CHAMPAIGN — Big things were expected from Kendrick Foster this season.
The senior running back from Peoria led the team in rushing last season and while piling up 720 yards and seven touchdowns, he pushed projected star Ke’Shawn Vaughn to the bench.
Eventually, Vaughn transferred to Vanderbilt.
Big things were expected from Christian DiLauro, too. The senior offensive tackle had made 31 straight starts coming into this season, most of any player on the team. He added three more starts this season.
But in the quest to find the best players available — and with a willingness to consider any solution regardless of age or experience — players such as Foster and DiLauro have been bumped into the background.
Monday, when discussing the running back position, head coach Lovie Smith said Foster is now running No. 4 on the depth chart. DiLauro watched last week at Iowa as true freshman Vederian Lowe of Rockford got the start and made his collegiate debut.
“We’re playing the guys we feel give us the best chance to win,” Smith said. “It’s not based on playing young players. It’s based on who we think is the best football player. If you’re an older player and you’re not getting as much playing time, practice harder. Play better.
“Young players don’t get lifetime positions, either. (Senior cornerback) Jaylen Dunlap took a step back, but last week he came back and played well. You have to keep moving and we play guys based on what we see on game day.”
After continually changing the makeup of the offensive line because of injuries and performance issues, the Illini started a group at Iowa that might end the shuffling.
Lowe, a 340-pounder who missed much of training camp, got the start at tackle. With redshirt freshman center Doug Kramer returning from an injury he suffered in the season opener, that allowed the staff to move junior Nick Allegretti from center to his more natural position at guard.
And on the other side, they continued with a pair of true freshmen — tackle Larry Boyd, another 340-pounder, and guard Alex Palczewski.
With three true freshmen, a redshirt freshman and a junior, that line helped Illinois rush for a season-best 200 yards. And they allowed just one sack.
“Nicky played outstanding,” Smith said. “Probably the best game he’s played in our program.”
The coaches complimented older players who have lost starting jobs but have tried to help in other areas. Foster, for example, is chipping on special teams.
Junior Chayce Crouch, who lost his starting quarterback job to sophomore Jeff George Jr., got into the game at tight end and made a 7-yard grab.
“When we talked to Chayce about going in a different direction at quarterback, he said, ‘I just want to help,’” offensive coordinator Garrick McGee said. “He’s one of the top competitors we have and you have to find a way to get more competitors on the field. And he has a skill set that can help us, so I’m looking forward to moving forward with him.”
Smith has played 20 true freshmen, tied with LSU for most in the nation. And 13 of those true freshmen have started, more than any team in the country.
Smith said although the 45-16 loss at Iowa was not what he’s looking for, progress by the freshmen gives the program hope.
“After we signed this freshman class, we had high hopes for them,” Smith said. “Most have turned out the way we hoped they would. They’re still young players but they should only grow and get better and better.
“From here on out, we want to see those young guys take more big steps. It seems like there’s a young player at every position, either playing or waiting in the wings ready to play. If we can keep recruiting like that, our program should be in good position.”
George Jr., Act II: No question George Jr. will get his second straight start at quarterback despite three interceptions and a lost fumble. But reducing the turnovers is a major point of emphasis.
“I thought for about 70 snaps he played really good ball,” McGee said. “And there are about six or seven of them he wishes he had back. And that’s how it is. You can play 70 good plays but we’re only going to remember those that something happens. That’s how the quarterback position works.”
McGee was encouraged that Illinois had six plays of 20-plus yards.
“We were finally able to mix it up and use more stuff," he said. "But we still have a lot of young kids out there so we’ve got to keep it simple so they know what direction we’re going.”