As the September 1st date approaches when the Illinois Fighting Illini take the field at 11:00 AM CT against the Kent State Golden Flashes at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois, here are a couple early thoughts on Illinois’ offense outlook as a whole for the upcoming season.
1. There are proven weapons across multiple positions
To begin with, the Illini have a multitude of options at the running back position with sophomores Ra’Von Bonner and Mike Epstein, redshirt sophomore Dre Brown, and redshirt junior Reggie Corbin all vying for playing time. Bonner appeared in six games last season as a freshman for Lovie Smith. In those six games, he had 67 carries for 202 yards and four touchdowns as well as two receptions for five yards.
On the other hand, after a successful campaign in 2016 for Corbin in which he appeared in all 12 games and amassed 523 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 86 carries to go along with 112 receiving yards on 10 receptions, 2017 was a much different story. The 2017 season came and went and Corbin finished the year with only 105 all-purpose yards to his name. However, new offensive coordinator Rod Smith joining the program suits Corbin’s game very well, allowing him to have the ball in space and make guys miss.
Mike Epstein and Dre Brown both proved their worth when healthy, averaging 6.1 and 4.5 yards per carry, respectively. With a lot of weapons in the backfield at Illinois’ disposal, no matter who the quarterback is they will appreciate them.
Along with the running backs mentioned, receivers Mike Dudek and Ricky Smalling, as well as tight end Louis Dorsey, giving the quarterback reliable options to throw the ball to on every Saturday.
Dudek is a redshirt senior and clear leader for the Illini who also has a 1,000-yard receiving season to his name. Smalling burst onto the scene as a freshman last season, playing in 11 games and hauling in 31 receptions for 510 yards and two touchdowns. He looks to improve even more this season after an impressive first year with the Illini. As for Dorsey, he is an imposing figure at 6-6, 225lb, and is only entering his sophomore season. In 2017, Dorsey had 22 receptions for 395 yards and three touchdowns in nine games played.
If all of the skill players across the field improve, then the Illinois offense could give defenses a harder time than they did last year when they only averaged 15.4 points per game and did not win a Big Ten game while finishing the season 2-10.
2. QB and OL Uncertainty
While sophomore Cam Thomas gained valuable experience last year and is the favorite to win the starting quarterback job this season, he is still very young and has much to learn if he is indeed the starter. First, however, he must compete with Coran Taylor, M.J. Rivers, and Matt Robinson for the starting job.
Similar to the quarterback situation, the offensive line is very young and still trying to learn how to play together consistently. It’s very possible that four of the five starting offensive lineman, Larry Boyd, Alex Palczewski, Doug Kramer, and Vederian Lowe, are all either sophomores or redshirt sophomores. The one exception would be redshirt senior Nick Allegretti.
All in all, while Illinois has many skill players that will be able to put points on the board, the offense all starts with consistent quarterback play and an offensive line that can protect him.
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