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Will Illinois’ Football Focus on Younger Players Pay Off?

A so-called ‘youth movement’ has started in Champaign with the arrival of Head Coach Lovie Smith. Is it for real?

Illinois v Iowa
Coach Love Smith last week in Iowa City
Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

There is no one who can doubt that more younger players are hitting the field at Illinois than in most schools. An article in the Chicago Tribune at the beginning of training camp crystalized this perfectly when they stated:

Illinois led the nation last season with 28 first-time starters. This year's team again will have plenty of youth, with only nine seniors and 49 freshmen (33 true and 16 redshirt). Only four players have double-digit starts: offensive linemen Christian DiLauro and Nick Allegretti, receiver Malik Turner and cornerback Jaylen Dunlap.

The defensive line, which lost stalwarts Rob Bain, Chunky Clements, Carroll Phillips and Dawuane Smoot after last season, will feature eight freshmen fighting for spots against six upperclassmen.

With those kind of numbers, it is impossible for young players to NOT get a chance. Lovie Smith is obviously putting his players in the game, and as a second-year head coach, has gotten large numbers of his guys in place already.

This season, 18 true freshmen have started for the Illini in their first three games. Ten have started in every game. They are DB Tony Adams, OL Larry Boyd, TE Louis Dorsey, RB Mike Epstein, DL Isaiah Gay, DB Nate Hobbs, OL Alex Palczewski, DL Bobby Roundtree, WR Ricky Smalling and DB Bennett Williams. That is the most in the country, it is the most in Illinois program history. This year, only LSU comes close, having started six true freshmen. Here’s Williams speaking to a reporter about his first college interception last week against Iowa, and how they are preparing for Rutgers:

It isn’t just freshmen, however. Sophomores also play a large part of the game in Champaign. As an example, 11 of the 14 student-athletes who play the offensive line are freshmen or sophomores. Four true freshmen started on the line last week against Iowa. These are astonishing numbers, folks, almost unheard of in FBS, and certainly unheard of in the Big Ten. Of course, there are more than just starters that are freshmen and sophomores. Plenty of the substitutions come from the ranks of the underclassmen as well.

Fully 3/4 of the 99 players listed on the Illinois 2017 football roster are either freshmen (35), redshirt freshmen (18), or sophomores (22). Well over half of those 35 true freshmen have already played in a game this season.

Sophomore safety Stanley Green was a freshman starter last year, starting for the first time against Rutgers here in Piscataway. It is interesting to hear his take on the willingness of the coaching staff to put their trust in freshmen, and how he feels it makes players “grow up quickly” out of necessity.

Having home state players is seemingly not as important to Smith and his staff as it is to many here in New Jersey. Far fewer than half (40%) of the 75 are from Illinois, and the majority are from only a handful of states. Like Rutgers when Schiano was coaching, there are a fair number from Florida. There is even one from Melbourne Australia (freshman punter Blake Hayes) and even one from New Jersey. Redshirt freshman long snapper Sean Mills played for St. Joseph’s in Metuchen.

How does that compare to Rutgers? Well, Rutgers has 31 freshmen, 19 redshirt freshmen, and six sophomores, which comprise 47% of Rutgers 2017 roster, which is what you would expect, that those players comprise around half of your roster.

Below, here is an opportunity to hear Illini Head Coach Lovie Smith being interviewed about his expectations this week when Rutgers comes to town.

Smith is obviously looking at the long game, and look for Illinois to be making some noise in 2 years, when these players are juniors, redshirt juniors, and seniors. We will be able to see it first-hand, as Rutgers is scheduled to play Illinois in each of the next four years. In the near future, people might be looking at Champaign and saying, “Wow, look at how well Illinois is doing!” You heard about it here first, folks!