The 90 Illini - The Top Ten

Aug 31, 2018

It's a tradition now (well, at least the last three years). The top ten of The 90 Illini on the day before the season. It always makes for three posts on the day before - Those Were The Days in the morning, 90i Top 10 after lunch, and SOC in the evening. And then, on Saturday, FOOTBALL.

10. Bobby Roundtree

Defensive End
Largo High School / Largo, Florida
Sophomore (4 years to play 3)
Tom Cruises: 3.25

What I Know About Him:

At this point, we have fully reached The Players You Know. Back down there in the 70's, those players you might have been hearing about for the first time. The top ten is basically "oh yeah, Bobby Roundtree and Mikey Dudek - I know them".

So I'll just reiterate something I put in the preview: incoming (lightly-regarded) 2019 running back recruit Nick Fedanzo has a composite score of .8336 from the combined rankings of all the recruiting services. Bobby Roundtree had a composite score of .8326. He's now regarded as "future NFL defensive end" in Champaign, but during the recruiting process, he was not the superstar he's becoming. I feel like everyone forgets that perhaps the most NFL-ready body on the roster was once a low 3-star who picked us over Indiana.

What I Expect From Him:

As I mentioned on my little Periscope thing after the scrimmage, he's the first player in a long time who made me think "will he be here all four years"? When you saw Corey Liuget on the practice field, you absolutely positively knew he would not be here all four years. Roundtree is the first player to make me think that in a while.

But that doesn't mean he's ready. Whitney Mercilus declared for the draft before his senior year and how now had a long NFL career but as a sophomore in 2010 he only started two games. It just takes a long time for defensive ends to be ready. There's so much technique to learn (and strength to add). So don't be surprised if Roundtree still has a "developing...." kind of season. And then a huge breakout next year.

9. Nate Hobbs

Louisville Male High School / Louisville, Kentucky
Sophomore (4 years to play 3)
Tom Cruises: 2.5

What I Know About Him:

When I went to look up his Tom Cruise rating I felt pretty good about some of the things I said. At the time he was just this no-P5-offers kid we flipped from Western Kentucky who was a 2-star on most sites. But that film was tasty, so I gave him 2.5 stars (the median score in my rating system, and not something I'd generally give out to a 2-star - that's more of a 1.5 or 1 Cruise player). If you can't tell this year, I'm really happy when reviewing all of these Tom Cruise scores.

After camp last summer, I figured Nate Hobbs would redshirt. He had missed all but the last few days with mono and had lost something like 12 lbs (and he was only 170 lbs to begin with). But there he was, playing in the opener. And there he was, starting 10 games.

What I Expect From Him:

And there he'll be, starting nearly 50 games in his career. I'm not sure what to say in this section, other than "there's your starting cornerback for the next three years". You can write it in ink, I think.

So put him on the path to All Conference player. Big step this year and make honorable mention. Another big step in 2019 - second team All Big Ten. Yet another step forward in 2020 - First Team All Big Ten Cornerback.

8. Lou Dorsey

Tight End
Jean Rebault High School / Jacksonville, Florida
Sophomore (4 years to play 3)
Tom Cruises: 3

What I Know About Him:

Would you believe that Illinois threw to the tight end last year? ILLINOIS! Michael Hoomanawanui catches his senior year before going off to an NFL career that still continues: 10. Louis Dorsey catches as a true freshman in only nine games: 22. So just know that there's another NFL talent at tight end in Champaign again. And this time we might throw it to him?

I believe Illinois got fairly lucky with Dorsey in the recruiting game. He was a hot commodity before his junior year of high school, but the summer between junior and senior year, he pursued basketball instead of football (and had an offer from Illinois State just up the road). After a successful football campaign his senior season, he decided he'd play football, not basketball, in college. And we were there waiting that January with a scholarship (after initial offers from the Florida States and Miamis of the world, he ended up choosing between Illinois and Baylor).

What I Expect From Him:

Similar to Hobbs, the potential here is unlimited. Those two crazy one-hand catches last season showed you how good he can be. That bomb where he outran the Rutgers secondary showed that he has WR speed at tight end, creating mismatches with every linebacker who covers him.

The main issue: he was suspended this spring. And any time a player (especially a freshman) is suspended for an entire spring in order to "get him to focus on what's important", there's always the fear that this is a player who won't reach his senior season. Hopefully the full-spring suspension snapped his head around. Because he truly has NFL potential.

