The 90 Illini: Sweet 16
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Here's what I can do: I didn't have time to finish the 90 Illini series. Tried, failed, gave up. Prioritzed other things.
But I still want to give you the list. So with sixteen players remaining, let's just do a Sweet 16. Maybe you can put them in a bracket and see who comes out on top. I was originally going to skip #13 (after TreSean Smith didn't show up, I had a hole in the list), but we'll just skip #17 (that number is sacred around here).
It's a weak way to finish, but it's all I've got. We have a game in a few hours.
16. Isaiah Gay
You probably know all of my Isaiah Gay stats. Arrived at age 17. Is younger than Kofi Cockburn even though Gay is a senior and Kofi a sophomore. Was a super-late addition to the 2017 class and then, at age 17, finds himself starting the Western Kentucky game his freshman year. Lost his starting spot to Ayo Shogbonyo, and then got it back at the end of last season and started the final four games.
And now he enters his senior season having just turned 21 and finally up to 240 lbs. The hope: a fourth-year breakout where we remember why he started a game when he was 17.
15. Blake Hayes
Best punter in the country? Best punter in the country. Should battle it out with fellow-Australian Max Duffy for the Ray Guy award. Duffy cleared the 48-mark last season (as in 48.1 yards per punt - Hayes was 44.6 ypp), so that's the lofty goal for Blake. Duffy is averaging 47.8 so far this season, so there's the mark.
Of course, punting is more than "kick it deep". Inside the 20 is also a thing, and that's where Hayes is the master. 32 punts inside the 20 last year, 2 touchbacks.
Once more because you didn't hear me.
32 punts inside the 20, two touchbacks. Just hand him the trophy right now.
14. Jamal Woods
The good: he's started a dozen games so far in his career. So even though we have "no returning starters on the defensive line", he has a full season of starting experience.
The bad: injuries have taken part of all three seasons. He's technically only a junior because he only played in four games in 2018 and then missed the rest of the season. He also missed a game in 2017 and four games in 2019 with injuries. So the goal this year: a healthy season.
The hope: a really solid season. He's a fourth-year defensive tackle with experience at defensive end and a lot of starting experience. Now that he has enough bulk, he's the starting 3-technique defensive tackle. Fourth-year breakouts happen all the time for defensive tackles. How 'bout another one?
13. Daniel Barker
At one point I had him in the top 10 on this list. After Daniel Imatorbhebhe transferred in, I moved Barker down. Not because it makes Barker worse, but because with three tight ends in the rotation, Barker might get a few less targets. They'll use Barker, Luke Ford, and Bhebhe2 quite liberally, I think.
But that doesn't mean Barker isn't ready for a big year. I had some notes for the preview and they included a link to an article by Tony Pauline on Pro Football Network which said this about Barker:
A late-season surge and a bowl appearance helped head coach Lovie Smith maintain his job despite what seemed like an inevitable exit. Illinois did not have a player selected in this past April's NFL Draft, but as many as three could be chosen in 2021.
Junior tight end Daniel Barker lands on top of my board, and he's very much what teams are looking for at the position -- an athletic pass catcher who looks like an oversized receiver. Barker's ultimate draft position will be determined by his workouts and true 40-yard dash time.
I'm not sure he's declare-early good, but if he's on lists like this, we should probably acknowledge that he's pretty good at football.
12. Milo Eifler
First off, he misses the first half tonight. He got a penalty for "targeting" in the Redbox Bowl. I don't know why but every time I type "targeting" it shows up in quotes. It's almost like the hit was in no way "targeting".
Last year Dele Harding was the senior breakout player on defense. Three decent seasons and then whammo, he leads the Big Ten in tackles and is first team All Big Ten in the media poll. This season, I'd like nothing more than for Milo Eifler to be the senior breakout player. He had some big moments last year (Akron), some tough moments (getting ejected for the punch against MSU), and some not-so-great moments (Northwestern).
That's OK. 4-star recruit, transfers from Washington looking for playing time, finds it at Illinois, starts for the first time. Now that the learning season is out of the way, time for a senior breakout.
11. Tony Adams
He's a corner no he's a safety nope back to corner oops now he's a safety sorry I'm just getting word he's a corner. That's Adams' career. I call him a safetycorner.
But he did grab the biggest interception in the last 10 years last season. Actually, let me think about that. Big Illini interceptions. Kevin Mitchell to end the Penn State game in 2007 comes to mind first. Nate Bussey tipping the ball to himself against Penn State in 2010. Terry Hawthorne Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl pick six. I think the answer is that Tony Adams' Wisconsin interception was the biggest Illini interception since Terry Hawthorne in the KFHB. (And then Sydney Brown's pick six against Michigan State was maybe the second-best in ten years.)
Adams now has a senior season to be our best safetycorner in 10 years. Then we can say that Nate Hobbs had the best season of any Illini cornerback in 10 years and Tony Adams had the best season of any Illini safetycorner.
10. Kendrick Green
2018: "Wow, he's strong. He has quite a future."
2019: "Wow, he's an NFL-level run blocker. That pass blocking tho..."
2020 (hopefully): "Wow, the pass blocking is now up there with the run blocking."
Green's lower-body strength is so impressive. I'm pretty sure at some point there's going to be someone trapped under a Brinks truck, and the police will be looking for a crane to lift the truck, and Kendrick Green will just show up and lift the thing. Remember kids - lift with your legs.
If he has a big year, he's off to the NFL draft. If the pass blocking still isn't there, probably one more year. Which would be great for the 2021 line.
