On The DL
On a radio thing last week, I pointed out that the updated roster has Henry McGrew at tight end. A friend who listened to that sent me a text - "so will the entire defensive line be underclassmen?" - and instead of a simple text back I decided to make this a full post. So… WILL the entire defensive line be underclassmen?
Last year the defensive line was led by five seniors - Dawuane Smoot and Carroll Phillips at defensive end (both are now with the Jaguars), Rob Bain and Chunky Clements at defensive tackle, and Gimel President as the super-sub fifth man. As the season wore on, two freshmen started to play more than Bain and Chunky (more or less the coaching staff deciding to start building for the future mid-season last year), but the full rotation was more or less eight players on the defensive line. Five of them graduated and one of them (Henry McGrew) is now a tight end.
Because of this, Lovie Smith went out and recruited seven defensive linemen in his first recruiting class. Six go out the door, seven come in. So to my friend's question… how many of those guys are going to have to play right away? Let's start on the inside and work our way back out.
With each game last season, Jamal Milan and Kenyon Jackson played a little more while Chunky Clements and Rob Bain played less. As mentioned above, this appeared to be mostly an "it's time to start getting ready for the 2018 season" decision. The season is mostly over, the thought of going to a bowl is gone, so let's get reps for the young guys.
The rotation became mostly five guys - Milan, Jackson, Clements, Bain, and Tito Odenigbo. I think it's clear that those three returnees are the three main tackles (possibly with Odenigbo starting over Jackson, although that distinction really doesn't matter because they'll rotate heavily). Going back to the "two pair and a spare" theory towards defensive tackles, if we're looking for five guys in the rotation, there's three.
Let's say that Milan and Jackson start (Milan and Jackson start). And then let's say that Odenigbo is rotating liberally with Jackson (Odenigbo is rotating liberally with Jackson). Then who do we put behind Milan and who do we add as the "spare"?
The contestants: sophomore Tymir Oliver (came in as a DE, was moved to DT last year, played as a true freshman), freshman Kendrick Green (the highest-ranked of all the defensive line recruits, probably good enough to play right away), freshman Jamal Woods (recruited as a DE, probably ends up at DT), and freshman Deon Pate (same - high school DE who likely bulks up and is a college DT).
Did you catch all of that? If you're scoring at home, I mentioned one junior (Odenigbo), three sophomores (Milan, Jackson, Oliver), and three freshmen (Green, Woods, Pate). What does that usually mean? "The defensive tackle rotation in 2019 should be pretty good but the 2017 version might be an adventure. As much as I like Milan, Jackson, and Odenigbo, I think that's probably going to be the case.
The top four last year were Smoot, Phillips, President, and McGrew. Three of those players graduated and one just moved to tight end. So… we're off to a rough start here.
The one difference here: the starting spots might be held down by a junior and a senior. DL coach Mike Phair won't be turning to one of those true freshmen to replace Dawuane Smoot - he's turning to a fourth-year junior. (A fourth-year junior who has never played a minute of college football). Sean Adesanya arrived as a one year junior college recruit in 2015 (four years to play three) and immediately redshirted with an injury. Last year he… didn't play because of an injury. So here's this redshirt junior DE who will likely start and lead the team in sacks… and I'm guessing only 500 fans in Memorial Stadium on September 2nd will know the name of #47 without looking it up.
(Note: "Lead the team in sacks" sounds impressive, but it's more of a "someone has to" statistic. I think our sack numbers go way, way, WAY down this year. Just because of the youth.)
At the other defensive end spot senior James Crawford will be given every opportunity to win the job. Which completes the totally typical "safety to linebacker to defensive end" arc to his Illini career. They switched him there midseason last year (he didn't fit what they wanted to do at linebacker so he played mostly as a third-down edge rusher the second half of the season), and now he'll get a chance to take over full time. Perhaps the move of McGrew to TE says that they feel good about the Crawford transition?
Or perhaps they feel pretty good about some of the freshmen? Freshman defensive ends are almost never ready to play right away… but it MIGHT work for US. We have four of them - I think Bobby Roundtree and Isaiah Gay will be on the right side (WDE) while Lere Oldadipo and Owen Carney line up on the left (SDE) - and at least two of them will need to play immediately. The phrase "will need to play immediately" is never a good thing in college football - the day Illinois eliminates that phrase is the day we return to having a football program - but that's where we find ourselves.
Getting back to my friend's text - will it be all underclassmen? Mostly yes. At DT, four of the five guys we rotate will be underclassmen. At DE, we might start a junior and a senior, but the rest of the rotation is 100% true freshmen. Even defensive ends in Bill Cubit's 2016 class (like Brandon Jones) have been moved to tight end to make room for all these freshmen. The complete and total Lovie overhaul has begun, and the nine-man defensive line rotation we utilize throughout the season will likely include one senior, two juniors, three sophomores, and three freshmen.
How good will they be? IF Adesanya and Crawford can provide upperclassman leadership and IF Milan and Jackson can make a sophomore leap and IF Odenigbo can surprise and IF two of the freshmen DE's are ready to play backup minutes... they could be pretty good. Second year of the scheme, third year with Mike Phair, a couple unknown fourth year players who could surprise... maybe this is surprise position on the team.
(Or maybe they're just too young.)