7. Del'Shawn Phillips

Garden City Community College / originally from Highland Park, Michigan
Senior (1 year to play 1)
Tom Cruises: 3.75

What I Know About Him:

This is apparently just the 2017 Recruiting Class section. I didn't intend for that to be the case when I made this list (I don't want to give all my secrets away, but when I do this, I start with a player, and then I take the next player and either place him above that guy or below that guy, and then I do that for 100+ players, and then the top 90 make this list). But here were are, counting through the Best Players From The 2017 Recruiting Class.

Phillips was originally committed to Arizona, but boy is Lovie ever thankful that he flipped to Illinois. He signed on what used to be Juco Signing Day in December that year (which is now Early Signing Day for everyone). Arizona was expecting a fax that day, but it was sent to Illinois instead. (And Del'Shawn announced his commitment to Illinois by recording his mom as he work her from a nap saying "mom, let's go, time to get to Champaign".

What I Expect From Him:

Given that he's the only senior on the defense, he needs to be the anchor of the defense. Leading tackler last year needs to = leading tackler this year. Did I mention that he's the only senior on the defense? Because he's the only senior on the defense.

The best case scenario for Lovie is that the defense struggles to replace him next season. If 28 players are in the rotation this fall, 27 return next year. So make 'em really miss you with a huge senior season, Del'Shawn.

6. Mike Epstein

Running Back
St. Thomas Aquinas High School / Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Sophomore (4 years to play 3)
Tom Cruises: 3.25

What I Know About Him:

I seriously didn't plan this to be "2017 recruiting class all-stars". But we're not 5 for 5.

Epstein won my Asamoah Award on Signing Day in 2017 because when looking at the signees, it was so easy to pick out the player who was ranked way, WAY too low. There were local recruiting reporters in the Miami area saying things like "best players we've seen in south Florida this fall - Mike Epstein at St. Thomas Aquinas"... and one scouting service still had him as a 2-star all the way up until a quick change to low three star just before Signing Day.

What I Expect From Him:

I think he showed last year that he wasn't a 2-star. Or a 3-star. Probably should have been a 4-star. Two touchdowns in the opener, that long TD against South Florida, that long run against Iowa - he started off with a bang. And then he broke his foot and missed the rest of the season.

So what do I expect? A return to form. Usually sophomores make a leap over their freshman year - hopefully Epstein just continues what would have been after his injury. We need a feature tailback in this offense, and he can most certainly be the guy.

5. Ricky Smalling

Wide Receiver
Brother Rice High School / Chicago, Illinois
Sophomore (4 years to play 3)
Tom Cruises: 4

What I Know About Him:

6 for 6 on the class of 2017. Seriously didn't plan this. And looking down, it keeps going.

This is exactly where you'd want a 4-Cruise player at one of the skill positions as he reaches his sophomore year: a top-5 player on your team. As you might remember, I was a little down on Smalling when I first saw him at camp. He missed the whole summer and then missed the first five practices of training camp last year (remember how we were all convinced he'd never get into school?), so when he finally hit the field, he looked lost (while Carmoni Green, who had enrolled early, looked miles in front of him. Well, not miles - a few football fields.

But that must have been the fact that he missed all summer while Green already knew the offense because once the season started, Smalling was the man. The leading receiver for the season, actually.

What I Expect From Him:

I wanted to say "I hope he finishes his career having been our leading receiver four years in a row", but there's another receiver on the roster we haven't gotten to on this list and I want HIM to be the leading receiver this season. So let's just settle on "leading receiver three of four seasons".

But really, the future is limitless. Smalling has NFL potential. Could be the go-to receiver at nearly every Big Ten school. Has the personality to make himself the most well-known Illini in some time. Now he just has to go get it.

4. Bennett Williams

St. Francis High School / Campbell, California
Sophomore (4 years to play 3)
Tom Cruises: 1.5

What I Know About Him:

7 for 7!

Also, after my long run of outstanding Tom Cruise scores, WHIFFFFF. Never forget that I gave the player who could be our best safety in a dozen years 1.5 Tom Cruises. What a bad film whiff.

Williams' dad played with Hardy Nickerson at Cal. And when Cal didn't come around with an offer until Signing Day, it was already too late - Williams was headed to Champaign to play for his dad's teammate.

What I Expect From Him:

Man, I have such high expectations here. Best safety since 2007? I think so - I think he can get there very soon, maybe as soon as this season. His instincts in practice are off the charts - seriously off the charts. I told a friend this year "this must be what it feels like to watch Ohio State safeties at practice".

(And yes, when I'm saying that, I realize that my guy FEJ! was here only a few years ago and then got drafted by the Bengals. But I still believe it - Williams can be better than FEJ!)

(That sentence read wrong. I always type Clayton Fejedelem's name as FEJ!, so the exclamation point is for the name, not the sentence.)

