Illinois Football: Class of 2017 Position Grades for the Illini

Illinois Football

Oct 1, 2016; Lincoln, NE, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini head coach Lovie Smith watches during the game against the Nebraska Cornhuskers Illinois Fighting Illini in the first quarter at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

The Illinois football team managed to put together three wins last season in the first year under Lovie Smith.

Lovie didn’t know what he had on the roster and eventually changed things up throughout the year so he could see what he had for 2017.

Illinois had some talent on the roster last year, though.  Here are the players that graduated or departed the program for one reason or another.

Departures

Defensive Back: Taylor Barton, Dillan Cazley, Darius Mosely, Caleb Day

Linebacker: Hardy Nickerson, Mike Svetina

Defensive Line: Carroll Phillips, Chunky Clements, Gimel President, Rob Bain, Dawuane Smoot

Offensive Line: Austin Schmidt, Joe Spencer, Connor Brennan

Tight End: Ainslie Johnson, Tyler White, Andrew Davis

Wide Receiver: DJ Taylor, Justin Hardee, Man Berg, Zach Grant

Running Back: Ke’Shawn Vaughn

Quarterback: Wes Lunt

Punter/Kickers: Ryan Frain, David Resiner

Long Snapper: Michael Martin

There are a lot of opening day starters on this list of departures for the Illini. This has me slightly worried for the team in 2017.

But, Lovie did adjust the depth chart throughout the season and even stopped producing one before games to leave everyone a little curious on who will be out there come kick-off.

Since there is a total of 26 players departing from last year’s team, they will now have to fill those spots with the new additions.

Here are the additions from the class of 2017.

Additions

Defensive Back: Bennett Williams, Dawson DeGroot, Nate Hobbs, Tony Adams

Linebacker: James Knight, Del’Shawn Phillips, Marc Mondesir

Defensive Line: Bobby Roundtree, Jamal Woods, Deon Pate, Owen Carney, Kendrick Green, Olalere Oladipo,

Offensive Line: Alex Palczewski, Howard Watkins, Larry Boyd, Vederian Lowe

Tight End: Louis Dorsey

Wide Receiver: Carmoni Green, Ricky Smalling, Kendall Smith

Running Back: Ra’Von Bonner, Mike Epstein

Quarterback: Dwayne Lawson (Soon), Cam Thomas

This was a solid class for the Illinois football team.  They managed to get a full 25 commitments and signed 24 players.

Here are the grades of the positions and if Lovie and the coaching staff met the needs of the team.

Nov 14, 2015; Champaign, IL, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes running back Ezekiel Elliott (15) is tackled by Illinois Fighting Illini defensive back Taylor Barton (3) during the third quarter at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 14, 2015; Champaign, IL, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes running back Ezekiel Elliott (15) is tackled by Illinois Fighting Illini defensive back Taylor Barton (3) during the third quarter at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive Backs A+

The Illinois football team had four defensive backs depart from the team after the 2016 campaign.

Of these four defensive backs, two were opening day starters for the Illini.

Taylor Barton and Darius Mosely both started for the Illini against the Murray State Racers last season.

Barton ended up playing in 11 games and started in seven of those contests for Illinois.  Toward the end of the season, he started to lose playing time to backup Stanley Green.

Mosely played in all 12 games for the Illini last season and he started in eight of those contests as well.  His path was similar to Barton’s as he started to lose playing time to some younger backups.

Illinois also lost Dillan Cazley and Caleb Day as well.

Cazley had a chance to play in seven games and started two of them.  He was a nice contributor but couldn’t stay healthy.

Day didn’t do much his senior season and eventually went down with a season-ending injury.  He was mainly a special teams specialist.

So, the Illini lost four players last year at defensive back.   That isn’t terrible considering the replacements for these four players are actually on the team right now.

Stanley Green came onto the scene last season as a true freshman and made seven starts in the 10 games he played.  He will be in one of the two starting safety positions this year.

Patrick Nelson also had a good year as a redshirt freshman.  He played in 12 games and started in six of those contests at the other safety position.

Right there Illinois is getting back two sophomore safeties that started in a combined 13 games last season.

At corner, Jaylen Dunlap will be starting as a senior.  He started all 12 games last season.  Cameron Watkins will be another corner and he is only a sophomore.  He started two games last year and played in nine.

Chris James will be slotted in as the nickel cornerback and he is only a junior.  He started four games last season and played in every contest for the Illini.

