When I put "October 12, 2019" in my Twitter bio back in March of 2016, I (apparently) also put a reminder in my phone to buzz me today saying "500 days until 10/12/19". I'm not exactly sure why March 2016 me wanted to remind May 2018 me about this milestone, but here I am with my phone telling me something.
(Actually, I think 500 days is tomorrow. I set the reminder to remind me 12 hours before the moment I'm wanting to be reminded of. So as of noon today it's all "in 12 hours it will be 500 days until 10/12/19".)
My thinking was probably this: Lovie had just been hired, and I had declared October 12, 2019 - a home game against Michigan - as the moment when Illinois Football would return. The demons of the 2000 Michigan game would be exorcised and the sleeping giant would awaken. I knew that it was probably a rough road between March 2016 and October 2019, so I guess I wanted future-me to note in late May of 2018 that the future is now only 500 days away. Started with 1,300-some days to wait, now down to 500.
I'm sure March 2016 me would have wanted a depth chart update for this only-500-days-away milestone, so let's see the team we're putting together for that 2019 matchup with Michigan. We'll skip the three-deep and only go two-deep here. And before someone says "what about Allegretti?", this is a two deep for 2019, not 2018. Why am I listing Mike Epstein as a junior? Because he'll be a sophomore this fall and a junior in 2018.
QB | Thomas (JR) OR I. Williams (FR)
RB | Epstein (JR) | D. Brown (SR) OR Bonner (JR)
TE/HB | Dorsey (JR) | Reams (SR)
LT | Cerny (JR) | Unije (rs-FR)
LG | Palczewski (JR) | Solomon (SR)
C | Kramer (JR) | Gavin (JR)
RG | Boyd (JR) | Slaughter (rs-FR)
RT | Lowe (JR) | Myers (rs-FR)
WR-X | C. Green (JR) | T. Davis (SR)
WR-Z | Smalling (JR) | J. Williams (SR)
WR-W | Sandy (SO) | Childress (FR)
DEFENSE | |
WDE | Gay (JR) | Carney (JR)
DT | Avery (SO) | Oliver (SR)
DT | Milan (SR) | K. Green (rs-SO)
SDE | Roundtree (JR) | Woods (JR)
WLB | Hansen (JR) | Tolson (SO)
MLB | Harding (SR) | J. Marchase (SR)
SLB | Knight (JR) | Mondesir (JR)
Nickel | Beason (FR) | Watkins (SR)
CB | Hobbs (JR) | E. Jones (JR)
SS | B. Williams (JR) | DeGroot (JR)
FS | S. Green (SR) | Smith (JR)
CB | Adams (JR) | Walker (JR)
SPECIALISTS | |
Kicker | McCourt (JR) OR Griffin (FR)
Punter | Hayes (JR) | McCourt (JR)
Long-snapper | Tabel (JR)
Punt Return | Hobbs (JR) | Davis (SR)
KO Return | D. Brown/Hobbs | C. Green/Davis |
This will likely change a fair bit in the next 16 months. First off, several players from the 2018 class are going to insert themselves into this rotation, a few of them as soon as this August. Say Jartavius Martin is everything I think he is and suddenly he grabs one of the starting spots in the defensive backfield. Or maybe Coran Taylor is the quarterback surprise and he pushes his way past Cam Thomas this season. Or Khalan Tolson is a starting linebacker. Or Kenyon Sims jumps past every tailback not named Epstein.
And then there's the 2019 class. I already put Isaiah Williams as the "OR" at quarterback and I'm slotting Marquez Beason as a starter at nickel cornerback. If we land, say, Ira Henry from Trinity, then I'm immediately putting him in the two-deep on the offensive line. Shammond Cooper? Starting linebacker. Moses Okpala? Well, he'd really have to work to make the defensive end rotation, but that's a really good thing.
My point: I'm too heavy with the 2017 class on this depth chart. 2018 and 2019 players are going to work their way in. That was the whole point behind "October 12, 2019". At that point, Lovie will have assembled three classes and will have all of them at least partially trained in his system. We've seen some really good things from the 2017 class - now we need to add 2018 and 2019 to the mix.
Now for the hard part. When I set that "500 days" reminder for myself, was I thinking we'd be 5-19 the first two years and staring down a Vegas over/under of 3.5 for 2018? I don't think so. In fact, I know so. Later that summer I predicted we could win six games (we won three) and then this past season I thought we'd win three (we won two). In my head I had this path to October 12, 2019, and we've wandered off the map.
But I also thought this would look a lot different than it has. As in, I thought it would be a normal rebuild, leaning on inherited players with a few jucos filling the gaps. Instead, we hopped off the juco train, moved on from all but 13 of the inherited Beckman players, cut the Cubit class in half, and, last season, sent out the youngest team in college football, playing 22 true freshmen and redshirting only three. The Purdue game in 2016 (where we doinked the for-the-win field goal and lost in overtime) was the start of that switch for me. We began the season with nine seniors starting on defense. We finished with three (Smoot, Phillips, and Nickerson). It wasn't a youth movement at that point - we simply started over.
So that makes me a little scared for October 12, 2019. But it doesn't really change my expectations. Yes, we went crazy young in 2017, but that means October 2019 is an extremely experienced roster. They might all be juniors, but they'll have hundreds of starts between them (literally hundreds). And 2020 will be maybe the most experienced team in all of college football when you count combined starts.
Which makes me excited that October 12, 2019 is only 500 days away. These last 1,300 have been rough. I'm not sure it's going to improve much come September when we add a bunch more true freshmen to the mix. But as the experience grows, and as these sophomores become juniors, we get back to the reason I originally added that date. At some point in a rebuild, the light bulb goes on.
Look at Penn State. They had a much better foundation and 20-some four-stars on the roster when James Franklin took over but they were still a bit of a mess. Franklin goes 6-6 his first year (2-6 in the Big Ten), 7-5 his second year (4-4), and then starts his third season 2-2 with a bad loss to Pitt. Penn State fans at that point had mostly written him off. Early October 2016, his third season, he's losing 13-3 to Minnesota at halftime (at home) and the boos are raining down. Then, out of nowhere, the light bulb turns on. They come back to tie Minnesota and win it in overtime and then go on to win nine straight including the Big Ten Championship Game.
I'm not suggesting the light bulb will be that sudden for Lovie. I'm not sure if you know this but... there weren't 20-some four-stars on the roster when he took over. It's a complete roster overhaul now and he's choosing to do it with only two jucos and two fifth-year transfers so far. It's definitely the long game. It will be longer than third season, fifth game for the light bulb to flip on.
But I could see a scenario where October 12, 2019 is the switch. Where things look like "it's never going to happen" right up until that date and then BLAM, light bulb. That was the whole point of 10/12/19 to begin with - hello world, Illini Football is here.
And now it's only 500 days away. Well, technically, 501 for another eight hours...