The Daily Illini

A way-too-early preview of 2018 Illinois football

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A way-too-early preview of 2018 Illinois football

Illinois running back Mike Epstein dives for a touchdown during the game against Ball State on Saturday, September 2, at Memorial Stadium.

Illinois running back Mike Epstein dives for a touchdown during the game against Ball State on Saturday, September 2, at Memorial Stadium.

Quentin Shaw

Illinois running back Mike Epstein dives for a touchdown during the game against Ball State on Saturday, September 2, at Memorial Stadium.

Quentin Shaw

Quentin Shaw

Illinois running back Mike Epstein dives for a touchdown during the game against Ball State on Saturday, September 2, at Memorial Stadium.

By Mike Gasick, Staff writer

Now that the 2017 Illinois football season is behind us, fans can now wonder how the team will look in 2018.

This will be the second year of Lovie Smith’s recruiting, with plenty of other highly touted players entering the system.

How Smith and offensive coordinator Garrick McGee will work with the quarterbacks next year is unknown. Three-star quarterbacks Coran Taylor and MJ Rivers will be on the team next year, but the coaches will have to decide how and if they want to incorporate either of quarterbacks into the offense.

Redshirting one or both might seem like an option, but Smith has to decide if he wants to keep that talent on the sidelines for the season.

It remains to be seen who will get the nod under center for the opening game against Kent State. Jeff George Jr. and Chayce Crouch are quarterbacks of the past, and there’s a chance they don’t get one snap next year.

Cam Thomas showed glimpses of what he can do with his arms and legs, but he will have to beat out what will be a competitive camp between him, Taylor and Rivers.

Mike Epstein should lead the Illini backfield next year at full health. The running back racked up 346 rushing yards and three touchdowns in just five games until a leg injury ended his season.

Running back Ra’Von Bonner should also get some looks in short-yardage situations. Bonner also had his season cut short with a head injury in the middle of the season.

Ricky Smalling should be the main guy on the Illini receiving core. Whoever starts at quarterback should look for Smalling as much as possible because of his playmaking abilities. The freshman ended the season with 510 receiving yards and two touchdowns.

Quentin Shaw
Illinois wide reveiver Ricky Smalling celebrates a touchdown during the game against Rutgers on Saturday, Oct. 24. The Illini lost 35-24.

Carmoni Green and Dominic Thieman will also have valuable game experience going into next season.

Three-star wide receiver Carlos Sandy committed to the Illini last June and should be expected to see some time in 2018.

Fans saw the type of athleticism tight end Louis Dorsey brings to the team. His one-handed catches and breakaway ability up the seam give Illinois another threat in the passing game.

This offense can have a productive year if it stays healthy, which was a problem in 2017.

On the defensive side of the ball, Illinois will get Kendrick Green on the field after redshirting his freshman season. Green was one of the best high school defensive linemen in Illinois.

Three-stars Lere Oladipo and Owen Carney Jr. will also join the team after redshirting.

The Illini started multiple freshmen and sophomores this year.

Bennett Williams, Tony Adams and Nate Hobbs should lead the secondary next year. Adams underwent shoulder surgery after sustaining the injury in the team’s Week 5 matchup against Iowa.

Linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips was all over the field in 2017, compiling 85 total tackles. The junior college transfer will return for his senior season next year.

Freshmen James Knight and Dele Harding should also be in the mix to earn a starting role on the linebacking core. Marc Mondesir used a redshirt this season and will also be competing for playing time in 2018.

The defensive line will have Bobby Roundtree, Jamal Milan, Tymir Oliver, Jamal Woods, Kenyon Jackson and Carney vying for places in the starting lineup. All those players were underclassmen this year.

As Josh Whitman hinted at his press conference last Monday, Smith isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Whitman will give Smith a chance to coach his recruiting classes to future bowl games, and that expectation may start next year.

@mike_mgasick

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