Illinois already has a starting five who each started at least two games last season and only one of them is a senior.  That bodes well for the Illini this upcoming season and into the future.

Lovie recruited four talented defensive backs to add depth to the secondary and he accomplished that goal.  Bennett Williams, Dawson DeGroot, Nate Hobbs, and Tony Adams won’t see much time next season, but they will be important in the future.

The defensive back recruiting class is exactly what the Illini needed and I give them a high grade.

Oct 15, 2016; Piscataway, NJ, USA; Rutgers Scarlet Knights running back Robert Martin (7) rushes for a first down in front of Illinois Fighting Illini linebacker Julian Jones (2) during the first half at High Points Solutions Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 15, 2016; Piscataway, NJ, USA; Rutgers Scarlet Knights running back Robert Martin (7) rushes for a first down in front of Illinois Fighting Illini linebacker Julian Jones (2) during the first half at High Points Solutions Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Linebackers B+

The starting linebackers for the Illinois football team against Murray State last season were James Crawford, Hardy Nickerson, and Tre Watson.

We can all be honest about this group and say that Nickerson was the leader and that is why losing him after the season was such a gut shot for the Illini.

Nickerson started every game for the Illini at middle linebacker and was an All-Big Ten honorable mention.  He leaves a huge void in the middle of the Illinois defense.

Crawford was the opening day starting outside linebacker for the Illini but he only ended up playing in eight games and started just three of those contests.  He is returning for his senior season, but it looks like he is moving to defensive end.

Watson, on the other hand, was a big contributor to the team last year.  He played in all 12 games with eight starts.

At the end of the season, Watson made the All-Big Ten honorable mention list.  He is now back for his junior season with the Illini.

With Nickerson gone from the middle of the defense, Lovie needed to bring in some solid candidates to fill that role.

Del’Shawn Phillips is a junior college product and will be a nice fit for the Illini.  He enrolled early and is projected to be the starting middle linebacker opening day.

The other outside linebacker position is likely to go to Julian Jones.  He improved tremendously last season and even made four starts in the 11 games he played.

Phillips would complete the starting three linebackers for the Illini and Lovie also brought in two more linebackers from the class of 2017 as well.

James Knight and Marc Mondesir are going to help bring depth to this squad.  Illinois didn’t have much depth in 2016 at linebacker and they would have had even less this season.

But, Love added a total of three linebackers to the program and now he doesn’t have to sweat who will be backing up the starting three.

I would give Lovie a solid grade for the linebacker core he brought in from the class of 2017.  It isn’t an A+, but it is a high B.

Oct 10, 2015; Iowa City, IA, USA; Fighting Illini defensive lineman Chunky Clements (11) sacks Iowa Hawkeyes quarterback C.J. Beathard (16) at Kinnick Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 10, 2015; Iowa City, IA, USA; Fighting Illini defensive lineman Chunky Clements (11) sacks Iowa Hawkeyes quarterback C.J. Beathard (16) at Kinnick Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive Line A+

The main area that I think Illinois might struggle in for 2017 is the defensive line.  I don’t care what program you are, if you lose this much talent you will be hurting the following season.

Illinois lost all four starting defensive linemen and the main backup defensive end from the Murray State game last season.

Defensive ends Carroll Phillips and Dawuane Smoot are both likely to get drafted into the NFL.  Defensive tackles Chunky Clements and Rob Bain will probably get a look or two in free agency.

The departure of backup defensive end Gimel President will also hurt the Illini.  I wouldn’t doubt that he goes late in the NFL Draft.

The replacements for the starting four from last season aren’t terrible, though.

Defensive tackle is the position I am most confident in considering two young players were thrown into action last season.

Jamal Milan will be one of the starting defensive tackles in 2017.  He played in 10 games for the Illini and started in five of those contests as a redshirt freshman.

True freshman Kenyon Jackson was also thrown into the mix halfway through the season.  He started in five games and played in a total of eight.

The defensive tackle position is not only good, but they are extremely young as well.

The position that worries me the most is defensive end.

Illinois has Sean Adesanya and Tito Odenigbo as the starting defensive ends for 2017.

Adesanya didn’t play last season and Odenigbo played in 11 games and only made one start.  There wasn’t much playing time to go around considering the talent that was starting.

So, since the defensive end position is so wide open, that leaves the potential for a member of the class of 2017 to step into a starting role.

Lovie did a great job filling the need of defensive end.  He brought in five defensive ends from the class of 2017 and there are some pretty good ones in there.

