CHAMPAIGN — For three years, Josh Whitman has watched the Illinois football team creep closer and closer to the starting line.
Whitman, the University of Illinois' athletic director, knew the Illini were starting the race several paces back from the rest of the pack. That happens when a team undergoes a roster overhaul, leading to a youth movement.
But the recruiting classes are starting to improve, including a strong class of freshman this season headlined by four-star quarterback Isaiah Williams and defensive back Marquez Beason.
Head coach Lovie Smith, entering his fourth year with a 9-27 record with the Illini, received a two-year contract extension in November. With that came a very public backing from Whitman.
"I believe in Coach Smith," Whitman said on Tuesday. "I believe in our coaching staff. If I didn't, we wouldn't have extended him this last year. I have great confidence in our players and everything that's happening in that building. If you look at what's been occurring, I recognize the record is not where we want it to be. We won four games last year, up from the year before. I expect we'll win more games than that this year."
Whitman didn't put a firm number of wins on the table that he expects out of the Illini. But the team, he thinks, is at the starting line. Finally.
"We're in that window, whether it comes this year or next year, I don't know," Whitman said. "We have every right to expect success. More importantly, those players and those coaches have every right to expect success. They've done the things that are necessary to win in the Big Ten. I have every reason to believe and I hope our fans do as well that that success will start to come this year."
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The maturation process has been gradual. Two years ago, when the current Illini juniors were freshman, Illinois played (22) and started (16) more true freshmen than any team in the country. Now those juniors, like offensive linemen Alex Palczewski and Vederian Lowe, cornerback Nate Hobbs and safety Tony Adams, have two years of experience. Defensive end Bobby Roundtree, who is also in that class, suffered a severe spinal injury in May and is at a rehabilitation facility in Chicago.
That experience, plus a talented group of incoming freshmen to go with sophomores such as Sydney Brown, Quan Martin, Calvin Avery and others, lends itself to excitement within the program.
"From a recruiting perspective, we've brought in some of the most talented recruits we've seen in this program in over a decade," Whitman said. "That bodes very well for the future. We've seen guys go from being young, overwhelmed freshmen to struggling, but improving, sophomores. Now guys are going to walk on that field as grown men as juniors and prepared to compete in the Big Ten."
Smith, for his part, echoed the same thing during spring practices. He, too, recognizes the maturation process of the team. "The juniors are leading the locker room" was a common phrase for Smith during spring practices. He announced he would take over as the team's defensive coordinator this season after finishing last season in that role following the resignation of Hardy Nickerson midway through the year.
The Illini have continued to be active on the transfer market, landing former four-star quarterback Brandon Peters on Tuesday. Peters announced he would join the Illini as a graduate transfer after starting a total of of four games at Michigan. Illinois has picked up three transfers from USC: defensive end Oluwole Betiku Jr. and wide receivers Trevon Sidney and Josh Imatorbhebhe. All three have two years of eligibility remaining. Tight end Luke Ford transferred to Illinois after spending one season at Georgia, but did not receive a waiver to become immediately eligible. Offensive lineman Richie Petitbon III is a graduate transfer from Alabama. He will likely replace Nick Allegretti, who was drafted in the seventh round of the NFL Draft by the Kansas City Chiefs.
“We’ve been around ball enough to know when something good is getting ready to happen," Smith said in April on the first day of spring practices. "The coaching staff is a part of that. It’s why I know it’s a different day for Illinois football."
Said Whitman: "I am incredibly excited about this season. Very confident in the staff and these players. They've come a long way from where we were a few years ago. They've grown into men, they've put in the work, they had their challenges and they deserve to be successful. I have every expectation that that success will start to come this year."