles ready to go (for only two spots) and then two or three waiting in the wings. There are future NFL draft picks here, there are future All-Big Ten defensive tackles here, there are multiple blue chip programs offering many of these players – this is what it needs to look like.

Milan's injury (back in two weeks? Out for the season? We don't know) puts a damper on things. He was certainly going to be the main guy this season. But with depth like this, the other players should be able to absorb his absence. The only real issue: they're all still so young.

At defensive end, they're younger. But I want to say that they still have just as much potential, if not more?

Let's start by discussing the weakside defensive ends. Actually, let's start by discussing what a "weakside defensive end" is. ACTUALLY, I guess I started by ending a sentence with a preposition and driving you grammar junkies insane.

When you see "weakside" and "strongside" defensive end, that refers to, in simple terms, the side with the tight end and the side without the tight end. The "heavy" side of the field for the offense, and the "light" side. If the tight end comes out of the huddle (what's a huddle?) and heads to the right side of the offensive line, the strongside end lines up on that side while the weakside defensive end lines up over the other tackle. If the tight end lines up on the left, or if the receivers are all bunched to the left, the defensive line will flip flop. Strongside end switches over to the "strong" side of the field, weakside end goes to the other side.

Because of this, you want your weakside end to be the speed rusher and you want your strongside end to be your bull rusher. It's not a hard and fast rule. You can have strong defensive ends on the weakside and fast defensive ends on the strongside depending on what defense you want to throw at the offense, but as a general rule, quicker rush guys go weakside for one-on-one pass rushing opportunities with the left tackle; stronger rush guys go strongside to sometimes split a double team from the tight end and right tackle. Again, it's never that simple, but that's the general rule.

Bobby Roundtree was brought in as a weakside defensive end but almost immediately started playing strongside end last year. This is the best kind of defensive end – someone who can play both ends. But it illustrates how this isn't a "how on earth could he play on the other side – he's a weakside end!" situation. Depending on skillsets, the coaches will use their guys in a variety of situations.

One thing Lovie has done at that weakside end spot is take some of his outside linebackers and move them up to weakside end. He did it last year with James Crawford, he's done it again this year with sophomores Marc Mondesir and Ayo Shogbonyo. I like to think of it this way.

He wants big, rangy Will linebackers. Guys who can cover a lot of field in a short amount of time (but are big enough to shed the block of an offensive lineman). He wants the strength coaches to max out that player on size and speed. If he gets a little too big? That's OK because he also wants…

Quick and strong weakside defensive ends, with an emphasis on quick. These are the speed rushers. He wants the strength coaches to max out that player on size and speed. If he gets a little too big? That's OK because he also wants…

Strong, powerful strongside defensive ends. Beat that double team on the pass rush, hold the edge on a rushing play, be the corner of the defense. He wants the strength coaches to max out that player on size and speed. If he gets a little too big? That's OK because he also wants…

Fast and strong 3-technique defensive tackles. These are the guys who could play some end if they wanted to (and go get the quarterback), but they're better utilized inside. He wants the strength coaches to max out that player on size and speed. If he gets a little too big? That's OK because he also wants…

Massive, immovable nose tackles. These are the anchors. The guys who are there to clog the middle on a running play and disrupt the pocket on a passing play. He wants the strength coaches to max out that player on size and speed. If he gets a little too big? That's OK because he also wants…

OK, there's no other spots. There's nothing else he wants. If the nose tackles get too big, they don't have anywhere else to go. But you get the point. That's the continuum.

And guys like Shogbonyo and Mondesir are currently sliding down that continuum. Both were brought in as bigger linebackers (Shogbonyo by Cubit, Mondesir by Lovie), both played at linebacker last year, both have now moved to weakside end, where they join two other guys, sophomore Isaiah Gay and freshman Ezekiel Holmes. Line up those four guys and get their picture and I'm not sure anyone would guess that they're "defensive ends.. I'm not sure any of them are over 230 lbs.?

But that's what Lovie likes at that position. He wants speed. He wants an undersized guy who can run around and make plays. It's why he raved about Isaiah Gay so much last year. It's why he's moving these linebackers over there. He wants disruptors. That will be their job title.

Gay is the most likely starter. He was the breakout star of the first two games last year, surprising everyone (including the coaches, I think) with his play against Ball State and Western Kentucky. He was maybe 208 lbs. at the time, so I'm sure he got some chuckles from the Ball State and WKU left tackles when he lined up across from them. He more than held his own, though, to the point where he was probably the defensive player of the game against Western Kentucky.

His playing time diminished greatly as the opponents got better (and bigger). There's a slight difference between a Ball State offensive tackle and a Wisconsin offensive tackle. Gay played a lot in early September, didn't play much in late September and early October (James Crawford returning from a three-game suspension was a big part of this), and then Gay played more and more as November came. This offseason, he added 20-25 lbs. of muscle and returns with a chance to play in every game (and likely start).

Backing him up will be some mix of Shogbonyo and Mondesir. Owen Carney, who we'll get to in a moment, can also play over there on the weakside. Against run-heavy teams, I think you might see Carney at WDE and Bobby Roundtree at SDE so that the DL is built to stop the run. But in the conventional defense, I think it's Gay with Shogbonyo and Mondesir.

