1. Young defenders are gradually maturing
During the past few weeks, I've changed the way I've watched Illini football games. Of course, the results matter, but I'm more interested in how certain Illini are playing -- specifically the ones who will be a part of a future where Illinois can succeed (freshmen and sophomores). With those lenses on, I actually was a bit more encouraged by how some of the young defenders played in the loss against Michigan compared to the Rutgers win. The Scarlet Knights are a terrible team, yet they still pretty much did what they wanted against the Illini defense. Rutgers just shot itself in the foot enough times to allow Illinois to win. Michigan absolutely dominated the Illini defense for the first 19 minutes. But the Illini defense took big strides as the game waned, allowing the No. 2 team in the country to score just 13 points during the final 41 minutes. Yes, Michigan played some backups in the final quarter and change, but those backups are just as talented as the Illinois starters. But I found this impressive:
First four Michigan drives: four touchdowns.
Next seven drives (Michigan's final drive just ran out the clock so I didn't include it): punt, field goal, punt, fumble lost, field goal, turnover on downs, touchdown.
Through their struggles against a superior opponent, a few young Illini defenders showed more flashes and gradual maturation.
True freshman free safety Stanley Green looked much more comfortable in his second career start. He made some mistakes early but came up and made some huge hits, including the forced fumble, throughout the game against stronger Michigan players. Redshirt freshman safety Patrick Nelson (six tackles) continues to play well against the run but must improve in coverage.
Sophomore linebacker Tre Watson had his best game until his second-half targeting penalty that will cost him the first half against Minnesota. He looked more physical and showed better form on tackles, and he simply flew around and made plays (1.5 tackles for loss and a QBH). Also, I just thought Julian Jones looked like he belonged on the same field as the Wolverines. With Michigan playing more heavy sets, Illinois employed its strongside linebacker a lot more on Saturday, and Jones finished with a career-high 11 tackles. He's a legit Big Ten athlete on a unit that lacks them.
Milan, Jackson and Odenigbo struggled against a physical offensive line. But the underclassmen are providing just as much as the veterans in their position group. In fact, Milan -- who left the game with an injury -- looks like the best of the bunch.
If anything good comes from this season, it's that the young Illini are gaining valuable experience that could expedite their development.
2. Lovie continues to shuffle the deck
Two more Illini made their first career starts on Saturday: Connor Brennan at quickside guard and Tito Odenigbo at defensive tackle. The Illini have now started 22 first-time starters this season, including 12 the past month. Smith has shown no loyalty to veterans who have long been starters at Illinois.
Taylor Barton made 34 career starts before getting benched for Patrick Nelson a month ago. Robert Bain and Jarrod Clements have 40 combined starts at defensive tackle, but Illinois has started three younger players -- Odenigbo, Jamal Milan and Kenyon Jackson -- there the last few weeks. Smith continues to show that he's unafraid to shuffle the deck (and ruffle some feathers) as he searches for the best cards to play (though, he might just need to recruit better cards).
Brennan became the eighth different offensive lineman to earn a start this season, getting the nod over redshirt freshman Gabe Megginson. The Illini now have started five different offensive line combinations, mostly due to injury. But Saturday's decision was based on performance. Megginson, a four-star recruit and still likely a four-year starter, really struggled against Rutgers and has struggled with consistency all year. Is it something to be concerned about? Sure. But there are reasons why offensive linemen rarely play in their first and second seasons. Strength is a big factor, but speed of the game, technique and understanding blocking concepts usually are bigger reasons. Meginson has plenty of strength but struggles with consistency, an expected hiccup this season. Now, he just has to learn from it and improve.
3. Malik Turner is a star
Malik Turner (35 catches for 513 yards) has accounted for 43.3 percent of the Illini's receiving yardage this season, as well as half the Illini's receiving touchdowns (four of eight). Those are impressive stats for Turner, but alarming stats for the Illini.
Turner has grown past the inconsistencies that marred him during his first season and a half -- which should serve as a reminder when evaluating freshmen and sophomores -- and developed into a legit NFL prospect. Following a fantastic finish to his sophomore season, Turner has turned into a star as a junior. He currently ranks fifth in the Big Ten in receiving yards per game. He's a huge (6-foot-3, 205 pounds), athletic target and more sure-handed than former teammate Geronimo Allison. He also is starting to make acrobatic catches seem routine, like this:
The problem is that Turner has no help. Justin Hardee -- who just has never developed into a reliable target -- is second on the team with 15.1 yards per game. Another way to illustrate this: Turner is on pace for 880 receiving yards, while the next best Illini receiver is on pace for 182 receiving yards.
