CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) Illinois started the season with a pair of home victories over Ball State and Western Kentucky. The Illini lost their next 10 and finished the year as the only team in the Big Ten without a conference victory.
Yet it wasn’t all bad news for coach Lovie Smith in his second season.
Throughout the year, Smith played 22 true freshmen and started 16. Both are school records and were the highest totals of any team in the FBS. His roster coming into the season featured 54 freshmen and just 27 upperclassmen.
So as the losses piled up, so did the playing time and valuable experience for Smith’s youngsters.
”Some of the young players have had really outstanding seasons for freshmen,” Smith said. ”(I) can’t wait to get guys like that in the offseason program and get ready to do it again.”
Three different quarterbacks started for Illinois. Chayce Crouch started the first four games, but after accumulating just 427 passing yards, one touchdown and four interceptions, he was replaced by Jeff George Jr. George appeared in seven games – starting in five – and his performance wasn’t much better. He led the team in total offense with 1,192 yards but threw 10 interceptions and just seven touchdowns.
Smith then turned to freshman Cam Thomas, who started twice and played in four games. He showed that he can make plays with his feet, but struggled through the air. He threw five interceptions, no touchdowns and completed just 42 percent of his passes.
None of Smith’s options under center helped the team establish an offensive identity. The Illini averaged just 280.4 yards of total offense per game and a Big Ten-worst 15.3 points.
Despite his struggles, Thomas’ big arm and elusiveness on the ground have made him the early frontrunner for the starting job next season Before he thinks about his sophomore campaign, one thing sticks out about his first year at Illinois.
”I think (what) I will remember most is this feeling of losing,” Thomas said. ”I never want to feel this again.”
Defensive back Patrick Nelson, defensive tackle Tito Odenigbo, offensive lineman Gabe Megginson and linebacker Tre Watson will no longer suit up for the Illini. After an underwhelming season, all four players said they will transfer. Megginson and Watson made their decisions public on Twitter.
”I still want you all to know that I carry the University of Illinois with me always as i will continue to bleed Orange and Blue wherever I may go,” Watson said.
Injuries kept two top playmakers sidelined for weeks. Wide receiver Mike Dudek missed five games and running back Mike Epstein missed the team’s final seven games of the year. Dudek scored the Illini’s first touchdown of the season but was never able to return to the All-Big Ten form he displayed during his freshman year. Epstein rushed for 346 yards and became just the fifth true freshman in program history to lead the team in rushing yards.
The Illini were one of just three teams in the Big Ten to give up more than 400 yards of total offense per game. Illinois also allowed 31.5 points and had four games this year when an opponent eclipsed 40 points – a jarring stat for any team coached by Smith.
One player that could help quell some of the team’s defensive issues is defensive tackle Calvin Avery. The Dallas native has many suitors, including Florida State, USC and Oklahoma.
Strong safety Bennett Williams, punter Blake Hayes, cornerback Nate Hobbs, defensive end Bobby Roundtree and tight end Louis Dorsey were all named to BTN.com’s All-Freshman team. Sixth other freshmen earned honorable mentions.
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