CHAMPAIGN — There’s an inexperienced quarterback to watch, a heralded receiver coming off a two-year absence and a slew of freshmen who will try to push aside the stage fright that can come with a college football debut.
But when the University of Illinois football team opens its season with an 11 a.m. kickoff Saturday at Memorial Stadium, the person who may have the most pressure on him will be defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson, who has numerous holes to fill and must somehow prove that his defense can muscle up against a Ball State team that won’t even disguise what it will do.
“This is a team that will want to run the football,” Nickerson said this week, knowing this may be the first in a succession of opponents who will want Illinois to prove it can stand up to a proven running back and a powerful offensive line.
Questions abound for the Illini, but the play of a completely revamped defensive line might head the list. The only returning defensive lineman with significant time as a starter is tackle Jamal Milan, who played in 10 games and started five last season.
But after that, Nickerson must decide who can stand up to Ball State’s proven running game while also generating a pass rush on those occasions when the Cardinals decide to throw.
“They’ll use the run to set up the passing game, but they are very strong and solid along the offensive line,” Nickerson said. “Their running back is a good player.”
Ball State was just 4-8 last season, but not for lack of a running game. James Gilbert rushed for 1,332 yards and reached the 100-yard mark seven times. He often follows left guard Vinnie Palazeti, a fifth-year senior who helped Ball State average 220 rushing yards per game in 2016.
Like head coach Lovie Smith, Nickerson is guarded about sharing information. So it’s a guessing game which personnel he will use. Chances are he’ll experiment early, then lean on players who he feels are quickly proving to be up to the task.
“I feel pretty good about our group,” Nickerson said. “We learned a lot during training camp.”
Nickerson learned he has a group of freshmen who merit immediate auditions. When asked which freshman on defense shows the most confidence, he didn’t hesitate.
“I would say Bennett Williams,” he said of the safety from Campbell, Calif. “You just don’t worry about that with him. He kind of acts like he’s been here before.”
Nickerson had to juggle his linebacking group when starter Jake Hansen suffered an ACL injury in training camp and was lost for the season. But junior college transfer Del’Shawn Phillips has shined with Julian Jones and Justice Williams logging playing time, too.
“Del’Shawn has really stepped up,” Nickerson said. “We’re looking for big things from him.”
Offensively, quarterback Chayce Crouch takes over and welcomes back wideout Mike Dudek, who will have missed 981 days due to a pair of serious knee surgeries.
When they lined up for the first informal training camp scrimmage in early August, the opening play was a pass from Crouch to Dudek. Don’t be surprised if that’s play No. 1 for the Illini offense.
“It’s been a long time coming for him,” Smith said. “We expect him to score touchdowns and be productive on the offensive side of the ball. He’s healthy and he’s excited to play.
“Hopefully he doesn’t hyperventilate in the pregame warm-ups. There’s a lot of emotion going into that. But he’s a good football player and we’re a better football team with him.”
When Smith describes his second Illini squad as, “a young team,” he isn’t kidding. Out of 101 players on the roster, there are just nine seniors. That’s tied for the second-least in FBS. Georgia Southern has eight and Wake Forest also has nine.