The Returnees - Offense
This little burst of football articles has been good for me. Helped me realize that I still wasn't finished with football thoughts. Whenever that happens, I need to immediately open the release valve or else all of the content on the site will suffer until I get the words out.
And with this new plan (start laying out the roster and evaluating the recruiting class between 1-17 and spring ball), I'll likely be filling in most of the basketball gaps with football content. So the next few months will be different than 2022 and 2021. That probably sounds like I'm going to prioritize football over basketball, but the way I'm seeing it right now, I think it's going to make the basketball words better.
This one is a continuation of what I wrote on Wednesday. If you didn't read that, well, I spent the first 1,000 words writing about why I was evaluating the roster this way and how things have changed over the last five years. If you haven't read that article, start there. That was Part I (and it was 2,600 words). This is Part II, but it won't be nearly that long. I don't have to set anything up. And there's no "I need to write 1,200 words on this" position like defensive line. I'm guessing this one will be half the length of that one.
Right to it. Remember, this isn't a depth chart post. This is a look at who is returning at each position. Not roster players returning; players you saw on the field in 2022.
This one only needs one or two paragraphs. I don't even have to evaluate anything. We all know the answer here. Tommy DeVito had the best Illini quarterbacking season since Nathan Scheelhaase in 2013. Tommy DeVito tried to get a waiver for a seventh season, but that waiver was denied. So Tommy DeVito has exhausted his eligibility and we have to start over in 2023. Start over with which quarterback? That's for future articles.
The only players who threw passes this season (Tommy DeVito and Art Sitkowski) have graduated. This position: 100% of snaps available.
This is perhaps the most fascinating of all positions. One one hand, the guy who is off to the NFL draft just put up the third-most rushing yards in team history last season. A guy like that is impossible to replace.
Yet I would say that this is a position with a decent number of contributing returnees. A surprising number is maybe the best way to say it. The primary backup in 2021 and the primary backup in 2022 both return.
Josh McCray was the primary backup in 2021. He carried the ball 112 times for 549 yards that season. When you look at other Illini season totals and see that his 549 yards landed in the same ballpark as several of our leading rushers during down seasons (Jason Ford 660 yards in 2011, Donovonn Young 571 yards in 2012, Mike Epstein 346 yards in 2017, Reggie Corbin 675 yards in 2019), then that's a significant "returnee" on the roster. In 2021, Josh McCray put up the 12th-highest rushing total for Illini football the last 13 seasons. Dre Brown in 2019 was the only backup to exceed McCray's 549 yards (Dre had 584 yards to Corbin's 675 in 2019).
This year, McCray was injured in the first game. Yes, he was cleared to return in November, and he did carry the ball 11 more times on the season, but he was clearly not 100% yet. (I mean, if he was 100%, he would have gotten 70 carries in November + the bowl game, not 11.) He'll get a redshirt for this season since he only played in four games and that's probably the best way to view 2022 for him. It never happened.
With McCray out, the primary backup this season was Reggie Love. 71 carries for 330 yards. Typically, our primary backup would get carries like McCray did in 2021 (112), but we chose to ride Chase Brown as far as he could take us this season. That leaves Love a bit green going into next season, but still, he's a "returnee".
Maybe the best way to say this is just to list the rushing yards. Josh McCray has 605 rushing yards in an Illini uniform. Reggie Love has exactly 500. That's nothing like Chase Brown and his 3,206 career rushing yards coming back, but it's not nothing. If McCray gets the knee back to 100% in the offseason, there's 1,100 yards returning to this backfield. Carries to be had for the newcomers to be sure, but... running back is nothing like quarterback.
The Brian Hightower transfer to Cal during break was a surprising one. He's from California originally (high school was IMG Academy in Florida), so maybe he wanted to get out of the cold or something. If he was returning nect season, we could say that we had our top three receivers returning: Isaiah Williams (715 yards), Pat Bryant (453 yards), and Brian Hightower (452 yards). Instead, we have receivers 1, 2, and 4 returning (Casey Washington was 4th with 306 yards).
Hank Beatty (7 catches) and Miles Scott (4 catches) also return, so really, had Hightower returned, it would be "the six main targets are all coming back". I guess you could say that Jonah Morris was in that top-6 early in the season (4 catches for 55 yards), but he did not play in the second half of the season. So we're returning most of our WR production.
And we also have to factor in "as the season went along" here. Of Brian Hightower's 37 catches this season, 25 of them were made up through the Minnesota game on October 15th. In the final six games, Hightower only had 12 catches. Conversely, Casey Washington had only 10 catches up through the Minnesota game. And then in the final six games, Washington caught 21 passes. So if we split the season at the October bye week, before the bye week it was Hightower 25, Washington 10, and after the bye week it was Washington 21, Hightower 12.
We don't know the circumstances surrounding Hightower's transfer. He did not play in the bowl game (I'm guessing due to the fact that he told the coaches he was leaving). Was it because the targets headed his way at the start of the season starting going to Washington? Not sure. We just know that those are the first half/second half stats.
I'm getting too deep here. The point is that if we throw the same number of passes next year as we did this year, 41 WR catches are available. 37 vacated by Brian Hightower, and 4 vacated by Jonah Morris. We threw 199 passes to wide receivers this season, so that's 20.6% available. 79.4% are spoken for by returnees.