On the strongside, Jamal Milan's injury comes into play here as well. My guess when I arrived at camp, if I was building a two-deep, would be Owen Carney and Isaiah Gay at weakside and then Bobby Roundtree and Jamal Woods at strongside end. With Milan out, I think Woods needs to go inside to help out the defensive tackles (he played there a ton last year, especially as the 3-technique defensive tackle in third down situations). So that slides Carney over to SDE to help Roundtree (and slides Shogbonyo or Mondesir in to help Gay).

Roundtree deserves his own paragraph. Four paragraphs. He just drips with potential.

It's hard to remember this, but Roundtree wasn't the star of signing day. He wasn't the "big get." In early February 2017 – the day Roundtree picked Illinois over Indiana and the coaches celebrated in their conference room – the "stars" of the defensive line recruiting were Owen Carney (a near four-star who picked Illinois over Florida State) and Lere Oladipo (as mentioned above, Illinois over Penn State and Michigan State). Roundtree was an afterthought, ratings-wise, with a 247 composite score of .8326. If he was in this current class, that would put him just behind running back Nick Fedanzo (.8336).

Offer-wise, though, he was much better than that (Michigan State offered him as well). And when asking the coaches about the class at that press conference, they all lit up when talking about him. They knew what they were getting. It's part of the reason why I gave him 3.25 Tom Cruises. This was better than a low three-star defensive end.

And last year's Big Ten All-Freshman Team performance proved that. I made this point at training camp, but there were a few plays from Roundtree where I had the thought – for the first time since maybe 2011 at camp – that there was an Illini player who might head to the draft before his senior season. He makes some plays that make you shake your head.

(SIDE NOTE: I write this preview at a variety of cafes and coffee houses. RIGHT NOW, outside this window, I believe some drunk bro has stolen a police bicycle and is joyriding up and down the street with the lights flashing. I saw the bicycle cop earlier, and I'm guessing he stopped to go into a shop somewhere around here and the dude grabbed the bike, flipped on the lights, and headed out into the street. I have a feeling drunk bro will regret this decision in a bit.)

OK, so Roundtree is the future, but so is maybe Owen Carney? Carney probably nudges out Isaiah Gay for the "added the most muscle in the offseason" award. He's a big part of the future of this defense as well, either on the strongside or the weakside, and his ability to play both makes him a massively important part of this rebuild.

I'll mention Woods one more time. Many people forget that Woods started a few games in front of Roundtree last season. If they landed a star in Roundtree and a potential star in Carney, they also landed a sleeper in Woods (whom they flipped from Memphis). He will also play a lot this season, perhaps a lot at defensive end.

Overall, deep, deep defensive line. So much potential all over the place. When talking about defensive tackles, I only briefly mentioned 4-stars Calvin Avery and Verdis Brown. This has the look of an outstanding, best-in-the-Big-Ten-West defensive line next year and the following year.

But right now they're still so young.

Linebacker

I have a feeling the next two portions of this preview will be the shortest. It's going to feel like I fly through these compared to all of the other positions. There's a reason for that.

See, there are significant changes in these positions. But I don't want to talk about them. I know it sounds stupid, but I figured out a lot about this defense at camp and I don't want an ounce of it to get out. Would the Kent State coaches really find this preview in the next five days and would it affect their gameplan? Almost certainly not. But there's no way I could live with myself if I put some of the changes out there. You'll just have to see for yourself on Saturday.

So these sections – linebackers and defensive secondary – are going to be very "here's what this player brings" with almost no "here's how this player will be used." If you want to see how he'll be used… watch the game on Saturday.

Actually, they might not even show much of the new stuff on Saturday. Or next Saturday. They might save it for South Florida. I'll just say that it's significantly different and I think a lot of that has to do with Gill Byrd being named "passing game coordinator" and switching up how this team defends the pass.

With that out of the way, a boring look at each player on the linebacker roster.

I think there will be three main linebackers this season, mostly rotating between Mike (middle) and Will (weakside) linebacker. There are others who will certainly play, including some of the freshmen, I think, but the main rotation will be three guys: Del'Shawn Phillips, Jake Hansen, and Dele Harding.

Phillips is the only senior on the entire defense. Not just among the starters – the entire defense. The whole defense. Entire thing. One senior.

AND he's a Lovie recruit – the only junior college recruit in the 2017 class. Which means that every single Tim Beckman defensive recruit who would have been a senior is gone. Normally, you'd have around 18 guys on the defense from the former coach (that's what Beckman had in his third year and what Zook had in his third year). Lovie has only two redshirt juniors (Jamal Milan and Cam Watkins). Every other player on the defense is from the 2016 class he inherited from Bill Cubit or the 2017 and 2018 classes he recruited. In his third year, two guys. It's insane.

So Phillips is the go-to guy. He led the team in tackles last season, he'll lead the team in tackles this season. You want your seniors to be the leaders, and he's the only senior, so lead he must.