Of course, the Illini miss Mike Dudek -- who at this point, seems very unlikely to return this season. Hopefully, he can provide a complement to Turner next season. Add in Ricky Smalling and some other receiver recruits next year, and Turner and this passing game could be pretty dangerous in 2017. Of course, that depends on who's throwing to them, which is a huge mystery. Speaking of which...
4. JG3 is not the long-term answer at QB
Jeff George Jr. wears a gold chain necklace bearing a pendant with three characters: JG3. It's a reference to a nickname his high school teammates gave him. George Jr. doesn't run from a name made famous by his father, an Illinois great and the No. 1 overall pick of the 1989 NFL Draft. George Jr. worked hard to earn his opportunity and scholarship at Illinois. He seems very well-liked by teammates, and I've only enjoyed my interactions. So he doesn't seem entitled or anything of that sort. Still, if George Jr.'s name were Jeff Jones Jr., there wouldn't be nearly as much fan support for him to get on the field.
The truth is that, barring a gigantic leap, George Jr. (4-for-15, 95 yards, one fumble, one interception) isn't the quarterback of the future.
This may seem harsh after just one start against the nation's top-ranked defense. But it's not just one start. George Jr. was the fourth-string quarterback (behind Wes Lunt, Chayce Crouch and Jimmy Fitzgerald) during the spring for a reason. George Jr. has a really good arm. Yes, it must be genetic. George Jr. has had some nice practice performances -- most notably the spring game against the Illini backup defenders -- but those have been the exception, not the rule. As he showed Saturday when he did receive protection, George Jr. -- who did show some toughness -- isn't very accurate and he's prone to some bad decisions. Of course, as I just said above, you can't give up on players in their first or second years, so he still has plenty of time to develop and surprise. But it's not like George Jr. was highly recruited, so the odds seem low.
Most importantly, though, he just doesn't fit what offensive coordinator Garrick McGee wants in a quarterback. George is a skinny pocket passer. McGee wants superior athletes at quarterback who can make as many plays with their legs as their arm. Assuming healthy in the future, Saturday may end up George Jr.'s only chance at a start. A source said Illinois is optimistic that Lunt will return to play for Saturday's homecoming game against Minnesota.
5. Wanted: cornerbacks
The Illinois run defense wasn't great but it should receive a satisfactory grade against the superior Wolverines. The pass defense was atrocious though. Michigan's quarterbacks (20-for-28 for 291 yards, two touchdowns) carved up the Illini's soft coverage (whether in man or zone).
Jaylen Dunlap is a solid cornerback. He's physical against the run and satisfactory in coverage. But teams continue to exploit and attack the Illini's lack of a solid second cornerback. Darius Mosely had a great game at Rutgers -- at the nickelback position. But Illinois didn't like what it saw from Ahmari Hayes (he gives huge cushions) at cornerback and moved Mosely back to the perimeter against heavy sets on Saturday. Michigan immediately attacked No. 24, and Mosely really struggled -- as he has throughout his career. He just doesn't have the quick hips to turn and run with receivers and lacks the length to compete against bigger receivers.
The Illini employed redshirt freshman Frank Sumpter more in this game, and he didn't add that much. The redshirt freshman had a solid training camp, but he's the third cornerback the Illini have tried out (following Hayes and Chris James). Sumpter probably isn't a long-term solution at anywhere but nickel due to his lack of size and long-distance speed. I was a bit shocked redshirt freshman Cameron Watkins didn't travel with the team. He had a pretty good spring and has the length, physicality and athleticism the Illini staff prefers. He was banged up during fall camp but has played this season, primarily on special teams. Given what we've seen from the other guys, I'd like to see Watkins get a shot at some point.
While many will focus on the hole at defensive end and quarterback, the Illini staff has made it a priority to find immediate help and upgrade the talent at cornerback. The Illini are scouring their JUCO options and likely will give their incoming freshmen immediate opportunities. Tony Adams likely would've been a factor if he hadn't suffered a torn ACL. Antwan Collier likely will play right away, if he signs with Illinois. Miami, Nebraska and others are heavily courting him.
Saturday's game definitely served as another "help wanted" sign to Illini cornerback targets.