Illini continue to hit transfer portal

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Mark Capapas

Illinois football helmets line up at the end zone at Memorial Stadium during football spring training on April 13, 2019. The Illini look ahead to their 2020 team, which is promising on paper.

By Alec Busse, Staff Writer

A year ago at this time, Lovie Smith and the Illini football program began to emphasize bringing in talented players through the transfer portal. Fast forward a year, and the Illini coaching staff have kept the strategy. 

In the last week, the Illini were able to add depth to a pair positions of need with the commitments of two graduate-transfers in wide receiver Desmond Dan and offensive lineman Blake Jeresaty. 

Dan, who was at New Mexico State, entered the 2019 season with high expectations after a quality 2018 season when he grabbed 37 receptions for 491 yards and three touchdowns. As a redshirt junior, he broke his ulna just three games into the season, which forced him to miss the majority of the season. The injury could allow Dan to have two years of eligibility if he is granted a medical redshirt. 

Illinois is fortunate to bring back its top three wide receivers: seniors Ricky Smalling, Josh Imatorbhebhe and Trevon Sidney. While they all return, the trio are each coming off of season-ending injuries. Smalling tore his ACL against Wisconsin, Sidney tore his hamstring against Minnesota while Imatorbhebhe’s late-season injury was not as severe. Smalling and Sidney are still rehabbing their lower halves and were expected to miss spring football as rehab continues. 

Mark Capapas
Head Coach Lovie Smith smiles at Memorial Stadium during football spring training on April 13, 2019.

After the trio of seniors, though, Illinois has question marks at the wide receiver position, mostly because of how young the Illini are behind them. 

If the Illini can remain healthy at the receiver position, Dan may not see a lot of opportunity in 2020. Still, with the departures of the top three wide receivers after 2020, Dan could see a lot of opportunities in 2021 if he receives the medical redshirt.  

In 2020, Dan could factor in at the slot. Sidney can play outside and inside of the hashes because of his route running, but adding another veteran receiver that can play in the slot takes the pressure of rising redshirt freshman Kyron Cumby. 

Illinois could have an explosive air attack next season, bringing back a lot of essential contributors from the 2019 team. Four starters return on the offensive line, quarterback Brandon Peters is back for his senior season, passing catching tight end Daniel Barker is back as well as the top three receivers. Illinois also adds versatile tight end, Luke Ford, to the mix; he can block and catch passes. 

Dan’s opportunity in 2020 may not be big, but adding depth is never a bad thing, especially when a transfer has two years of eligibility. 

Jeresaty will see more opportunity in the 2020 season, his final year of eligibility. He was named an FCS All-American as a center after his impressive 2019 season at Wofford. 

Jeresaty says he wanted to go to a school that was trending upward from a win-loss perspective, a place that needed the offensive line and a school with a quality finance program. Check, check and check. Illinois made the most sense. 

At Wofford, Jersesaty played center, but Illinois expects him to play right guard. Before spring football was canceled due to COVID-19, Illinois was expected to hold a competition at right guard between Verdis Brown, Jordyn Slaughter and Julian Pearl. Now, at the very least, Jeresaty slides into the competition for the final starting spot on the offensive line. 

“I am excited not to have to snap a ball, and it is a lot different,” Jeresaty said. “For me, it is like if you are in batting practice and you have the little donut on your bat, guard kind of feels like I am taking the donut off your bat.” 

Illinois has now added three transfers this offseason at positions of need, but they shouldn’t be done yet, especially on the defensive line. If the Illini can bring in another pass rusher or two, there would be much less pressure on young talents like Keith Randolph and Seth Coleman. 

The 2020 Illini team is the best team the school has had in the last decade on paper. Still, to see significant improvement from the 6-7 2019 season, Illinois needs to improve their pass rush because the Illini have proven players at other positions.

@alec_busse

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