The first game always gives us an idea of what the player rotation will look like for the season. A blowout like this obviously means that nearly everyone gets to play, but in the first half, we got a good idea of how deep these rotations will go at each position. Since it's been bouncing around in my head all day, I figured I'd write it all out.
As I thought when writing the preview, we saw Matt Robinson as the backup and not Isaiah Williams. I figured Robinson was the "backup" and Williams would be the "weapon". We didn't need the weapon on Saturday, so the weapon didn't play. Lovie said after the game that "they have a plan" for Williams this season, so I'm now curious if that plan includes playing in four games and sitting in eight (now seven) games so that he keeps his redshirt.
I think we'll see a lot of Peters, a little Robinson, and Williams when we need a weapon. That was easy. Moving on...
Losing Mike Epstein was a serious blow. I believe I wrote in the preview that I thought we'd have two 1,000 yard tailbacks this season. I predicted 1,300 yards for Corbin and 1,000 for Epstein. So to lose our "second starter", just a massive blow. I'm still just sick to my stomach over it. Why does life demand so much from our stars?
With Epstein out, the rotation seems fairly simple. As much Reggie Corbin as humanly possible and then a whole bunch of Dre Brown and Ra'Von Bonner. They were going to play regardless, and if Rod Smith was planning to use four tailbacks, Jakari Norwood probably gets a fair number of carries now that Epstein is out, but the point here is all Reggie Corbin all the time.
The rotation for this game seemed to be 1. Daniel Barker, 2. Justice Williams, 3. Griffin Palmer, and 4. Bobby Walker. They did a fair bit of twin TE stuff - for example, the Daniel Barker touchdown was a formation with Barker and Palmer as twin tight ends with Barker sneaking out the side for the TD. So I think it will be a heavy rotation of three tight ends with a little bit from the fourth guy. That's probably the order listed above.
This was interesting to me. Smalling and Imatorbhebhe started as expected. I thought Trevon Sidney would be the third receiver but Dom Stampley started instead. Part of that might have been Sidney's injury (he missed almost three weeks, I believe, so Stampley was getting all the starter reps), but it also might be that Stampley is ahead of Sidney right now (and that would be a good thing).
Caleb Reams is injured, and I believe Trenard Davis is dealing with an injury as well, so the backups were interesting. To me it looked like the rotation was Sidney (clearly the #4 receiver) followed by freshman Casey Washington and transfer Donny Navarro (with sophomore walkon Jordan Holmes being the seventh guy and true freshman Kyron Cumby being the eighth guy).
That will bounce around a lot once Davis and Reams return. But if you made me guess the rotation for the Nebraska game in a few weeks, I'd go with:
WR Dig: Imatorbhebhe / Navarro
WR Deep: Smalling / Washington
WR Drag: Sidney / Stampley
I'll have to watch the game again (I mean, I've only watched the replay twice so far), but I don't think any of the backups played until the middle of the third quarter when the entire second string line came on. I believe it was all starters all the time up until that point.
So I'm not sure we know the "rotation" yet other than to say they hope to get 60 quarters of football out of the starters (well, 59 since they sat for the fourth quarter of Akron). If they need to turn to a backup, I'm guessing it's the Jakes: Jake Cerny at either tackle spot and walkon Jake Stover at guard/center.
This was a big surprise. I expected Owen Carney and Isaiah Gay to start; Wole Betiku and Ayo Shogbonyo started. I guess I hedged and said that Betiku might start and instead of doing strongside/weakside they'd put both Carney and Betiku in the starting lineup. But I didn't expect both Carney and Gay to sit behind Betiku and Shogbonyo.
I'm not sure it matters, though. The defensive ends rotate fairly liberally. I'd say that the first three quarters were 60% Betiku/40% Carney and 60% Shogbonyo/40% Gay. And I want to say Marc Mondesir got in for a series behind Shogbonyo and Gay? In the fourth quarter nearly everyone played, but once the season gets rolling, I'm guessing it's a rotation of Betiku, Shogbonyo, Carney, Gary, and some Mondesir.
This was also a bit of a surprise with Jamal Woods starting. Tymir Oliver has 22 starts under his belt and started all 12 games last season. So it's surprising to see Jamal Woods start alongside Jamal Milan. Oliver and Milan have basically been the starting tackles the last two seasons.
But this is a lot like defensive end. To steal a phrase from former Illini DL coach Keith Gilmore, we have a pair and a spare at each spot. For DT it's Jamal and Jamal starting with Oliver and Lere Oladipo as the backups. And the fifth guy was probably Kenyon Jackson, with Calvin Avery and Deon Pate coming on the field in the fourth quarter once the backups came in.
Three of those five guys I just mentioned are seniors (Milan, Oliver, and Jackson), so it seems pretty clear that next year will be something like Woods and Oladipo starting with Avery and Pate in a heavy rotation. The next two years, really, because all four guys are sophomores.
The back seven of the defense was way, way, way less rotate-y than the defensive line. It was mostly the starters for 40 minutes (until the Illini led 42-3) and then the backups for 20. There were two exceptions, but we'll get to those later.
The LB rotation seemed fairly set:
WLB: Jake Hansen / Khalan Tolson
MLB: Dele Harding / Tarique Barnes
SLB: Milo Eifler / Delano Ware
The seventh guy was probably the most intriguing. In the fourth quarter, Shammond Cooper came on and made five tackles, finishing the game tied for fifth in tackles. If you can make that kind of showing in the fourth quarter (and a few of the tackles were memorable), you're going to start pushing for a spot in that two-deep. I have this dream of Cooper being the SLB behind Eifler allowing Ware to go back to safety, but we can talk about that dream another time. The takeaway here: we'll see a ton of Harding, Hansen, and Eifler.
If you thought linebacker was "wow, we played the starters almost exclusively", please allow me to introduce the cornerbacks. Yes, Nate Hobbs was dinged up for a bit and Nick Walker had to come in. But for the rest of the time the starting defense was in, I believe it was exclusively Hobbs and Quan Martin.
With good reason. Marquez Beason is out for the year with a knee injury, and other corners (like Dylan Wyatt and Joseph Thompson) are also injured, so it's Hobbs and Martin, Walker, and true freshman Devon Witherspoon. That's the whole roster of healthy scholarship corners.
And at least for this game, it was "as many minutes as we can get from the two starters". I'm thinking that might continue through the rest of the season.
This is similar. There are injuries (Sydney Brown, who didn't play), there's a suspension (Kerby Joseph, who was ejected for targeting and has to sit out the first half at UConn), so the numbers are thin. The rotation this game was Adams and Joseph starting, Stanley Green coming on after Joseph was ejected, and then Dawson DeGroot was the fourth safety.
The plan for the rotation is Adams and Brown the starters with Green and Joseph the backups. Once Sydney Brown returns from his hamstring injury, I think that will be the rotation. But the first half at UConn is going to be rough. If Brown is still out, and with Joseph suspended, there are basically three safeties in the rotation: Adams, Green, and DeGroot.
OK, so what is the overall takeaway? On offense, I think they'll roll deep with receivers and tailbacks but the offensive linemen might play every single snap. On defense, I think they'll go pair-and-a-spare for both DE and DT but then perhaps the least rotation-y rotation we've seen this decade in the back seven. They like their starters and will run with them as much as they can.
Which is a weird dynamic. It's basically this:
Roll with the starters, don't really play the backups much at all: QB, OL, LB, CB, S
Rotate liberally, often playing every guy in the three-deep: TE, WR, RB, DE, DT
I don't really have a point to all of this. I just wanted to inventory what I saw on Saturday. It's... interesting.