Scouting Report: Illinois Features Revolving Door at Quarterback, Young Wide Receiver Unit

By James Grega on November 13, 2017 at 10:10 am
Illinois football

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

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There isn't much to say about the Illinois football program this year, other than to say the season hasn't gone according to plan. 

The Fighting Illini have not won a game since Sept. 9, losing their last eight match-ups, and have been outscored by an average of 12 points per game this season. 

Illinois' last Big Ten win came more than a year ago, when the Illini defeated Michigan State, 31-27, on Nov. 5, 2016. The Illini have regressed in their second year under head coach Lovie Smith, as Illinois boasts the worst rushing offense in the Big Ten while it also leads the conference in interceptions thrown. 

That offense begins our breakdown of Illinois' personnel.

Offense (Multiple)

Quarterback: Jeff George, Jr. (No. 3) 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, sophomore

Strengths: 

  • You wouldn't know it by looking at his stats (seven touchdown passes to 10 interceptions), but George has shown patience in the pocket at times this season. He waits for plays to develop but forces throws when hurried. 

Weaknesses:

  • His 10 interceptions can be partially attributed to the fact that he hasn't had time to throw. Illinois is last in the Big Ten in sacks allowed, with its quarterbacks being taken down 36 times this year. 
  • Average mobility at best. Not a threat to carry out designed quarterback run plays. 
  • Has split time with two other quarterbacks this season and has struggled to get into a rhythm all year.

Running backs: Kendrick Foster (No. 22) 5-foot-9, 190 pounds, senior / Ra'Von Bonner (No. 21) 5-foot-11, 210 pounds, freshman

Strengths:

  • Illinois has used three backs this season, with Foster being the featured back. A senior, Foster is the lone running back to play in all 10 games this year.
  • Foster gives Illinois speed at running back while Bonner is a more physical runner. 

Weaknesses:

  • Illinois lost leading rusher Mike Epstein for the season in October. Even though he has not played since Oct. 7, he still leads the team in rushing yards. 

Wide receivers: Ricky Smalling (No. 4) 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, freshman / Malik Turner (No. 11) 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, senior / Mike Dudek (No. 18) 5-foot-11, 185 pounds, junior / Tight end Louis Dorsey (No. 19) 6-foot-6, 225 pounds, freshman

Strengths:

  • This group is perhaps the most promising unit on offense for Illinois. Smalling and Turner give Illinois long, athletic options on the outside. 
  • Dorsey is an athletic tight end who is used more as a receiving option than a blocker. 
  • Dudek has missed the last two games for Illinois due to injury, but provides the Illini with reliable hands and crisp route running on underneath to second level routes.

Weaknesses:

  • While it has almost a full season under its belt now, this group is still largely inexperienced. Illinois' top two receivers (Smalling, Dorsey) are both true freshmen. 

Offensive line: LT Vederian Lowe (No. 79) 6-foot-5, 340 pounds, freshman / LG Alex Palczewski (No. 63) 6-foot-6, 290 pounds, freshman / C Doug Kramer (No. 65) 6-foot-2, 295 pounds, redshirt freshman / RG Nick Allegretti (No. 53) 6-foot-4, 320 pounds, junior / RT Christian DiLauro (No. 67) 6-foot-5, 300 pounds, senior

Strengths:

  • The right side is the strength of this unit due to its experience. The Illini tend to run right or up the middle when giving the ball to their backs. 

Weaknesses:

  • This unit has struggled in most facets of the game all season. The Illini rank 128th out of 130 teams in the FBS in sacks allowed (36) and rank 122nd in rushing offense, averaging just 107.8 yards per game on the ground. 

Overall analysis: The Illinois offense has been one of the worst units in the country this season, averaging 16.4 points per game, ranking 124th in the FBS. The Illini offensive line has struggled to protect any of the three quarterbacks Lovie Smith has put on the field – Chayce Crouch, Cam Thomas and Jeff George, Jr. – and hasn't done much better in the run game. 

George is expected to start at quarterback for the Illini after Cam Thomas, who had replaced George as the starter, suffered an unspecified injury in the week leading up to last week's game against Indiana. George started against Indiana and completed 13-of-26 passes for 261 yards and two touchdowns to go along with two interceptions. 

Defense (Multiple)

Defensive line: DE Jamal Woods (No. 91) 6-foot-2, 265 pounds, freshman / DT Tymir Oliver (No. 96) 6-foot-4, 285 pounds, sophomore / DT Jamal Milan (No. 55) 6-foot-3, 300 pounds, sophomore / DE James Crawford (No. 5) 6-foot-2, 235 pounds, senior

Strengths:

  • Crawford is the best pass-rusher of this group. His speed and athleticism off the edge has helped him account for four sacks in seven games played this season. 
  • Good size on the interior defensive line. 

Weaknesses:

  • This group has struggled to win the line of scrimmage in 2017, tallying just 16 total sacks and allowing nearly 200 yards per game on the ground. 

Linebackers: Del'Shawn Phillips (No. 3) 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, junior / Dele Harding (No. 9) 6-foot-1, 235 pounds, sophomore / Tre Watson (No. 33) 6-foot-2, 235 pounds, junior

Strengths:

  • Phillips has provided Illinois with a consistent presence at the outside linebacker spot. He leads the team in tackles with 72. 

Weaknesses:

  • Watson missed time due to a knee injury earlier this season, and his presence was missed. He collected six tackles against Indiana in his first game back from injury, but it is uncertain how much he will play against Ohio State. 

Defensive backs: CB Nate Hobbs (No. 8) 6-foot, 180 pounds, freshman / SS Stanley Green (No. 17) 5-foot-11, 195 pounds, freshman / FS Harvey Clayton Jr. (No. 20) 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, redshirt freshman / CB Jaylen Dunlap (No. 1) 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, senior / Nickel Cameron Watkins (No. 31) 6-foot, 190 pounds, sophomore

Strengths:

  • Good size and speed from the cornerback position, with Dunlap being the top corner for Illinois. 
  • The secondary is the strength of the Illini defense, allowing just more than 200 yards per game (204.1) through the air. 

Weaknesses:

  • Inexperience. The Illini have just one upper classman in their starting secondary.

Overall analysis: If there is a strength to this Illini team, it is their secondary which is also the most athletic unit on this team. Injuries to their linebackers have forced the Illini to play a 4-2-5 and utilize their nickel package on defense more often this season. 

The formula for success against Illinois this season has been as simple as running the football. Four times this season the Illini have allowed more than 200 yards rushing to their opponents and South Florida was able to rack up 376 yards on the ground against Illinois earlier in the season. 

Special Teams

Kicker: Chase McLaughlin (No. 43) 6-foot-1, 180 pounds, junior

Punter: Blake Hayes (No. 14) 6-foot-6, 230 pounds, freshman

Analysis: McLaughlin has been consistent on his kicks for most of the season, converting on 12 of his 16 attempts with a long of 43. Hayes, a native of Australia, is averaging 41.56 yards per punt and has pinned opponents inside the 20 yard line 17 times on 57 total attempts. 

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