Jeremy Werner // Illini Inquirer

Werner: Illini football putting on big-boy pants

Illinois football continues to make the kind of moves that could make Illini football relevant again ... in a few years

At some point, I'm probably going to look at my now-6-month-old-son and say,  "You're a big boy now. Act like it." I probably could learn how  from Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman, who emphatically conveyed the message to his Illinois football program almost a year ago. His hiring of Lovie Smith instantly recalibrated expectations for fans, donors, athletics department staffers and even the players. He gave Smith a staffing budget ($4 million) that makes most of the Illini's Big Ten peers jealous. He's started a huge fund-raising campaign to give his new coach a $132 million football facility in the south end zone of Memorial Stadium -- more ammunition for recruiting. Whitman has shown he's willing to spend the resources to make his lofty "We Will Win" campaign slogan a reality.

And in the last year, Smith continues to raise the bar. He stole Louisville's offensive coordinator (Garrick McGee). He hired a former NFL great to run his defense (Hardy Nickerson). He signed Illinois' best recruiting class in eight years. And just this week, he added another former Pro Bowl NFL player to his staff. Oh, and Donnie Abraham also happens to have spent the last decade as a high school coach in one of the nation's most fertile recruiting territories (Tampa) -- including the last two at prestigious IMG Academy, which just in the Class of 2018 has one five-star prospect and 13 four-star prospects (including Chicago natives Houston Griffith and Verdis Brown). This is the type of move Michigan usually makes, not Illinois. But the Illini finally have the two leaders -- Whitman and Smith -- to make big-boy moves.

But Illinois still needs a few years to mature and develop. That's obvious when you see the team lining up at spring practice. One scholarship quarterback. Three scholarship receivers. Four scholarship defensive ends, including one that started his career as a safety (James Crawford). Illinois can barely fill out a two-deep this spring, with only eight scholarship seniors and 13 scholarship juniors and double digit players sidelined on Wednesday with injuries. Illinois will be one of the youngest, if not the youngest, power-five teams in the country next season. Illinois will have about 22 sophomores, 11 redshirt freshmen and 24 true freshmen. That means two-thirds of the scholarship players on the team will be underclassmen and more than 40 percent of its scholarship players' last football game was a high school game. Turning around a football program is like turning around an aircraft carrier. It's painfully slow.  Expect Illinois to continue to get beat up by the bigger boys in the Big Ten in 2017.

That's why the 2017 season probably should be looked at simply through the prism of the 2018 season and beyond. Illinois is going to throw some freshmen to the wolves. Ricky Smalling and Carmoni Green, welcome to the receiver rotation on Day One. Larry Boyd, the Illini have a fifth spot on the offensive line open; go get it. Owen CarneyBobby Roundtree, Olalere OladipoJamal WoodsDeon Pate and Isaiah Gay, you all wanted to come here for a chance to play early at defensive end; well, Illinois kinda needs some of you to actually do it. Nate Hobbs and Tony Adams, the Illini aren't that comfortable with their backup cornerbacks, go use that speed and athleticism to carve out a role. A schedule that features five new coaches and a division crossover schedule that features Rutgers and Indiana will give the Illini some chances to match or surpass last year's win total (three). A more dynamic offense likely led by a mobile quarterback (Chayce Crouch or Dwayne Lawson) could lead the Illini to a few more wins than we assume. But don't expect the Vegas over/under to top last year's 3.5. And that's OK. The 2017 season more realistically for one of the nation's youngest teams is a 12-game preseason for 2018, when Illinois will be more prepared -- older, stronger and deeper -- to compete for Lovie Smith's first bowl bid.

The Illinois football coach tweeted at one of the world's biggest music stars, and that musician tweeted back that the Illini coach is "a legend." Whoever's running Smith's Twitter account should probably get a raise because Chance the Rapper's tweet back to Lovie Smith may be the biggest recruiting boon of the offseason so far. Also, I'm not sure Tim Beckman could've received a tweet back from a Florida Georgia Line cover band.

Here are some players who intrigue me this spring.  

- It's time for OT Adam Solomon to make a move. The 6-foot-5, 315-pound redshirt sophomore looks like a Wisconsin offensive lineman, the kind of roadgrader McGee wants up front. He's not a strong pass blocker yet, but I don't buy Jordan Fagan as a Big Ten starter, and I think the Illini are in trouble if he is one.

- Junior defensive end Sean Adesanya certainly looks the part. The 6-foot-3, 250-pound junior college transfer has been at Illinois for two years but hasn't seen the field yet due to injuries. He's finally healthy and still has two years of eligibility remaining. He's strong and athletic. He just has so little football experience. Right now, he's working as the second-string strongside defensive end behind Henry McGrew but I wouldn't be surprised to see him start.

- Redshirt freshman Doug Kramer does not look the part. The 6-foot-2, 270-pound center is undersized in the Big Ten, but so were the two guys he idolized at Hinsdale Central: Jack and Brian Allen. And both those guys went on to have great Big Ten careers at Michigan State. Kramer held his own last fall as a true freshman -- and he wasn't even supposed to be there. The plan was for him to grayshirt but Illinois had an open spot, and he got a call two days before training camp started to come on down. He's strong for his size, really smart and scrappy. If he plays well enough, Illinois could move Nick Allegretti to one of the guard spots and slide Gabe Megginson to tackle.

Griffin Palmer looks like what McGee wants in a tight end. He's tall, pretty jacked and runs well. He has the most well-rounded skill set of the available tight ends. He must show whether he can block in the Big Ten though. The tight end position is huge in most offenses, but especially in McGee's which is similar to former Illini OC Paul Petrino's offense -- which ran best when Evan Wilson and Jay Prosch were blocking for Mikel LeShoure. I don't expect Palmer to be a Wilson-like blocker yet. But I think Palmer gives Illinois the most dynamic threat at the position.

James McCourt reminds me of the last specialist to come to Illinois on scholarship: Ryan Frain. Like Frain, McCourt received a scholarship (from Bill Cubit) to be a kicker, but was quickly surpassed by a walk-on (for Frain, it was Taylor Zalewski, while for McCourt, it was Chase McLaughlin). Now, with the team in need of a punter, McCourt (like Frain) is getting the opportunity to compete for the punting job with walk-on Ryan Tucker, while also serving as the backup kicker.

Josh Whitman has traveled to Naples, Fla., and Phoenix during the last few weeks. I know a prominent alumni who lives in Naples. He likes football and has a sweet mustache. I also know a prominent alumni who lives in Phoenix. He likes basketball, especially Team USA. I wonder what Whitman talked about with those guys...

Speaking of, anyone else enjoying a week without Illinois basketball?


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