This might be the most interesting of all the positions. You can't just look at catches. This one should be evaluated by looking at snap counts. Actually, PFF breaks down their snap counts by passing play and run play, and that's probably a really good way to look at this.
Tight End snap counts in the 2022 season:
Tip Reiman - 618 (234 were passing plays)
Luke Ford - 376 (114)
Michael Marchese - 293 (119)
Griffin Moore - 25 (11)
Henry Boyer - 6 (0)
So that's a lot of run blocking lost with the departure of Ford and Marchese. If we total up everyone and then come up with the percentage of snaps lost, 1,318 tight end snaps this season, 669 headed out the door. 49.2% of our tight end production returns.
The good news for the coaches - the starter (Tip Reiman) is back. The good news for the underclassmen and the newcomers - there are 669 snaps available.
This is the position boosted the most by the Covid waiver. Alex Palczewski and Alex Pihlstrom have graduated and moved on. If it wasn't for 2020 being a "doesn't count for anyone" year, Julian Pearl, Isaiah Adams, and Jordyn Slaughter would have graduated and moved on as well. But all three have a bonus year to use, so all three are returning to Champaign for one more season.
Slaughter wasn't a starter, he was the sixth man, but he did get 320 snaps this year (Zy Crisler got 766). So his situation is similar to Alex Pihlstrom last year. Pihlstrom wasn't a returning starter, but he did have 382 snaps on the season, so I said we had "2.5 starters returning" in last year's preview. Slaughter wasn't a starter this fall, but he did have 320 snaps on the year, so I'm saying we have 3.5 starters returning next year.
The staff tipped its hand when they brought in ECU transfer Avery Jones to be the starting center (meaning, they didn't see the 2023 starting center anywhere on the current roster). But then Jones flipped to Auburn two days before moving to Champaign. I won't suggest a player who might be next in line (that's for later), but it should be noted that there's no returnee at center (Pihlstrom graduated) and the staff has already looked to the portal at that spot.
Returnee-wise, we're a step ahead of last year. 2.5 returned last year, 3.5 return this year. The staff has shown that they go six-for-five when they pick their game day participants on the line. We know four of those names, I think, in Pearl, Adams, Crisler, and Slaughter (even if Slaughter stays as a relief pitcher). So there's two spots here for underclassmen and newcomers.
I guess I should cover special teams as well. And the interesting thing about ST: we return a scholarship kicker and a scholarship punter. But we added both a scholarship kicker and a scholarship punter in this class. Typically, you're carrying 2-3 scholarship specialists. And many of those are walkons who are eventually put on scholarship. When you bring in scholarship freshmen, it's usually because you need them to win the job as a true freshman. But here, both the kicker and the punter return.
Caleb Griffin returns for a Covid (6th) year after hitting 14 of 19 field goals in 2022. And during the four games when Griffin was injured this past season, Fabrizio Pinton (a walkon) went 7-7 on field goals. So that would suggest zero snaps available for any newcomers. The starter and the backup combined to go 21-26 last year.
Punter, though, might be an open battle. Hugh Robertson's punting average sat at 38.6 yards per punt after the Michigan game before a huge Northwestern game (49.3 ypp) and bowl game (47.7 ypp) pushed his average up to exactly 40.0 yards per punt. But he still finished 76th nationally in punting average. When your returnee finishes 76th in punting average, there's an opportunity for a newcomer.
There's also an opportunity at kickoff return. Punt return will be Isaiah Williams again, but the kickoff returner for most of this year (Peyton Vining) has graduated. Pat Bryant was the primary kickoff returner in the Northwestern game and the bowl game, though, so he has a head start on being the kick returner next year.
And there are two longsnappers returning. Starting with the Chattanooga game, we had a snapper for longs (Aiden Hall, who handled punt snapping duties) and a snapper for shorts (Lane Hansen, who handled field goal and extra point snapping duties). Hall will be a junior and Hansen a sophomore, so it doesn't look like any snapping duties will come open.
That's it. We've laid the groundwork. With the players enrolled and back in school (and the transfer portal officially closed), we now know who will be returning for the 2023 season (with the slight caveat that some might leave during the May 1-15 transfer portal window). And if we go back through all of the positions I covered in these two posts, I'd rate each position like this (1 being "the returnees have this position on lockdown", 10 being "tons of opportunity for underclassmen and incoming freshmen/transfers"), here's how I would rate every position:
- Quarterback - 10
- Running Back - 6.5
- Wide Receiver - 3
- Tight End - 6
- Offensive Line - 3.5
- Defensive Line - 1.5
- Linebacker - 3.5
- Cornerback - 6.5
- Safety - 9
- Longsnappers - 1
- Kickers/Punters - 2.5
- Returners - 4
Quarterback, safety, running back, cornerback, and tight end. Those are the big needs (in that order).
Next up: we'll go position by position through the roster and look at the players we haven't seen yet. Now that we know what we need, are those players already on the roster and simply waiting their turn? And finally we'll look at the players coming in (both transfers and freshmen) to see if any of those players might be ready to fill those gaps immediately.
Yes, that means I'll finally get to the LLUOI posts. Stay tuned.