Owen Carney is one of the best defensive ends that committed to the Illini.  He enrolled early and is listed as a backup heading into spring practice.

If I had to bet money, I would say Carney is going to be out there starting day one.

Bobby Roundtree and Olalere Oladipo are two other threats to start as well.  They will be entering the program in the summer and I think they both have tremendous talent.

Lovie also brought in Jamal Woods and Deon Pate who will both likely be redshirted for 2017.  That is a good thing, though, because now they can develop even more and Illinois will have depth.

Kendrick Green was the lone defensive tackle that was brought in from the class of 2017.  I wouldn’t doubt if he sees main backup time behind either Milan or Jackson.

As far as the class of 2017 defensive line goes, I would say Lovie knocked it out of the park.  He needed a big defensive line class and that is exactly what he got.

Illinois Football

Sep 3, 2016; Champaign, IL, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini wide receiver Samuel Harlib (82) and Illinois Fighting Illini offensive lineman Joe Spencer (71) celebrate with head coach Lovie Smith after the game against the Murray State Racers at Memorial Stadium. Illinois defeated Murray State 52 to 3. Mandatory Credit: Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Offensive Line C

To start the 2016 season, Illinois had Gabe Megginson and Nick Allegretti starting at guard, Austin Schmidt and Christian DiLauro starting at tackle, and Joe Spencer starting at center.

This seemed like a pretty good offensive line last season and for the most part, it was.

But, there were some deficiencies, though.  I thought two of the best offensive linemen the Illini had were Spencer and Schmidt and both have departed.

DiLauro will be starting again at tackle for the Illini and he is by far the best offensive lineman Illinois has now.

Megginson is likely to start again this season as well.  He is projected to be the other starting tackle for the Illini.

To fill Spencer’s open center spot, Allegretti is projected to move over to that position and snap the ball.  He started every game last season at guard and one at center.

The guard positions then will be filled by sophomore Darta Lee, who made two starts and played in six games last season and Jordan Fagan, who played in seven games and had one start.

Let’s just say, the offensive line isn’t set in stone by any means.  Quite frankly I think it is one of the weakest positions on the team.

Lovie did bring in some nice talent from the class of 2017, though.

Howard Watkins enrolled early and will be a nice piece for depth.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a chance to start some games early on.

Illinois also has Alex Palczewski, Larry Boyd, and Vederian Low all coming in as well.  All three have potential to see some snaps this season due to the line being so uncertain.

The recruiting class of offensive linemen coming in is solid, but I can’t tell if there are any starters day one and that is what Illinois needs.

Lovie’s grade on the offensive linemen dips a little bit but isn’t terrible.

Sep 5, 2015; Champaign, IL, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini tight end Tyler White (87) catches a touchdown pass at Memorial Stadium. Illinois beat Kent State 52-3. Mandatory Credit: Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 5, 2015; Champaign, IL, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini tight end Tyler White (87) catches a touchdown pass at Memorial Stadium. Illinois beat Kent State 52-3. Mandatory Credit: Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Tight End B+

Illinois lost three tight ends from last year’s team including the opening day starter, Tyler White.

White was the main tight end for the Illini and was finally healthy last year.  He played in all 12 games for Illinois and started in nine of those contests.

The other two tight ends that Illinois lost are Ainslie Johnson and Andrew Davis.  Both of these players saw limited snaps in 2016.

Honestly, the tight end position has been disappointing over the last five years.  There really hasn’t been a single player who has stood out for the Illini.

The projected starting tight end this upcoming season is Griffin Palmer.  He was a freshman last season and ended up getting redshirted.

So, as far as the tight end position goes, the competition is wide open.  Griffin hasn’t played and behind him are a bunch of question marks.

Lovie brought in a nice, big, tight end from the class of 2017, though.

Louis Dorsey is a 6-foot-6, 220-pound monster who is a great addition to this program.  He won’t come in until the summer but I think he has a chance to make an impact and even start early on.

Tight end hasn’t been a strength for the Illini over the last half decade, but with the addition of Dorsey that might be changing.

This position only consists of one player and I think Lovie did a good job in snagging Dorsey.

Nov 26, 2016; Evanston, IL, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini wide receiver Malik Turner (11) catches a touchdown pass in front of Northwestern Wildcats safety Marcus McShepard (17) during the second half at Ryan Field. The Northwestern Wildcats won 42-21. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 26, 2016; Evanston, IL, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini wide receiver Malik Turner (11) catches a touchdown pass in front of Northwestern Wildcats safety Marcus McShepard (17) during the second half at Ryan Field. The Northwestern Wildcats won 42-21. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Wide Receiver A-

Last season, the Illinois football team started with Justin Hardee and Malik Turner as the primary starting wide receivers and then moved to a three-wide set.