Alongside on the first snap of the season will likely be Jake Hansen. Hansen was set to start last year as a true sophomore, but a knee injury in training camp cost him the entire season. He returns now as a redshirt sophomore (which, honestly, is huge for the 2020 season) and will hopefully show everything that Lovie has been raving about. Lovie wants linebackers who make the right read, the right decisions, and are in the right gap on every play. That's how this defense works. Everyone make the right read, respond correctly, and every play is snuffed out.

What Lovie doesn't love: linebackers who play like it's still high school. As in, "here's your job: when you see a guy with the ball, go run and tackle him." Lovie hates linebackers who just run to the ball and attempt the tackle. There are gap assignments, and you must follow them, even if it means you direct the ballcarrier to someone else who makes the tackle. Do your job. Hansen gets praised for "doing his job" more than any other linebacker on the roster.

The third guy heavy in the rotation: junior Dele Harding. Harding took over the starting job from Tre Watson midway through the 2017 season (and Watson eventually transferred to Maryland). Watson did return to the lineup for the final few games (Harding had a season-ending injury), but had that not happened, Harding would have been the guy for the second half of the season.

This year, I believe he'll rotate seamlessly. Perhaps filling in for both Hansen and Phillips. Perhaps even starting a few games over one of them.

After Harding, the next men up are probably the freshmen. There's Khalan Tolson, a freshman linebacker from Tampa, and Jacob Hollins, a freshman linebacker from Fresno. It's hard to get a read on which one is ahead of the other at this point (my guess is Tolson) because there's no tackling in training camp. And if you haven't heard, tackling is rather important for linebackers. I have Tolson out in front right now, but after two games we might learn that Hollins is the sure tackler and he's the one getting all the "fourth linebacker" minutes.

Jimmy Marchese factors in somewhere here as well. The former walk-on (who, like tight end Bobby Walker, was put on scholarship on Christmas Day) started a game last year and looked to be heavily in the rotation this season… right up until his arrest this summer for stealing a park sculpture and putting it on the roof of his apartment building (along with roommate and fellow walk-on linebacker Drew Murtaugh). Just a guess, but I'd assume that both Marchese and Murtaugh will face a suspension at the beginning of the year and then have to fight their way back into the rotation. (Again, just a guess – Lovie never announces these things.)

I'm going to give the strongside linebackers their own category with the slot corners. Like the coaches do, we'll call them:

Nickels

When in a run-heavy defense, it will be a linebacker-y guy (like sophomore James Knight). When in passing situations, it will be a corner-y guy (like freshman Sydney Brown). When they need a hybrid of the two, they might use sophomore walk-on Christian Bobak.

And they might even go heavy and put Harding at strongside linebacker with Phillips and Hansen. Or they might go "light" and put freshman safety Kerby Joseph at nickel. Alright, I'm already saying too much about this.

Knight is a "tweener"– a great high school linebacker, but size-wise is probably more of a safety in college, but game-wise is probably more of a linebacker. What better spot than nickel, then? The whole idea is hybrid linebacker/defensive back."

Brown is probably the guy recruited for the role. Maybe he ends up at safety, but he's the "safety who looks like a linebacker" on the field. If you haven't seen his high school film, go check it out. He played in a small, private-school league in Florida and he goes around wrecking small, private-school kids in Florida.

Bobak is the walk-on running back who was so good on kickoff coverage last year that the coaches decided that maybe he should be a defensive player. So now he's learning to be a hybrid safety/linebacker. Quite the transition, quite the learning curve.

This is not to say that a dozen other players might be involved in this spot. Is one of the linebackers like Jimmy Marchese going to play out there in run situations? Is freshman safety Kerby Joseph going to be the guy there? What about when they want three true corners on the field – will they put Tony Adams or Cam Watkins there? Nickel is a position with lots of questions to be answered. And, honestly, most of them won't be answered until at least October.

Defensive Backs

And now to the secondary, where we once again see the same theme: potential! Yet so young!

Let's do the same chart as above:

Fifth-year players: none

Fourth-year players: Cam Watkins

Third-year players: Stanley Green

Second-year players: Bennett Williams, Nate Hobbs, Tony Adams, Dawson DeGroot, Kendall Smith

First-year players: Ron Hardge, Dylan Wyatt, Delano Ware, Nick Walker, Jartavius Martin, Kerby Joseph, Sydney Brown

This is somehow even younger than the defensive line. The DL went 0-1-3-7-4. The DB's go 0-1-1-5-7. Again, insane. Two guys in their third, fourth, or fifth years. Twelve guys in their first or second year. Twelve!

Again, I don't want to say too much about the things that are different about the D (HI KENT STATE COACHES), so I'll just rock through these players one by one, in order of how they were listed above.

Cam Watkins was Ke'Shawn Vaughn's high school teammate who verballed at the same presser as Vaughn. Who would have expected Vaughn to transfer and Watkins to be in line for a starting spot for his junior and senior seasons?

Stanley Green you know and understand. He's going to fly around. He's going to force fumbles, maybe as many as five or six of them. He's also probably going to lower his head to make yet another hit, watch the ballcarrier lower his head, and be ejected from a game for targeting.

