CHAMPAIGN — As the University of Illinois coach staff continues to inject a record number of freshmen into the starting lineup, they are embracing a theory they believe will improve this program now and into the future.
That theory asks just one question: Why wait?
The nine freshmen Illinois has used in its starting lineup through two games are more than any team in the country. So far, 17 true freshmen, nine redshirt freshmen, two first-time sophomores and two first-time juniors have played, making it 30 players who have made their Illini debuts in the first two games.
Where some staffs might have been reluctant to pair true freshmen Larry Boyd of St. Louis and Alex Palczewski of Mount Prospect on the same side of the starting offensive line, offensive coordinator Garrick McGee didn’t hesitate.
“No, it wasn’t a factor because you’re just looking into the future and saying we can start developing them now,” he said. “So just put them back there and they’re probably going to be there for the next three or four years anyway.”
Boyd got his first start at tackle, Palczewski his first start next to Boyd at guard.
Senior tackle Christian DiLauro, the old man of the group, said the freshmen are figuring it out as they go. But overall, they did a good job helping another freshman, Mike Epstein, rush for 111 yards in a victory over Western Kentucky.
“Right now I know their heads are spinning,” DiLauro said. “I told Larry and Alex last week to have fun, play hard and even if you make mistakes, if you go 100 miles an hour and block someone, at least you’re doing something.”
McGee admits some of it is a little frightening.
“(Freshman tight end) Louis Dorsey told me a couple stories,” McGee said. “He was standing next to Larry Boyd and he said, ‘Should I block out or block forward?’ And Larry said, ‘I don’t even know what I’m supposed to do myself.’”
McGee said that’s the challenge for him. Coach, teach and educate quickly. But he seems to relish it.
“On the one side, it’s really fun. You see them growing up and developing and you can see where they are going to be next year or two years from now.
“On the other side, there could be a mistake any minute. The margin for error is not very big for us.”
Defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson has surrounded himself with true freshmen. He has played nine so far and at one point during Saturday’s game against Western Michigan, three of his four defensive linemen were playing high school football at this time last year (Bobby Roundtree, Jamal Woods, Isaiah Gay).
“We thought about that, but the guys are ready,” Nickerson said. “It’s been really fun coaching those guys up and watching them translate everything onto the field on game day.”
It’s still possible more freshmen could make their Illini debut.
McGee said offensive lineman Vederian Lowe from Rockford, who is listed at 6-5, 340 pounds, is getting close as he returns from an injury.
“He could show up any minute now,” McGee said. “He’s doing well. He’s going to be doing some football activities this week so he’ll be pass blocking and next week he’ll get into some practice sessions. He’s doing well.”
Sign ’em up: Head coach Lovie Smith got his 15th verbal commitment for the Class of 2018 and it’s another quarterback.
MJ Rivers, a 6-4, 213-pound dual threat quarterback from Frisco, Texas said he will attend the University of Illinois. He is the son of former NFL tight end Marcellus Rivers.
Rivers is the third quarterback to pledge for this class, joining Coran Taylor from Peoria and Cordell Littlejohn from Roswell, Ga.
McGee was on hand Friday night to watch Taylor and Peoria High score 44 points in the first quarter of a 58-8 trouncing at Urbana.
Littlejohn is a 6-4, 190-pounder. Taylor and Littlejohn are also dual threat quarterbacks.