CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — When Lovie Smith became the head coach at Illinois, it was clear that he was taking over a struggling program.
In his first year of his rebuilding project, the Illini went 3-9 and won only two games in the Big Ten. Throughout the season, Smith relied heavily on upperclassmen, but this time around he’s placed a lot of responsibility on his younger players.
Illinois has 101 players on its roster and more than half are underclassmen, including 54 freshmen. Many of those freshmen played in the season-opening victory over Ball State and since then the number has only increased.
Against Western Kentucky, Smith set a school record by starting seven true freshmen. The following week, he started 10 against No. 18 South Florida.
To Smith, any focus on a freshman starter should be put on the preparation.
“First off, we had to go through a pregame routine with them and what we do on game days,” Smith said. “We had to teach them how you come out from halftime and how you respond when you are in a situation to make plays.”
Starting that many freshmen this early in the season is often a risk, but despite Smith’s gamble the team is off to a respectable 2-1 start with its Big Ten opener coming up Friday night at home against Nebraska (2-2, 1-0 Big Ten).
The youngsters have played well so far.
Freshman defensive end Bobby Roundtree has a team-high 3.0 sacks so far this season and also leads the nation in sacks made by a true freshman. Defensive end Isaiah Gay has a sack this season and is the third-youngest player to start in the FBS this year. He competed in all three games as a 17-year-old before turning 18 last week.
Wide receiver Ricky Smalling missed part of training camp for undisclosed reasons and got off a slow start. In the loss to South Florida, he caught three passes for 99 yards, including a 76-yard reception that is the longest in school history by a true freshman.
“(I’ve) been dreaming about this,” Smalling said. “It’s finally coming here. Now, it’s just time to do what I’ve been doing my whole life — come out and play football.”
Freshman running back Mike Epstein has totaled 221 rushing yards and three touchdowns along with 59 receiving yards and another TD. He’s been a bright spot for an offense ranked last in the Big Ten.
“I think when you get on the field, you just have to give it your all,” Epstein said. “Everything else will take care of itself.”
Epstein said his coach has stayed focused on each game and hasn’t talked much about what this year’s young team will look like in the future.
For Smith, the narrative of his team’s youth movement has been overplayed.
“We are not talking about freshmen guys anymore,” Smith said. “These are young guys on our team that get better and better with each rep they get.”