CHAMPAIGN — No team played more true freshmen in 2017 than Illinois. Lovie Smith sent 22 of them on the field at some point in the season, with 16 of them breaking in as starters last fall.
This week marked the start of the first round of spring practices for those freshmen turned rising sophomores. It’s a crucial time for their development.
“A lot of those guys were thrown into the fire last year as true freshmen,” former Illini All-American offensive lineman turned Illinois radio analyst Martin O’Donnell said. “It’s all of their first spring ball practices. It’s get back fundamentals, it’s get reps and with the lack of depth on the roster right now, there’s plenty of opportunity for reps.”
Illinois’ spring roster has fewer than 60 scholarship players after 15 players transferred following a 2-10 season in 2017. Some of them, like running back Mike Epstein and linebacker Jake Hansen, are returning from season-ending injuries.
“Obviously it hurts losing a lot of that depth,” O’Donnell said. “While some of those guys weren’t necessarily going to be starters, they would have at least vied for starting roles and provide some of that crucial depth.”
O’Donnell said the experience Illinois’ freshmen received last fall essentially makes them upperclassmen on a roster that’s short on next season’s seniors. It will be single-digit seniors for the second year in a row come the 2018 season.
The experienced gained by the freshmen last fall could prove critical this spring and into summer.
“It provides motivation for the offseason because you know where the bar is,” O’Donnell said. “You know where you have to be. These guys got punched in the mouth a little bit at times, and they did some punching. Having that experience informs technique and it informs work in the weight room in the offseason and I think gives guys more of a purpose.
“These guys have film of them out there paying against Big Ten competition. They can really analyze that, dig into that and learn from that.”
O’Donnell said the physical preparation Illinois’ young core puts in during the offseason could mean as much as the work the players do in the film room and in installing new offensive coordinator Rod Smith’s scheme and techniques from other new assistants Gill Byrd, Austin Clark and Cory Patterson.
“The offseason is prime time for the strength and conditioning staff,” O’Donnell said. “That’s where guys can really make gains. Sometimes it’s really not a matter of knowledge or technique really. A lot of times it just becomes a matter of strength because you’re playing against guys in the Big Ten that are bigger, stronger and faster than you and in some cases four or five years older. If you can kind of narrow that gap a little bit in the offseason, it certainly pays a lot of dividends the next time you step on the field.”