Bennett Williams may be second to Bobby Roundtree on this defensive roster if we're talking "potential to be a first team All-Big Ten performer with an eye on one of the All-American teams." Not this year – YOUTH! – but next year or the following. His nose for the ball – either when the ball is in the air or when the ballcarrier is coming through a gap – is just incredible. He has a sixth sense. Bennett Williams deserves more than one paragraph, but I'm committed to finishing this thing before I talk about something I don't want to talk about.

Nate Hobbs is your lockdown corner for the next three years. The only reason he started 10 games last year instead of 12 was that he arrived at training camp with mono and missed three weeks. If he had played those three weeks, I'm guessing he would have started all 12 games (with an eye on starting 50 for his Illini career).

Tony Adams has two things: 1) a lot of potential, and 2) injury concerns. He missed most of his senior year in high school with a knee injury. He missed the final seven games his freshman season with a shoulder injury. And because I pore over photos from practices that are posted online (promise not to tell anyone), there's a photo of him from this week with what looks like a cast on his hand. Sometimes it's just wrapped like that so the player can practice with padding on a hand injury. Sometimes it's a broken hand.

Dawson DeGroot played in seven games (and started one) last year. This year, he has all kinds of competition from seven new freshman defensive backs (seven!). So I'm fascinated to see how all of this sorts out. Lovie turned to all of his freshmen last year. Will he stay with those guys and sprinkle in a freshman here or there this year, or will he do the same as last year and give these freshmen the opportunity to play a lot (and maybe even start)?

Kendall Smith was recruited as an "ATH," was tried at wide receiver last year (playing a tiny bit there but mostly on special teams), and then was moved to safety in the spring. Honestly, he might not be done moving. Trenard Davis did this and didn't settle at wide receiver until his redshirt sophomore year. Smith might have one more season of moving around.

Michael Marchese wasn't listed above (I only listed scholarship players) but he needs to be mentioned here. When I say "Illinois played 21 of their recruits last year," yet you hear that Lovie played 22 freshmen, the younger Marchese is the 22nd guy. To play as a freshman scholarship player is usually a big feat. To play as a walk-on true freshman? That's rather amazing. Marchese the Younger played a lot at training camp (and I mean a lot) at safety. There's a chance he's as high as the third safety on the depth chart on Saturday?

And now for the freshmen. All SEVEN of them.

Ron Hardge was at cornerback most of camp. I start by saying that because by October 1, Hardge could be at free safety while Kerby Joseph is at nickel and Nick Walker is at strong safety. This could all change. But the coaches seem to love Hardge at cornerback, and I'd say he was maybe the fifth cornerback at camp, and if Tony Adams' hand really is in a cast, Hardge is going to play on Saturday.

Dylan Wyatt was one of my favorites in the class (I gave high Tom Cruise ratings to Wyatt, Delano Ware, and Jartavius Martin), but a knee injury at camp (no idea how serious) prevented me from seeing much of him. I think I only saw him in two practices? So it's hard to get a read. Hopefully it wasn't serious and he's working his way back into the rotation.

Delano Ware was one of the bigger surprises for me at training camp. I went to camp in two phases. The first phase, for two practices, I didn't see much from Ware. The second phase, for three more practices, he looked like a different player. This shouldn't shock me. The first few days of camp, a true freshman can find himself trying to keep his head above water. After a week to ten days, often the light bulb comes on. Look for Ware to maybe… be the third safety on Saturday?

Nick Walker is the junior college member of the class. He only played one year at juco so he arrives with three years of eligibility. He was mostly in a hoodie on the sideline when I was at camp (some kind of injury, didn't seem serious), so I can't report much on him. Like Wyatt, hopefully it wasn't serious and he's in the rotation soon (even if it's just scout team for this year).

Jartavius Martin is my guy. I gave him my Asamoah Award (lower-rated recruit who will surprise), and then, thanks to confirmation bias, I spent the entire camp oohing and aahing. I can't help it – I think he's a future star. He was at cornerback most of camp, but there's part of me which still wants to see him at free safety. I think we'll see a ton of #21 on Saturday.

Kerby Joseph was probably the biggest surprise for me. He was maybe the lowest-rated of all the recruits (I think maybe Dylan Wyatt was rated lower but I don't have time to check because I'm on a roll here), but he played a lot with the first-string defense at camp, first at nickel and then at safety. If Jartavius Martin stays at cornerback, I'd love to see Joseph at safety. Great athlete, lots of potential.

Sydney Brown I covered above, but I wanted to at least list his name here. Maybe he's a nickel, maybe he's a safety. I do think we'll see a lot of him on Saturday. So, adding that up, you might see a lot of Brown, Martin, Ware, Joseph, and maybe even Hardge. That's a lot of freshmen in the defensive backfield.

Which is why I think you'll see a lot of different combinations back there this fall. The starters seem clear – Hobbs and Watkins at corner, Williams and Green at safety. But the second string, honestly, could end up being four freshmen I listed above. And six of them might get on-field auditions.

