Thanks to the quirk of the schedule and the whims of the weather, this weekend turned out to be a perfect time for the University of Illinois to have its one-and-only “bye.”
Memorial Stadium can be a sweltering place on a sunny Saturday when the temperature climbs north of 90 degrees. So with no need to be play-calling on the scalding turf, the Illini football coaches scattered across the country to put their faces in front of high school players.
A bye gives coaches a rare opportunity to check in on prospects and see first-hand how they handle themselves on game day. This includes looking in on players who have already committed to Illinois and those who are still in their decision-making process.
“You constantly recruit, that’s for sure,” Illini offensive coordinator Garrick McGee said. “When you get a bye week you get a chance to really dig in and get out of the office and actually see some kids play and make sure they know we love them.”
In some programs, the main target for the next recruiting class can be summed up by naming one or two position groups. That program has very specific needs.
Illinois is not that program. Not yet. Illinois’ needs are too broad, too many, and McGee correctly sized that up when asked what the program is looking for in the Class of 2018.
“Just overall quality,” McGee said. “That’s what we got lucky with last year. Every guy we added was a quality, bonafide Big Ten player. So that’s what we’re trying to do, build more depth, add more good players so that we have the type of roster where everyone has to show up and produce every day because there’s another guy in your position who is just as good.
“That’s how you end up with a very competitive team. There’s depth at every position and everyone has a chance to show up and play well. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Bingo! And that’s why many observers believe Lovie Smith’s first full recruiting class, the 2017 group that produced 10 starters in Illinois’ most recent game, is the perfect building block if he’s going to lead Illinois to competitive success in the Big Ten.
These kids are freshmen, so they are not finished products. But players such as Mike Epstein, Louis Dorsey, Larry Boyd, Alex Palczewski, Ricky Smalling, Tony Adams, Nate Hobbs, Bobby Roundtree, Isaiah Gay, Bennett Williams, Jamal Woods and Owen Carney Jr. figure to be cornerstones on what projects to be a vastly improved Illini squad in 2019.
Stack a quality 2018 recruiting class on top of this 2017 group, then add another in 2019, and Illinois finally would be able to develop that kind of in-house competition McGee longs to see.
Illinois finally would be able to establish the kind of quality depth to withstand injuries. And Illinois finally would change its recruiting pitch from one that promises instant playing time to one that promises bowl trips and begins to show a track record of sending players to the NFL.
With the current freshmen, future stars can be envisioned at many positions. But the one position that still must be more adequately addressed is quarterback.
Maybe Chayce Crouch and Jeff George Jr. can improve and excel. But truthfully we have yet to see the caliber of quarterback Illinois will need to take the program forward.
Cam Thomas of Marian Catholic is a true freshman whose abilities are unknown. Illinois hopes to protect his redshirt status by letting him learn in practice and watch on game day.
Three high school quarterbacks have committed to Lovie & Co. in 2018, including exciting dual-threat prospect Coran Taylor from Peoria. Maybe he’s the future star at this vital position.
The hope was 6-foot-6, 230-pound Dwayne Lawson would have transferred from junior college and would be on the roster already. Alas, unless something changes his academic indifference makes enrollment impossible. It turns out that when regarding the phrase “student-athlete,” only the “athlete” part interests him.
Lovie is curious to see how the NCAA’s new early signing period works. That begins in December. He wishes it went into effect yesterday.
“I know I believe in the early signing period,” Smith said. “Right now we have a lot of guys who are committed to us. Why shouldn’t they be allowed to sign right now? If you’re ready to get married, why not get married?”