What do I expect? Let's get crazy - All Big Ten first team for TWO seasons.

3. Nick Allegretti

Offensive Lineman
Lincoln Way East High School / Frankfort, Illinois
Senior (1 year to play 1)
Tom Cruises: not rated - he committed before I started rating players

What I Know About Him:

The streak is broken. We've finally reached a player in this Top Ten who wasn't from the 2017 recruiting class. In fact, these final three are all seniors. Yes, seniors - we do have those this season.

Allegretti was a woefully underranked player in high school. I wish I would have had the Tom Cruise ratings at the time because I would have given him four. I spent that entire year arguing that he should be a top-5 player in the state and even once, in an argument on The Deuce trying to emphasize my point, made the statement that "Nick Allegretti will be to Illinois football what Cliff Alexander would have been to Illinois basketball".

He was named to the US Army All American Bowl that winter, which saved face a little for me (he was mostly rated around 20th in the state, so I faced laughter any time I said "he's a four-star recruit" until he was named to the Army Bowl). Bottom line: I was really excited about Nick Allegretti the recruit.

What I Expect From Him:

And I'm really excited about Nick Allegretti the player. I only wish he would have landed on a good Illini team (his three seasons - 5-7, 3-9, 2-10). This season he should have the single best offensive lineman season of the decade. The goal is Jeff Allen's 2010 season, and I think Allegretti can have a Jeff Allen 2010 season.

I mean, put him on that 2010 line with Allen, Jack Cornell, Hugh Thornton, and Graham Pocic, and we'd be thinking of Allegretti as one of the all-time greats. Instead, he had to be on a line last year with four freshmen. This year, that's a line with four sophomores (well, three sophomores and a redshirt freshman), so while not as bad, it's still not much better. BUT, I think they can be improved enough for you to see just how good Nick Allegretti can be.

2. AJ Bush

Norcross High School, then Nebraska, then Iowa Western Community College, then Virginia Tech / originally from Alpharetta, Georgia
Senior (1 year to play 1)
Tom Cruises: I... don't think I rated him when he transferred in?

What I Know About Him:

I drove up to camp and said he had a 20% chance to win the QB job. I drove back after the first two days and gave him an 80% chance. (Numbers approximate - I might have said 25%, 75%). My point: he blew me away those first two days.

All I knew about him going in was that he didn't win the job at Nebraska, didn't win the job at Virginia Tech, and struggled (less than 50% completion percentage) in his one year at juco. So my expectations were low. The first time I laid out this 90i list, I think I had him something like 36th.

What I Expect From Him:

But now he's #2. Now he's pretty much the key to the season. Yes, his throwing motion is still ugly and yes, I still worry that he'll be a turnover machine because he's so confident and takes so many risks. But he just made play after play after play in camp.

So this is one of those high ceiling, low floor deals. I could see:

  1. He throws seven picks in the first three games, consistently throwing into triple coverage and flipping the ball aimlessly in the air while getting sacked and trying to make a play, and he's on the bench by Big Ten season. Sometimes the guy makes a play that blows your mind - other times he scrambles around trying to make a play and takes a 21 yard sack.
  2. He leads the team to a surprising season. Throwing motion be damned, he just makes plays and moves the chains. One play he made in the scrimmage two weeks ago - scrambling around, nothing happening, somehow finds Mikey Dudek behind the defender for a 35 yard game - is the thing he could do in every game this season. We could easily look back and call this The AJ Bush Season.

It's one of those two. No middle ground. (There's middle ground.)

1. Dude K

Wide Receiver
Neuqua Valley High School / Naperville, Illinois
Senior (1 year to play 1, although technically he could apply for a 6th year)
Tom Cruises: not rated - he committed before I started rating players

What I Know About Him:

You know everything. Injuries (two ACL's and a broken rib that sliced his kidney) on this side of the coin, unanimous freshman All American on the other side of the coin. Worst luck of any Illini player since Famous Hulbert, and also best chance to make the SportsCenter Top 10 since Brandon Lloyd.

And now he enters his senior season, healthy and ready to go. Just get him the ball, AJ.

What I Expect From Him:

It's hard to say "I totally expect a repeat of 2014, but a little better" because of the luck his last three seasons saw. I don't want to get my hopes up to see them dashed a fourth year in a row.

But he's capable of everything. Becoming Juilan Edelman with the Patriots (like, literally with the Patriots). First team All American. Four punt returns for touchdown. They set up a laser timer for pro day last year and Dudek ran a sub-4.4 40 on the laser timer. After two ACL surgeries.

He's Superman. Now get him the ball.


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