USA Today // Mike Granse

Werner: To find hope for Illini football, look past 2016

CHAMPAIGN - Illinois invited about 50 prospects, including three official visitors, to Saturday’s Homecoming game at Memorial Stadium in hopes that the recruits would bask in a festive, frenzied atmosphere that could help draw them to play for the Illini.

But following the Illini’s 40-17 loss to Minnesota in the recruiting lounge underneath the concrete student section that was less than half capacity for most of Saturday's second half, the somber voices of coaches, prospects and their family members barely rose above a whisper.

“You hope they see past this,” one Illinois staffer told Illini Inquirer of the dire mood.

The excitement of Lovie Smith’s hire is a distant memory following a 2-6 start to his first season -- a major disappointment for even the more pessimistic observers.

In its place, the harsh reality of a long, painful rebuild has set in -- as well as a long November ahead given the Illini’s shortcomings, which have worsened due to key injuries to the offense.

The proof has shown in attendance. The Illini sold out their stadium (60,700 official attendance) for the Sept. 10 showdown against North Carolina (the first capacity crowd since 2011). But that planned “arrival” moment fizzled in a 48-23 loss to the Tar Heels and each mounting loss has depressed attendance to a season-low total of 40,090 on Saturday (for homecoming!). The Illini haven’t won a home game since the Sept. 3 opener against a bad FCS team (Murray State) and have lost those four home games against FBS opponents by a combined 18.8 points per game. The Illini aren’t only losing, they’re losing in an unentertaining fashion (uncompetitive with a bad offense).

The proof also shows in the starting lineup. The Illini started six freshmen on defense on Saturday: three redshirt freshmen (DT Jamal Milan, CB Frank Sumpter and SS Patrick Nelson) and three true freshmen (DT Kenyon Jackson, LB Jake Hansen and FS Stanley Green).

Youth movement

Lovie Smith insists the lineup changes are not part of a planned youth movement (after all, he’s benched former four-star OL Gabe Megginson for senior Connor Brennan), but you couldn’t blame him if he did.

Reality: the Illini are not going to win four straight to go to a bowl game. Heck, these Illini would be fortunate to win another game.

Another reality: this season is lost. It’s not about the present -- which certainly is a shame for a senior class that didn’t ask to or deserve to play in such an unstable program for four or five years.

The rest of the season, the offseason and probably most of next season is all about the future.

Illinois must find out who can play.

Milan and Jackson look like solid foundation pieces for the interior of the defensive line. Green and Nelson have the chance to be a complementary duo at the back end of the defense: Green, the rangy one who can cover up others’ mistakes, and Nelson, the hard-hitting safety who plays more like an extra linebacker. And Hansen and Dele Harding are earning chances to duke it out with sophomores Tre Watson and Julian Jones for next year’s starting spot.

Redshirt freshman running back Reggie Corbin has proven to be a playmaker who can actually produce behind a shaky offensive line. Freshman receiver Dominic Thieman was having his best day (four catches, 25 yards) before he left the field Saturday with a right knee injury.

Sophomore guard Nick Allegretti has gone from non-starter last year to the Illini’s best offensive lineman this season. That gives hope that Megginson can take that kind of leap next season.

Is Jeff George Jr. the quarterback of the future? Probably not. Chayce Crouch -- who is out for the season with a shoulder injury -- looked more effective in his short stint. But at least Illinois now knows what it has in its quarterback room -- and knows it MUST recruit more dynamic players at the most important position.

“We are playing a lot of freshmen, maybe not by choice on some of it with some injuries," Smith said. "But some of them have earned playing time. It’s not like we’re in ‘trying to play young guys mode’ or anything like that. We’re still playing the players we feel give us the best opportunity to win.”

Roster rehab

But recruiting is more important to this staff than any evaluation of its current players. Because Illinois simply needs better players -- and a lot of them.

The long roster rehab ahead will in the short term give more freshmen (and likely several junior college and grad transfers) the opportunity to replace weak sophomore and junior classes recruited by Tim Beckman's staff.

Illini commit Larry Boyd was in attendance Saturday, and the St. Louis Trinity Catholic offensive lineman looks like he has the body to play immediately. Pencil him in at guard next year’s starting lineup. And fellow commit Vederian Lowe, who also was in attendance, has a shot too. The two might make some mistakes, but at least they’ll bring the type of physicality Illinois so sorely needs.

Illinois is selling its two official visitors from Texas -- linebacker/safety Devodrick Johnson and defensive end Nelson Mbanasor -- on immediate playing time on a defense that loses key playmakers.

The third official visitor, Notre Dame grad transfer Devin Butler, should notice that Illinois has rotated four players at its second cornerback spot looking for someone (anyone!) to give them some reliability opposite Jaylen Dunlap -- with little success. The starting spot is his next year if he wants it.

And any high school senior receiver who watched the game -- Reggie Roberson or Jaylond Adams maybe? -- knows they could play for Illinois right dang now, along with current commits Ricky Smalling and Carmoni Green.

That's the best sell Smith has right now.

“I think when most recruits come in,” Smith said. “I think most recruits are looking at,’How do I fit next year?’ ‘I’m not on the team right now.’ As we see it, I think most recruits are seeing again how they would fit into the program. What a lot of recruits probably see is, ‘I may have an opportunity to play here a little bit quicker than I can some other place.’ Hopefully that’s the case.”

Smith became the head coach in March -- a rarity in college football -- because of Illinois’ deep, systemic issues that will take at least four or five years of recruiting (remember, he's only brought in one recruit: grad transfer Hardy Nickerson) to clear out.

A coaching change and new schemes only added to this current team’s adversity. Injuries have only further exposed this team’s lack of talent and lack of depth. Simply, 2016 is a lost season. 2017 will only feature more freshmen (this time Lovie’s recruits) playing immediately. Hopefully, 2018 will start to show some major progress -- at least in terms of the physicality, speed and athleticism needed to compete in the Big Ten.

But those recruiting pitches become tougher and tougher sells with each blowout loss. And holding onto some of their current recruits becomes tougher and tougher. Green and Florida defensive back Antwan Collier both plan official visits elsewhere, and in-state defensive end Olalere Oladipo just took an official visit to Penn State (though his visit to Illinois on Saturday was a welcome sight for the Illini).

Smith and his staff must successfully convince the recruits to ignore this bad team, the half-empty stadium on homecoming and the somber mood in the recruiting lounge.

Smith and his staff must continue to sell playing time, their NFL connections and their vision of the future.

They must continue to sell hope because 2016 is offering little.

To find hope, you must look past this.

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