Is that it? Did I power through the entire defense? I think I did. Some closing thoughts before moving on to Special Teams:

Wow is this defense young. They'll be improved, I think, but the youthful mistakes are still going to be there. There are no fifth-year players on the entire defense and – is this right? – only three fourth-year players (Milan, Watkins, and J. Marchese). Repeating in case you didn't hear that: Zero fifth-year players, three fourth-year players.

The way I view football, it's almost a FULL STOP when you get to that point and then start hoping for a huge defensive season. "How many fourth- and fifth-year players? 3 and 0? I don't care if the rest of the team is all five-stars – you can't build a great defense with that. Nobody can even drink yet."

(wait for it)

(you know it's coming)

NEXT YEAR AND 2020, THOUGH...

Special Teams

When was the last time you could say, "you know, Illinois really has some outstanding special teams"? As in, "special teams alone might win them an extra game." As in, "I'm not sure I see any weaknesses." Probably some time around when Lou Tepper had Jim Sheppard ask us to Stand Up For Special Teams, right?

I look at special teams in three categories:

1. Kicking the ball – Just the kicker and the punter.

2. Returning the ball – Punt returner and kickoff returner, yes, but also the return teams (blockers).

3. Covering kicks – Punt coverage and kickoff coverage.

Let's briefly look at all three last season.

1. Chase McLaughlin had a solid, not spectacular, season as the kicker. The same season as 2016, really – 12 for 17 on field goals, made every extra point. And Blake Hayes, as a true freshman, had the ninth-best punting season in Illini history.

2. Returns were the big struggle, especially after Mikey Dudek got injured and Lovie turned to a variety of backup punt returners. The Illini finished 86th in punt return yardage (almost all of the yardage was Dudek in the first six games) and finished 99th in kickoff return yardage (through 11 games the numbers were near the bottom but Dre Brown's two 50-yard returns against Northwestern moved the numbers up).

3. Kick coverage was a pleasant surprise – perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the team. 32nd nationally in kickoff coverage and 28th in punt coverage. And that was with coverage teams which were… 75% true freshmen? Perhaps more? 15 true freshmen started a game last season, and 22 played – those other seven (like Marc Mondesir and Kendall Smith) were primarily coverage team guys.

I think the best way to go through the special teams would be to break it down into those three sections. Kick it, return it, tackle a returner.

Kick It

This one seems easy. Should be the best kicking season in at least 10 years. This is where I'm going to seem very sad to you as I go back through this.

Justin DuVernois was an All-Big Ten punter his senior season but the kicking was kind of a mess that season. Taylor Zalewski won the job but struggled, eventually being replaced by David Reisner who hit the game-winner against Penn State. But then Reisner struggled and was replaced by Zalewski in the bowl game. So there really wasn't much kicking consistency.

Maybe 2010? Derek Dimke was pretty good that year as the kicker and Anthony Santella had a great year punting the ball (his senior year). Maybe that's the "it will be the best since…" here.

Santella had struggled a bit up to that point, so even a year where Jason Reda was nails as the kicker (like 2007), we had some punting issues. 2006 Reda was solid but everyone remembers our unfortunate "let's send true freshman Kyle Yelton into the end zone and have him punt on the road against a really good Rutgers team" incident. (Not everyone remembers that? Good. You don't want to remember that.)

So I think the answer is 2005. That was Steve Weatherford's senior season and he was by far the best player on that team (Lou Tepper would have been so happy). And Jason Reda was solid as a sophomore. So that's the year.

This year will be the best kicking + punting performance in Champaign since 2005.

Jason Reda was 13 for 20 that season – Chase McLaughlin can beat that this year. Chase was 12 for 17 as a sophomore, 12 for 17 as a junior, and is hopefully better than 13 for 20 as a senior.

And Steve Weatherford was second-team All-Big Ten and honorable mention All-American his senior year (in 2005) before going on to a successful NFL punting career. Given that information, this should tell you how successful Blake Hayes' freshman season was last year. Remember, these are Weatherford's second-team all-conference, honorable mention All-American numbers:

Steve Weatherford 2005: 42.6 yards per punt on 67 punts

Blake Hayes 2017: 42.0 yards per punt on 77 punts

Steve Weatherford 2005: 16 punts downed inside the 20

Blake Hayes 2017: 22 punts downed inside the 20

So yes, I don't think Illini fans need to worry about punting for the next three seasons. And I don't think we need to worry about kicking either. Let's just move on. These two should be the best in Champaign in 13 years.

Return It

Mikey Dudek and Dre Brown should be our best punt returner/kickoff returner combo in… 11 years? No, the Rose Bowl team really struggled with punt returns. In... 17 years? Not sure I can find a comp here.

First off, I probably shouldn't assume that Dre Brown is going to return every kickoff. That's my personal opinion based on what we saw in the last game (two kickoff returns that he took to the Northwestern 49, one of which was a shoestring away from being a touchdown). And in the fall scrimmage, when they sent the return team out there, Brown was the first guy up and looked the part again. So I'm at "they'd BETTER have Dre Brown return every kickoff," but I don't know that. Nate Hobbs proved capable back there as well last season.

