Let's turn on the excuse machine. That's not what this post is - it's an honest assessment of the roster as it currently stands - but that's usually how a post like this is received. This staff has chosen a longform rebuild, and when I attempt to describe their methodology as I see it, it often comes off as laying down a carpet of excuses for the coaches to walk all the way to 2023. I get it, but this is the rebuild I've long asked for, so this is the rebuild I'm going to describe.
Here in my mom's basement, I feel I am tasked with honest assessments of the University of Illinois football team. And when Tim Banks didn't have the players for his defense in 2013, I told you that. We got into arguments, and you said that it was his second year and they should be showing SOME signs of a real defense, but I had one honest assessment - nobody could win with a secondary and defensive line that young. I wasn't really making an "excuse" for the Beckman regime (although I'm sure it came off that way). I simply looked at the roster and made an assessment.
I know I'm too patient in this regard. I was OK with John Groce getting a fifth year (because of all the injuries in 2015/16). Those who said "there's no discernable offense, there's no recruiting plan - injuries or no injuries, this is going nowhere" were right and I was absolutely wrong. Sometimes, waiting is the wrong thing. Patience is one thing, "take all the time you need" is another.
I'm saying all of this because I'm going to tell you something about this football team that you don't want to hear: last year's excuse is still this year's excuse. It's going to be one of the youngest teams in college football.
Why? Well, we've been over that. At his first opportunity (his first recruiting class in his second season), Lovie Smith went with nearly all his own players. 21 of the 24 true freshmen played. 16 of them started a game. We've been over this ad nauseam.
This season... is going to be more of the same. The football should be better, and the ball should actually move, but the youthful mistakes will probably still be there. We're going to lead the country in players who cannot drink alcohol (again).
OK, maybe not lead the country. We might not even lead the conference. I think PJ Fleck is going to use his second recruiting class much like Lovie used his first, and I think Minnesota will be a tiny bit younger this year.
Let's use Phil Steele's Two-Deep Breakdowns as our guide here. These are preseason numbers - he's estimating a two-deep for each team and then analyzing it - so the 2017 numbers will be a bit deceptive. He had us 127th out of 130 teams in experience going into the season, estimating that we would have 10 true freshmen in our two-deep. We ended up having 21 true freshmen in our two-deep, finishing (by my analysis from last year) a distant "last" as the youngest team in the country.
Here are Steele's numbers for 2017 and here are his numbers going into 2018. In 2017, we went into the season 127th (and finished 130th, I'm certain). In 2018, we go into the season... 119th. Forever young, I want to be forever young.
I double-checked his numbers against my own. He listed each spot - senior starters, senior backups, junior starters, junior backups (and so on) - and here are his numbers vs. my own:
SR starters: 4 (PS), 4 (me)
SR backups: 2, 1
JR starters: 4, 4
JR backups: 7, 6
SO starters: 14, 14
SO backups: 9, 12
FR starters: 0, 0
FR backups: 4, 3
Pretty solid work by Phil Steele's staff, to be honest. Looks like they nailed all of the expected starters with only a few minor quibbles on the backups. And as I said when my last depth chart came out, I'm way light on the number of freshmen in the two-deep. Right now I have three (Calvin Avery and Verdis Brown backing up Milan and Oliver at defensive tackle plus Carlos Sandy backing up Dude K in the slot), but there are probably going to be a lot more freshman on the field than that. Both backup safeties might be freshmen, all of the backup offensive line spots are up for grabs - we're going to get younger than I have it right now.
Which means that, on a postseason experience chart, we're going to be in the bottom 10 again. We'll be improved from last year - we'd better be improved from last year - but we're still going to be one of the ten youngest teams in college football.
What's the point of that? Well, in two seasons, I can't see how we're not #1 on this list. That's where Phil Steele combines the depth chart numbers (covered above) as well as the % of offensive yards returning, the % of tackles returning, and the combined starts returning on the offensive line. In fact, I'll make a little prediction here that I'll link back to in a couple years: I think we'll break the record for the highest points on that chart in two years. I can't find another college team the last few decades starting 16 true freshmen in one season, which means that when those players reach their senior seasons, if they're all still starting, they'll be perhaps the most experienced college team in the last few decades.
I mean, just look at the offensive line. We started four freshmen at certain times through the season last year, with the four of them combining for 38 starts. Let's say we start four sophomores on the OL this year (if Larry Boyd gets beaten out for left tackle it will be by... another sophomore, Jake Cerny) along with senior Nick Allegretti. Then, in 2019, those four juniors will start with some other non-senior (could be a junior, sophomore, or freshman). And then all of those players will return again in 2020. One more time to emphasize: if any of them don't hold on to their starting spots, they'll be beaten out by... a sophomore or a freshman who will then also be returning the next year.
So that's 38 starts in 2017, 48 in 2018, and 65 in 2019 (counting a bowl because we'd better be in a bowl in 2019). Which means that we'll be going into the 2020 season with 151 combined starts on the offensive line. That's higher than any current number on the Phil Steele list I linked above. % of tackles returning, % of offensive yards returning - our numbers in 2020 will be crazy high in every category.
My point to this whole thing: we'll still have one of the youngest teams in football this year... and then that rapidly accelerates to one of the most experienced teams in all of college football. The chart already shows the separation between "young" and "inexperienced" growing. We're 119th on youth but 100th on the "experience chart" because 16 of these sophomores have starting experience. That starts to accelerate rapidly. Next year I'm guessing we'll be somewhere in the 30's on the experience chart. In 2020, I'm almost certain we'll be #1 by a very large amount. Only Baylor could come close, but Baylor has a lot of seniors this year who will start and our entire starting lineup will be mostly sophomores.
Now, that doesn't necessarily mean wins. Kansas is #1 on that chart this year. I'm sure some Kansas blogger, back in 2016, was saying "but in 2018 we'll be the most experienced team in college football". The Vegas over/under on Kansas wins this fall: 3.
All I can do is analyze the Illini roster. And when I do, I think I see what they're doing. Improved in 2018, good, in 2019, great in 2020. Again, at some point, very quickly, the switch flips from "really young" to "wildly experienced". And at that point, we should see the other switches flip as well. The "no longer look lost out there" switch. The "hey, not only do we not look bad, we look pretty damn good" switch.
Let's call it the "8+ wins switch". If this is a deep dive rebuild, we don't want to just see it result in a few 6-6 seasons. We need a program at the end of this long journey.
(I hate ending posts like this, but I'm going to end inside parentheses. My fear is continuing to drift towards "what do we do after 2020?". I'm nearly certain that we'll be good in 2019 and great in 2020. I'd bet money on it. But after that, do we fall off the cliff like 2002 and then 2003 (or 2008 and then 2009)? Or will we have built a sustainable program? If we're #1 on the Phil Steele experience list in 2020 with 30+ seniors then we're going to drop to something like 128th in 2021. I'm not sure I can handle another 02/03 or 08/09 fall off the cliff. We're building a program, right? RIGHT?)