Because the Big Ten usually hands us our bye week in September (the good programs get the midseason bye weeks, as it probably should be), I generally put together my "next season" depth chart that week and then tweak it after the season. And then I tweak it after spring ball. And then I tweak it during the summer.
So here's version two (of four or five) of my 2019 Illini depth chart with the true freshmen in italics. Subtitle: actual upperclassmen on the field!
QB | Rivers (SO) | Williams (FR) | Robinson (rs-FR)
RB | Corbin (SR) -OR- Epstein (JR) | Bonner (JR) | Brown (SR)
TE | Barker (SO) | B. Walker (SR) | Palmer (JR)
LT | Lowe (JR) | Cerny (rs-JR) | Kirts (FR)
LG | K. Green (rs-SO) | Stover (SO-walkon) | Martin (SR)
C | Kramer (rs-JR) | Gavin (rs-JR) | Clark (FR)
RG | Boyd (rs-SO) | Myers (rs-FR) | Solomon (SR)
RT | Palczewski (JR) | Trainer (rs-JR) | Slaughter (rs-FR)
WR1 | Davis (SR) | Carter (rs-FR) | Washington (FR)
WR2 | Smalling (JR) | Reams (SR) | Navarro (SO walkon)
WR3 | Stampley (JR) | Sandy (SO) | Holmes (SO walkon)
WDE | Carney (JR) | Gay (JR) | Shogbonyo (JR)
DT | Milan (SR) | Avery (SO) | V. Brown (rs-FR)
DT | Oliver (SR) | Jackson (SR) | Pate (SO)
SDE | Roundtree (JR) | Woods (rs-SO) | Pearl (rs-FR)
WLB | Hansen (JR) | Tolson (SO) | Knight (JR)
MLB | Harding (SR) | Eifler (JR) | Hollins (rs-FR)
Nickel | Ware (SO) | Thompson (FR) | Bobak (JR-walkon)
CB | Hobbs (JR) | Q. Martin (SO) | Hardge (SO)
SS | S. Brown (SO) | M. Marchese (JR) | Smith (JR)
FS | Adams (JR) | S. Green (SR) | Joseph (SO)
CB | Watkins (SR) | Beason (FR) | Wyatt (SO)
Kicker | McCourt (JR) | Griffin (rs-FR)
Punter | Hayes (JR) | McCourt (JR)
Longsnapper | Tabel (JR) | Gaines (rs-FR)
Holder | Hayes (JR) | C. Miller (JR)
Punt Return | Beason (FR) | Hobbs (JR) | Holmes (SO walkon)
KO Return | D. Brown/Stampley | Norwood/Sandy
- Can you believe it? 16 upperclassmen in the starting 22. It's a Festivus miracle!
- I'm still not sure where super-recruit Marquez Beason will end up. With the issues at wide receiver this fall, I think most Illini fans want to see him at receiver. I originally had him a nickel - I want to see him flying around making plays like Jabril Peppers did at Michigan (and then returning punts) - but maybe cornerback is the spot?
- And really, I feel like that secondary chart will change a ton before next season. Is Ware going to be a nickel or was that just temporary this year? Adams moved to safety after Bennett Williams was dismissed - is that permanent or temporary? Cam Watkins - corner or nickel? Sydney Brown - nickel (where he started for half the season) or strong safety (where he started for the other half of the season)? With Beason coming in maybe Quan Martin follows Adams to free safety? Yeah, write those down in pencil.
- Offensive line is the most encouraging, don't you think? Lowe, Green, Kramer, and Palcho all return and none of them are seniors. Allegretti departs, but Larry Boyd returns, he of nine starts as a true freshman in 2017. So really, you have an entire offensive line with one or two years of starting experience and not a single one is a senior.
- Wide receiver is the opposite, no? Not only did we receive disappointing seasons from nearly every receiver, two of the three receivers in the recruiting class decommitted this fall. So every single guy on that list has question marks. Is Smalling's sophomore slump over with the Northwestern performance? Can Trenard Davis be the reliable senior? Can Stampley fix the drops? Is Carter's knee put back together? OK, I'll give you a hopeful one - is Donny Navarro the next Fej, transferring to Illinois as a walkon after one great year in a lower division (Navarro sat out this past season after transferring in from Valpo) and then proving he's a real weapon?
- Defensive line seems like the deepest position on the team (and it matters, a lot, that everyone gets a year older). When I'm putting together a depth chart like this and I think "oh, right, 4-star Verdis Brown will be playing, I have to find somewhere to get him in the rotation", then that's the kind of position where I expect a step forward. And I'm not including Lere Oladipo at all, pending the outcome of his arrest (and his standing as a student with the school).
When looking for position battles, really, with only a few seniors graduating, I only see four on the entire team:
- Who wins the QB battle? Is it sophomore MJ Rivers? Freshman Isaiah Williams? Sleeper candidate Matt Robinson (who only played in three games and retained his redshirt? Maybe, I don't know, a fifth year transfer from somewhere Rod Smith coached before who might appear on preseason Heisman lists?
- Who replaces Allegretti at right guard? I believe the heavy favorite is Larry Boyd, but there's a chance that one of the older guys (Jake Cerny? Adam Solomon?) or maybe even one of the younger guys (Kievan Myers?) slides in there.
- Who replaces Del'Shawn Phillips at linebacker? I think that one is fairly easy. When there are three linebackers on the field (20% of the time), it's Hansen, Harding, and Eifler (the Washington transfer). When there are only two + a nickel (80% of the time), Hansen stays on the field but it's a battle between Harding and Eifler for the other spot.
- Placekicker is a battle between the redshirt junior (James McCourt, a Cubit recruit) and the redshirt freshman (Caleb Griffin, a Lovie recruit). Both are on scholarship (did you know that we had THREE scholarship kickers this season?).
That's really it. Austin Roberts graduates, but I'm guessing that blocking tight end spot just goes to his backup (Bobby Walker) and there's no real "position battle".
OK, so how do I feel about all of that? Don't ask me yet. This season still stings. These are mostly the players who lost 63-0 to Iowa, and even though they all get a year older, it's a long way back from 63-0. I love the leap potential of a team who really only lost five seniors and moves from a team of sophomores and freshmen to a team of juniors and sophomores, but again, 63-0.
Sixty three to zero.