But given what Brown showed last season in the final two games, I'm thinking he's the guy for the future. Reminded me a little bit of Pierre Thomas and his knack for getting to the second wave of tacklers on a kickoff return.

And Dudek, well, we saw what he could do as a punt returner in the Ball State game last season. That long punt return showed us what he can do with his shiftiness on a punt return (a return which still haunts him because he didn't score, although that was probably a good thing because the ensuring drive bled just enough clock that Ball State only had enough time to scramble and set up a 54-yard field goal attempt which we thankfully blocked because if we hadn't we would have gotten a roughing the kicker penalty and Ball State would have then attempted a 39-yard field goal I'm lost where were we).

Remember Ryan Switzer's day returning punts when we played at North Carolina in 2015? I just looked it up – five punt returns for 168 yards (ugh, that game). I really do think Dudek is capable of a day like that this fall. He's the most natural punt returner in Champaign in a long, long time.

So the "returning" side of things, I think Lovie is in great shape. The "block for the returners" side – that's the thing that needs the most work (see the statistics above). How many times did we see two opponents fire through unblocked and trap the kickoff returner at the 13 last year? This was a big point of emphasis during camp. So. Many. Kickoff. Blocking. Drills.

If they fix that, look for a big year on returns. They have the returners to do it.

Tackle A Returner

This was a pleasant surprise last season. Coverage teams that finished 32nd and 28th nationally. Illinois didn't kick off very much (because Illinois didn't score very much), but when Illinois kicked off, Illinois tackled the returner.

(It's so weird. I try SO HARD to not "we" in these previews. I don't know why – I feel like a piece like this shouldn't have "we were really good on punt coverage last year" and instead should say "Illinois was really good on punt coverage last year." But I just cannot do it. I'm guessing there are 53 "we"s above. I just can't not.)

I don't think a single coverage guy on kickoffs or punts graduated last season (maybe Ahmari Hayes?), so there's no reason to not expect improvement on these numbers. I'm not sure there's much more to talk about here. Kick returns and punt returns were consistently stuffed, and everyone returns, and the special teams coach is the same, so WE should improve on 32nd and 28th.

Writing this section makes me wonder if future season previews will be difficult if we're ever good. This was tough to write. "We were good at this last year and should be good again next year. That's pretty much it." Preview length: 488 words.

I think that's all for special teams.

HA YOU THOUGHT I WAS GOING TO FORGET TO TALK ABOUT LONG SNAPPERS AGAIN. I FOOLED YOU.

The long snapper will be Ethan Tabel. Who, I just learned today, pronounces his name "tuh-BELL." I've been saying "Ethan Table" for nearly two years now.

(Side note number 73 of this preview. I'm writing this section at a coffee shop right now. It's a 24-hour coffee shop in St. Louis that gets kinda crazy at night with Wash U students everywhere. A guy just came up and asked if I had an iPhone charger on me (I did). He wanted to borrow it to charge his phone while he practiced piano (yes, there's a piano – when I was writing the 2015 preview here I'm pretty sure I wrote about the 2 a.m. concert). Anyway, I gave him my charger and he said "let me give you something to hold on to so I don't forget to give this back to you." So he handed me his student ID – a University of Illinois student ID. We are so totally going to win a bunch of games this season that we're not supposed to all because some Illini student is practicing piano in this St. Louis coffee shop late at night.)

ANYWAY, last season we had two long snappers (one for short snaps on field goals and extra points, one for long snaps on punts). One of those guys, Sean Mills, transferred to Toledo after the season. So this year, the job goes to tuh-BELL. And that's likely the case for three full seasons since tuh-BELL is a sophomore.

With Mills gone, the only other long snapper on the roster is... the largest long snapper in Illini history: Ron Gaines III from Chicago Simeon. I'm guessing Gaines tips the scales at around 310 lbs.? That's just a guess from observing him at camp. Big guys are good at guessing big guys' weights.

Weight doesn't matter for long snappers. You can snap at 145 lbs., you can snap at 345 lbs. (although punt coverage after snapping the ball might be a little difficult at 345 lbs.). So there's nothing to this point. Just that Gaines is big enough to play offensive line. Just a massive dude.

OK now I'm done with special teams. Oh – Blake Hayes will be the holder. And if he can't do it, walk-on QB Cam Miller will be the holder.

NOW I'm done with special teams.

In-Closing

Here's the question on everyone's mind: are we past it?

Do we have to endure this anymore?

Was last season finally the last season where we avoid every Monday morning watercooler discussion because we just can't talk about another 37-9 loss by our beloved Illini?

I have an Illinois blog. My friends all know I have this blog, and my friends all know how important it is to me, so my friends always ask me – quite sincerely – "how are the Illini looking this year?" They probably know the answer, but they know how much I care, so they ask the question anyway hoping it's not another year where I say "not there yet." (I have, for the last ten years, answered that question with "not there yet.")

