We can’t forget the seniors’ sacrifice

Illinois+wide+receiver+Malik+Turner+catches+a+pass+for+a+successful+fourth+down+conversion+during+the+game+against+Ball+State+on+Saturday%2C+September+2%2C+at+Memorial+Stadium.

Quentin Shaw

Illinois wide receiver Malik Turner catches a pass for a successful fourth down conversion during the game against Ball State on Saturday, September 2, at Memorial Stadium.

By Cole Henke, Sports Editor

The seniors on the Illinois football team went through a lot in their time at the University.

They saw two head coaches get fired, two head coaches get hired, a major coaching staff overhaul, a scandal that all but buried the program and a coaching hire that is supposed to save the program.

It is all well-documented; they had a rough career. They didn’t sign up for any of that.

But what I think is worse than any of that is the fact that these seniors had to sit there and listen for the last two years of their careers that the Illini were going to win — but not until after they are gone.

This senior class was tasked with building a bridge they are never going to cross themselves.

They listened to everybody — including myself — outside of the program preach about the freshmen being the saviors. I think I wrote three columns about that.

This Illini season was horrible. Ten-straight losses can’t be categorized as anything less. But every single one of those losses can be attributed, at least in some part, to growing pains that will eventually bear fruit for the Illini. The freshmen will be all the better for it. The seniors won’t, though. To them, this is just the third-straight season with a losing record in the regular season. It is the third-straight season they didn’t make a bowl game. And it is the end of their careers.

Not all nine of the seniors played a lot this season, but the ones who did kept playing. Given the state of the program, this is commendable.

Malik Turner has been the best wide receiver on the team for the past two seasons, but he never got to show how good he really is because of quarterback issues. I still think he is one of the best receivers in the Big Ten, and that he will have a solid career at the next level.

Kendrick Foster may not have had as big of an impact as he did last season, but he was still a leader for the team. He was named a captain for multiple games and helped mentor a young roster of running backs. When Mike Epstein and Ra’Von Bonner went down, Foster stepped right back into that starting role without missing a step. He got a really bad beat this season, but he did what he could.

Many other seniors filled the role of mentor really well, too.

James Crawford filled in well as a leader on the defensive line, despite not having too much experience himself as a starter. Christian DiLauro was also a leader for a young offensive line, and Jaylen Dunlap and Ahmari Hayes were the veterans in a secondary full of rookies.

Nathan Echard was supposed to be a solid tight end for this Illinois team, but he got hurt early on and didn’t see the field again.

The rest may not have had quite the same impact on the field, but it was felt off the field.

In most cases, in order for a team to be good, they have to hit rock bottom. This is rock bottom for the Illini. It is only up from here, but if it weren’t for these seniors — no matter how few of them there are — I don’t think they would have made it through.

Remembering rock bottom is just as important as hitting it, though, and that is the part I am worried about. I know the players will remember it. I don’t think the fans will.

Let me be clear. Fans will remember one giant blob of rock bottom. They will remember the past few years as one collective bad time in Illinois history.

But it is important that the Illini faithful do not forget the contributions this class made. They didn’t make it in wins, but they were integral in building the future of this program — a future they won’t be directly involved in. This was the most important season for Illinois football that I can name. This was the turnaround. Don’t forget the sacrifices these seniors made to help steer this team.

@Cole_Henke

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