No one knew what to expect from Illinois football in 2017, but most outlooks — especially national ones — weren’t on the positive side.
And rightly so, as Lovie Smith’s first full recruiting class is full of youth entering their first Big Ten football season. How should anyone know how the kids would react? How many would be ready to rise to the challenge? Seeing the team in action was the only way we’d find out.
An underwhelming 24-21 Week 1 win over Ball State didn’t answer many questions and likely led to the Illini being five-point dogs at home to visiting Western Kentucky this past Week 2. But youth played a big part in netting a win over a Hilltoppers team used to scoring points.
101ESPN co-host and Arizona Cardinal/Fighting Illini alum, Michael Young summed things up well when asked for his hot take following the U of I victory:
“The only hot take would be the amount of TRUE freshmen contributions they are receiving on both sides of the ball,” Young said adding his own emphasis on “TRUE.”
“Whenever you’re a freshman and you’ve moved into the starting lineup in a Big Ten school, it’s saying an awful lot about you and what we think of you” head coach Lovie Smith said after the win. “We put guys out there that we think can win football games.”
Seven true Illini freshman got starting nods Saturday (the most in program history) and the youngsters made an impact on both sides of the ball, notably running back Mike Epstein (111 yards on 21 carries) and defensive end Bobby Roundtree (5 tackles, 2 sacks and a forced fumble).
“He’s been like that throughout camp,” Smith said of Epstein. “Normally, if you practice that way you’ll have a chance to be playing that way. The first game, no one really knows anything about you. The second game, everyone knew he started. Again, you want to see young guys take that type of step their second time out.”
Epstein’s Saturday brought his numbers up to 165 yards and 2 touchdowns on the young season after sharing Week 1’s carries with senior Kendrick Foster. He took the lead well in Week 2.
“Nothing really changed for me,” Epstein said. “I was still attacking every day with my best effort and preparing for the week ahead.”
Roundtree ruled the youth roost on the defensive side of the ball, contributing mightily to a strong effort by a defensive line that held the Hilltoppers rushing game to six yards, their lowest mark since 2000. Junior linebacker Julian Jones’ second quarter pick-six matched WKU’s offense for points on the day.
“Bobby Roundtree has been a good player since he’s been on campus. Isaiah Gay has done the same thing; Jamal Woods. Those players have earned the reps they’ve gotten,” Smith added regarding his D-Line.
“I know we talk an awful lot about the freshman, but we have other young players. Jamal Milan is a young player. Tymir Oliver is a young player. Kenyon Jackson. There are a lot of those guys really stepping up to the plate.”
While victories over Ball State and Western Kentucky aren’t earth-shattering, they still feel good considering anyone’s guess was as good as any about how this team would fare out of the gate. Week 3 vs. No. 22 South Florida (reports have the game possibly moving to Champaign due to Hurricane Irma) will say a lot about this team should it take place.