CHAMPAIGN — Prior to the Illinois football team's season-opener against Kent State, the team announced five players were suspended indefinitely.
Sophomore safety Bennett Williams, receiver Carmoni Green, cornerback Nate Hobbs, tight end Louis Dorsey and defensive lineman Deon Pate were announced as suspended.
Offensive lineman Larry Boyd and freshman defensive lineman Verdis Brown were announced as academic redshirt players and will not play this season.
He played in 11 games with seven starts at safety last year with 64 tackles and led the team with three interceptions.
“There is something those players have done," Illinois head coach Lovie Smith said. "I’m not going to go into when it happened — it was a long period of time ago — but right now they’re doing what they’re supposed to and we’ll see where it goes from here."
Dorsey missed spring practices because of a suspension and played in all 12 games last season. He was on the BTN.com All-Freshman team and had 395 yards and three receiving touchdowns.
Hobbs was projected to be a top corner for the Illini and played in all 12 games with 10 starts last season with 48 tackles.
Smith said the team had some time to prepare for the losses, but did not clarify exactly how long.
“There’s a period of time we’ve had to prepare, yes," Smith said. "That period of time could have been a day or it could have been two weeks. I’m not going to go in to that, either."
Freshmen step in
In place of the suspended defensive backs (Williams and Hobbs) the Illini got playing time from a handful of freshmen in Saturday's 31-24 win over Kent State.
Jartavius Martin had a momentum-changing pick, Delano Ware had four tackles, Sydney Brown had five tackles and Kerby Joseph had three tackles.
But in the first half, in particular, the youth showed.
Kent State quarterback Woody Barrett picked the secondary apart with passes down field to wide open receivers.
“We played some young defensive backs," Smith said. "We let them get behind us a couple times. You'd rather not let that happen. We lined up wrong. Some of the young players are going to have typical first game things that we don’t do well and we’ll do better next time."
High praise for Barrett
Barrett, who accounted for 399 of Kent State's 453 total yards, was a four-star recruit out of high school in Winter Garden, Fla.
He committed to Auburn before eventually landing at Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Wesson, Miss. and eventually at Kent State.
Barrett used his arms and legs to torch the Illinois defense.
“He’s a challenge," Smith said. "Woody Barrett is a good football player. ... He can run the football and he has a strong arm."
Putting it in the rearview
The Illini went to the locker room at halftime to a ringing of boos from the 31,898 fans in attendance at Memorial Stadium.
Illinois wasn't sustaining drives, and heard the ramifications.
“We played bad," Smith said. "Fans everywhere in America, if you’re not playing well, they’re going to boo you.
“How were those same fans at the end? They were pumped up and cheering, right?"
Martin said the boos were motivation for the Illini. Linebackers Jake Hansen and Del'Shawn Phillips each delivered rousing halftime speeches, and Bush went from position group to position group rallying the troops.
Then the Illini found their groove in the second half.
“The second half was the entire game for us," running back Reggie Corbin said. "The first half was gone. We had to get adjusted. We have a brand new team — young guys — but you can tell our team is mature."
Avery in rotation
Though Brown will be an academic redshirt this season, freshman defensive tackle Calvin Avery is a firm part of the Illinois rotation along the defensive line.
Avery didn't record a tackle, but his 6-foot-2, 330-pound frame ate up space, requiring several linemen from Kent State to account for him.
“He’s not a part of that redshirt group," Smith said. "He’s a part of the core we’re going to play. As you can see, Calvin has a little bit of size and I thought we needed that anchor in there. The first game, I thought he did some good things."
Offense speeds up
After a lackluster offensive showing in the first half, the Illini ramped up the tempo in the second half.
Bush found receiver Ricky Smalling down field for a big gain and got the ball to Mikey Dudek for large chunks.
Each of the Illinois scoring drives took less than three minutes; 1:08, :48, 1:14, 2:58.
"We weren’t going as fast as we need to," Illinois offensive lineman Nick Allegretti said. "We had the opportunity to come out in the second half. It was good. There was a chance for us to roll over and blow that game."
A big day from AJ
Illinois quarterback AJ Bush Jr. didn't find the end zone, but his 139 rushing yards were fifth-most all-time by an Illinois quarterback.