Illinois ended up losing Hardee to graduation.  He started every game for the Illini and finished with 314 yards on the season.

The Illini also lost DJ Taylor, Man Berg, and Zach Grant as well.  Both Taylor and Berg didn’t have much production with Illinois, but Grant ended up starting in nine games and played in all 12 last season.

So really, Illinois lost Hardee and Grant who both started a total of 21 games last year.  That is production that needs to be made up.

Illinois is getting Turner back who will be in his starting role again.  They also finally have a healthy Mike Dudek and Sam Mays who are both projected to start in 2017.

Lovie is also bringing in Carmoni Green, who enrolled early.  He was a big-time player down in Florida and someone I think could see playing time early on.

Ricky Smalling and Kendall Smith are also coming in from the class of 2017, like Green.

Smalling will see playing time in 2017 and I think he could eventually start in place of Mays.  He is a superstar from the state of Illinois and someone to keep an eye on.

I could see Smith redshirting year one.  Illinois received some depth from the class of 2017 and they have some players coming back healthy as well.  This leaves room for Smith to take his time and grow.

Overall, the Illini gained a lot more than they lost at wide receiver.  The players Lovie brought in will have an impact day one and I can’t wait to see what they do on the field.

Illinois Football

Nov 5, 2016; Champaign, IL, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini quarterback Jeff George Jr. (3) hands off to running back Kendrick Foster (22) during the third quarter against the Michigan State Spartans at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Running Back B

To start the 2016 season, Illinois had Ke’Shawn Vaughn slated as the starting running back for the football team.

This came to an end pretty quick as he was soon relegated to the third string and would see few snaps for the majority of the year.

Kendrick Foster took over as the starting running back and he did pretty well.  He returns for his senior season for the Illini.

Reggie Corbin will see plenty of snaps in 2017 as well.  He played in all 12 games and started two of them for Illinois last season.

Illinois also has Dre Brown back from a two-year injury bug and Tre Nation who received a few snaps in 2016.

Lovie also brought in two running backs from the class of 2017 that have me intrigued.

Ra’Von Bonner is a nice player who will see his fair share of playing time down the road.  I am guessing he will be redshirted this upcoming season.

Mike Epstein is a dual-threat running back who not only can run the ball but can catch it out of the backfield as well.

I am excited to see what Lovie is going to do with Epstein because he is so dynamic.

If you would have told me at the beginning of 2016 that Vaughn would transfer I would say that was going to hurt the team.

But, Lovie clearly didn’t have plans for Vaughn so his transfer isn’t a big impact.  Two additional running backs were brought in as well and now the depth is tremendous.

Illinois Football

Oct 15, 2016; Piscataway, NJ, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini quarterback Chayce Crouch (7) drops back to pass against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights during the first half at High Points Solutions Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Quarterback A-

Over the past three seasons, the quarterback situation has been topsy-turvy, to say the least.

2016 starting quarterback Wes Lunt has now graduated and the Illini are left looking for an answer behind center.

Lunt played in eight games for the Illini last season and started in seven of them.  His career was marred by injury and that is what happened 2016 as well.

The projected starter heading into 2017 is Chayce Crouch.  He played last season and had a start against Rutgers.  But, he ended up missing the final six games due to injury.

Jeff George Jr. also played last season.  He saw action in five games and had a total of four starts.  He is the most experienced quarterback on the roster right now.

But, since Lunt departed and the other two quarterbacks didn’t impress last season, Lovie decided to snag a couple of talented players from the class of 2017.

Dwayne Lawson and Cam Thomas will be two names that Illinois fans will know for years to come.

Lawson is a junior college transfer that is still working on getting his associates degree before he can officially transfer to Illinois.

I think, once Lawson gets the green flag, that he will come into the program and earn the starting job day one.  He is a highly touted recruit and a duel threat quarterback.

Thomas is going to have a special career at Illinois as well.  He will have a chance for the starting job but most likely will be redshirted year one.

I see a bright future for Thomas and I can’t wait to see what he can do with those legs on the field.

Lovie saw a huge issue with the quarterback situation and went out and got two guys who could change this program.  He really did well in the quarterback department.

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