Well, that's not true. In 2009, after blogging about my first Camp Rantoul, juiced beyond belief about Juice to Benn and our upcoming dream season, I answered with "this is the year." Vegas had our over/under oscillating between 7.5 and 8 wins, there was the 7to9.com site promoting both Juice and Benn for the Heisman, we were going into a game against Missouri in St. Louis where we were favored over Missouri by seven (they were coming off a 10-win season, we were coming off a 5-win season, so I'm not sure how that worked besides 7to9.com), and I told everyone who asked (not many people asked) that this was the year.

It wasn't the year.

So then we all re-calibrated. If a Vegas over/under of 8 produced a 3-9 season, what would the next year hold? We all expected the worst and got… something a little better? That season was easily the best Illini season since I started "covering" the Illini with the blog. It was only 6-6, but that team beats every other Illini team from 2009 to present. They found a rushing attack with Mikel Leshoure, they found a quarterback in Nathan Scheelhaase, and they beat RGIII and Baylor in the Texas Bowl. 6-6, bad loss to Fresno State, horrific choke at home against Minnesota, but 6-6. I'll take it.

But it wasn't the year where I could tell my friends "yep, I think Illini football is going somewhere." They'd ask about my blog, I'd tell them how I took off an entire week to go to Rantoul, they asked how we looked, and I said "eh, we're not there just yet." So many players had graduated (or been drafted) on the 2010 team that 2011 was a little iffy. I've been looking for a season where I could firmly say "this is it," and that was a maybe. "Maybe" is better than "it's not gonna happen this year," but that still wasn't it.

By early October, though, I was ready to declare it. 6-0 Illinois, bowl eligible before Columbus Day, ranked 16th in the country. This is it.

It wasn't the year. We lost six in a row and the head coach was fired.

I don't believe I even hinted "this might be the year" after that. 2-10 in 2012 and here we go again. Out to dinner with friends after returning from Camp Rantoul in 2013 – "so how are the Illini looking this year?"

"This isn't the year."

2014 – "We're probably still one year away."

2015 – "It was looking promising there for a while but we just fired the head coach and there's a big scandal so this season is probably over before it began."

Then March 7, 2016 happened and I was lost in a sea of giddiness. All of the mess of the previous 10 months evaporated with the words "Lovie Smith named Illinois head coach." Finally, Illinois was investing in football.

That brought tons of phone calls from friends and family. "Your thing! Illinois Football! It might be good!" I rode that wave all spring and summer. I was excited to get The Question. "So, will Illinois football be good this year?" People got an earful. I wouldn't go on the record with "good," but I did think that with the jolt of adrenaline we'd all received, 6-6 was possible. Honestly, I was over the moon right up through the first quarter of the North Carolina game. Sold-out crowd, me eschewing the pressbox to sit in the stands, THAT ROAR when Ke'Shawn Vaughn scored the long touchdown… it was all happening.

It wasn't happening.

Mitch Trubisky put a quick end to my glee, and by the Purdue loss a few weeks later – right when the winning field goal from Chase McLaughlin doinked off the upright, to be exact – I sank right back down into my comfortable "not yet" space. Lovie really started playing the kids at that point (nine senior starters on defense the first week; three senior starters on defense the last week), and I wrote that whole "we're not going to learn anything about this team for the next 25 games" thing (basically, Purdue game in 2016 to the Purdue game in 2018).

Last year, when I got The Question, I went the other way with it. I told people straight – it was probably going to be the worst season since I started the blog. I told anyone who would listen last year that we were going to lose to Ball State. It was the worst training camp I had ever watched, and it looked like were preparing 15 true freshmen to play (it was actually 22), and I saw 3-9 on the horizon. We went 2-10.

This year, yep, I keep getting The Question. Last Saturday I drove straight from the scrimmage in Champaign to a dinner party in St. Louis. A dinner party with friends is the perfect time for The Question. As we were standing around with our drinks waiting for the ribs to come off the smoker, I was probably asked the question four times.

"You're coming from the scrimmage in Champaign? How they lookin'?"

"So you've been up at training camp? What kind of season are you going to have?"

"How's the blog going? Going to have something to write about this season?"

"Is this the year?"

I couldn't really answer with anything besides "not there yet." I wanted to – I've been waiting nine years for it – but I couldn't really give a positive report. There was a lot of "still the youngest team in all the major conferences" and "the new quarterback looks promising but I'm not sure if the offensive line can hold up." More than anything, I still tell people the same thing I've been saying since March of 2016:

"October 12, 2019."

I don't give them the exact date. I just say things like "I think next year is the breakout year." For those who don't Twitter, when Lovie was hired I put that date in my Twitter bio. It's the date of the Michigan game in Champaign in 2019. We had a new coach and a new outlook but I knew the roster was a mess and would take some years to revamp. So I picked a date midway through the 2019 season (which would be Lovie's fourth) where we would make our return. We'd exorcise the demons of the 2000 Michigan game (Turner's fourth season, a game in which our AD caught a touchdown pass) and announce our return with a win over Michigan.

It was kind of gimmicky at first – just a fun thing to say when we're losing at Michigan by 30 in the first half in 2016 – but as the date draws nearer, it seems more and more apt. When college football programs turn around, they usually turn around suddenly. Sometimes there's no mediocre. It's bad and then it's bad and then suddenly it's good. 2-9 in 2005, 2-10 in 2006, Rose Bowl in 2007. 0-11 in 1997, 3-8 in 1998, 7-4 in 1999.