9. Roderick Perry
There have been a lot of transfers the last two years. Where is the offense without Peters-to-Bhebhe? Where would the 2019 defense have been without Betiku and Eifler? Transfers have been very important.
And there's a chance that Roderick Perry is the most important transfer of them all? Four seniors graduated on the defense. A combination of Derrick Smith and Tony Adams (when he's the safety part of cornersafety) will try to replace Stanley Green. Jake Hansen slides inside to replace Dele Harding (and Khalan Tolson slides in). Jamal Woods will replace Tymir Oliver. And up until the moment Perry's transfer was announced, we had no idea who was going to replace Jamal Milan.
If Perry, the transfer from South Carolina State whose coach encouraged him to leave after the FCS canceled all fall sports, can be as good as Milan, that's massive. If he can be better, that's just enormous.
8. Doug Kramer
Not sure any player has changed my mind more than Doug Kramer. When he committed, I rolled my eyes a bit (Bill Cubit adding a 6'-1" grayshirt OL), but Craig talked me out of it. He loved Kramer's film. "But if he's listed at 6'-1" he's probably 5'-11.5" - what are we supposed to do with that?" I asked Craig. "Put him at center", he said.
Boy, was Craig right. Kramer redshirted in 2016, got stronger, and has now started the last three seasons at center. He's on the Rimington trophy watch list and should be a semifinalist if not a finalist. I'd say he's one of the top-12 centers in college football this season. Boy was I wrong.
7. Sydney Brown
There were some photos from camp this fall that showed Quan Martin running with the ones at safety and Sydney Brown running with the twos. Could it be that one of the only Illini players showing up on preseason All Big Ten lists would be.. passed in the starting lineup by a guy who converted to safety midway through last season? It doesn't sound like it - sounds like Brown starts tonight, so that was probably the old "motivate the starter they want more from" (and see how the second-string guy looks with the ones).
But that speaks to what is needed from Brown this season. He has to be the back-end all-everything guy. What we saw against Michigan State needs to be what we see all season. Flying around, making plays, and, you know, occasionally picking off a pass and returning it 70 yards to spark the biggest comeback in school history.
6. Alex Palczewski
Let's call it the Tim Simpson Rule. Once Simpson started 48 games back in the early 90's, many players have gotten close to his record of 48 total starts in an Illini uniform, and some have tied him, but none have passed him. Nathan Scheelhaase was on track but an injury meant he only tied Simpson. Ryan McDonald was going to get to 49 and then we lost the final three games of the 2008 season, missed a bowl at 5-7, and McDonald missed a chance at his 49th game in a bowl. Alex Palczewski was on track - with 12 games and a bowl game this season - to hit 49. And now we only have nine games.
This record will probably be obliterated (by several players) because of the Covid rule. Palcho himself could return for 2021, start 13 games (after ten if there are bowls this year), and set the mark at 59 starts which will never be topped. Well, until Reggie Love plays in 10 games this year, four next year, 13 in 2022 through 2025, and plays in 66 games.
This is supposed to be about Palcho. He's our rock on the OL. I think he plays in the NFL. He should have a great season.
5. Mike Epstein
If you listened to the podcast today, you know that I picked him as my Pick To Click for this game. Which is dumb because Wisconsin will be the best run defense we'll face this season. But I'm just so desperate for my "Mike Epstein Is A Superstar And No One Remembers" take to be made manifest.
I originally predicted he'd have 1,400 yards this season. That probably included 500 yards against the very poor defenses of ISU, UConn, and Bowling Green so my adjusted prediction is 900 yards in 900 games. I won't even say "if healthy" because I'm fully committed to him being healthy. Let's get that first 100 yards tonight.
4. Nate Hobbs
Also on the podcast today: Mikey Dudek's claim that Nate Hobbs is by far the best athlete on the entire team. There's talk of Hobbs and the draft next spring, so now is his time to make that known to the world. We've been waiting so long for "and then his senior year..." seasons from a bunch of seniors all at once - maybe that's this season?
Hobbs has had such a long journey. Two years ago right now (well, not right now, but at the beginning of the season), he was suspended for three games. Now he's a senior captain. Time to go out on top.
3. Josh Imatorbhebhe
See, now I'm to the players where I don't have to say anything at all. You know everything about Bhebhe. What am I going to tell you that you don't know?
I guess my thoughts toward Behbhe this year focus on the journey he and his brother have been on to play on the same team. First, Daniel is committed to Florida. Then Josh commits to USC and Daniel transfers to USC to join him. In 2016, Daniel has a great season and Josh redshirts. 2017, they do "play together" (Daniel six catches, Josh two) but Daniel misses most of the season with an injury. 2018 Daniel misses the entire season after surgery. In the offseason, Josh transfers to Illinois. 2019, Daniel misses the year again, Josh is our best receiver.
2020: Two Imatorbhebhes on the same team in Champaign. Can't wait.
2. Jake Hansen
He wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the ACL injury at training camp in 2017. He would have played 2016 to 2019 and graduated. But he took a redshirt in 2017, so he's a senior now.
The goal? Let's go crazy: Butkus finalist. There were 12 Butkus finalists last year, and 10 are in the NFL and Micah Parsons is opting out. So... yeah, Butkus finalist is reachable.
1. Brandon Peters
It's always the quarterback, right? It's always the quarterback. You go as the quarterback goes.
So now, a season where we go as the quarterback goes. It's as simple as that. And the game starts in 30 minutes so I'd better wrap this up and go pace. No editing - just gonna post it.