Even the jump from 2009 (3-9) to 2010 (7-6 after the Texas Bowl win) was sudden. We all went into the 2010 season with very low expectations (3-9, Juice graduated, Benn went off to the NFL), and then we played a top-25 Missouri team tough all the way into the fourth quarter in the 2010 opener and knew things had turned around quickly. The fumbling, bumbling team of 2009 was gone and things were instantly better. (Unfortunately, it also works in reverse. 1995 we're still a decent football team; 1996 the bottom fell out. Same with 2002 into 2003.)

So with all of this history, are we due for a leap like that this season? Should I have answered all those question at the dinner party last week with, "yep, the corner has been turned?"

In short, no. I don't think this is going to be that season. If I squint I can see it, but I'm just not convinced that we're there yet. I still think it's one more year. I still think it's October 12, 2019.

IF we were to pull off a surprising bowl season and set of an avalanche of "if Illinois is doing this while starting 14 sophomores, how good will they be in 2019 and 2020?", it would probably be something like this:

1. AJ Bush is a star

A quarterback can mean two extra wins sometimes. A historically great quarterback can mean maybe half a dozen wins. I use this example all the time, but take Miami Ohio in 2003 and remove Ben Roethlisberger from the team. Keep everyone else – just make the second-string QB the starter. I know they would have been nowhere near the top-10 AP ranking they achieved. Perhaps six fewer wins? Their fans might fondly remember that defensive line and talk about the rotation of wide receivers, but really, without Big Ben, those players aren't remember from yet another 5-7 Miami Ohio season. One player – one great quarterback – can make everyone look good.

Illinois hasn't gotten that out of a quarterback since Nathan Scheelhaase turned a 1-11 or 2-10 season into 4-8 back in 2013. That defense was so young and so inexperienced that the team had no chance. But Scheelhaase finding Steve Hull and company led to a few wins the Illini didn't deserve.

That's what could really boost the Illini this season. A quarterback having a plus performance, winning a few games on his own. We're due for a surprise out of nowhere like that, right?

2. Rod Smith puts all the king's horses and all the king's men back together

Wait, I think all the king's men put ol' Humpty back together. You know what? I'm leaving it.

When the offense was really clicking at camp, there were times I was ready to anoint Rod Smith as the conquering hero. Finally, someone unlocked the Illinois offense. It feels like it's been 25 years since we put up points in bunches. So when it was on, it led to all kinds of daydreaming.

I mean, he has the weapons. Mike Epstein is a plus tailback. Lou Dorsey is a plus tight end. Mikey Dudek and Ricky Smalling are plus wide receivers. The weapons are there to move the ball, especially if No. 1 comes true.

3. The defense is ready a year earlier than we thought

As we covered above (We? Who is we?) ... as I covered above, the defense has one senior. The defensive line will be 80% sophomores and freshmen. The secondary has two juniors but then all sophomores and freshmen. It's rare for a young defense to be a great defense. They need seasoning (and strength).

But if they're ready a year early, that changes the equation on everything. The defense will rotate around 25 players between the starters and the backups (Lovie wants to keep his defense fresh), and next year, 24 of those 25 return. And the year after that, 21 of the 25 return again. The defense you'll see on the field this season is pretty much the 2020 defense… having to play two years early.

If they're on track to be early and have a surprising season? Yes, that changes everything.

4. The schedule hands out some breaks

Nebraska is starting a freshman at quarterback. Minnesota is starting a true freshman walk-on. Rutgers is starting a freshman and just suspended eight players from their defense. Maryland might fire their head coach and go through a confusing, scandal-plagued, Illini-in-2015-like season. Purdue might have big problems on defense. South Florida, too.

If you squint, you can see the clouds parting a little bit. In the same way that the 2016 schedule turned out to be crazy difficult (eight bowl opponents, the majority of them with 8, 9, or 10 wins), perhaps the 2018 schedule can turn out to be crazy easy? Maybe some of these teams fall flat (Purdue defense, Maryland offense, entire Minnesota team) and this young Illini team can surprise?

That's the hope, anyway. As of now, I can't see it happening (repeating: youngest team in the Big Ten once again), but I can still hope for it. It's hard for me to see anything beyond the youth. Youth was the reason last year looked like it did and youth is the reason this year will be somewhat similar.

If I could boil this preview down to one thing (oh NOW I tell you), it's this: when you count the walk-ons and scholarship players, here's the entire roster:

39 redshirt freshmen and freshmen

39 sophomores

16 juniors

8 seniors

That's pretty much it right there. Last year was the freshman team. This year, it moves up to JV. But we won't have a varsity team until 2019 and 2020.

Is it still fun to watch the JV team? Sure it is. It's usually something like Monday afternoon at 4 p.m. instead of Friday night, but it's still fun to see the future stars. Hope for the future is all we, the fans, are asking for.

And I think this season will provide that. Maybe not in the win column (well, a little bit in the win column), but certainly on the field. I think play will improve across the board.

And then, in 2019...