Transfers provide Illini with encouraging signs
There has been plenty of bad news for Illinois football already this season. The best news from opening weekend was how the transfers delivered.
The Illini are counting on several transfers to play important roles and they all contributed to Saturday's 42-3 romp over Akron at Memorial Stadium.
Quarterback Brandon Peters, a grad transfer from Michigan, threw for 163 yards and 3 touchdowns and ran for another TD.
"Brandon Peters was everything we thought he would be and wanted him to be, throwing the football and running the football, and just running our offense in general," coach Lovie Smith said Monday. "It's a good start."
The Illini have three grad transfers from USC. Two receivers, Trevon Sidney and Josh Imatorbhebhe, had 2 catches each against Akron, while defensive end Oluwole Betiku was especially impressive. The former five-star recruit recorded 6 tackles, 3 for loss, 1.5 sacks and 2 quarterback hurries.
Two others who contributed were guard Richie Petitbon, a grad transfer from Alabama, and linebacker Milo Eifler from Washington. Eifler is a traditional transfer who sat out last season. He produced a tackle for loss and pass breakup on Saturday.
On Monday, Smith was asked about Betiku possibly living up to the star potential he showed in high school. The Nigeria native moved to the U.S. as a high school sophomore. He didn't get much playing time in three seasons at USC.
"It's kind of a common response on how the new players played. They all played well," Smith said. "I thought he rushed the passer well, I thought he played the run well. That's what we've seen from him. It's been a while. He talked about how excited he was going into the first game. It's a good start."
The bad news from the weekend was the loss of junior running back Mike Epstein with a season-ending knee injury. This is the third straight year Epstein's season has ended early. He's played in a total of 13 games.
The Illini were hoping to have a 1-2 punch at running back with Epstein and 1,000-yard rusher Reggie Corbin, but now they'll need someone else to step up. Corbin played sparingly against Akron, getting 6 carries for 36 yards.
Illinois lost touted freshman cornerback Marquez Beason to a torn ACL in camp, while their best defensive end, Bobby Roundtree, is recovering from a severe spinal injury, suffered in a swimming accident last May.
The Illini travel to face UConn this Saturday. Smith made a big deal about Illinois finishing 128th out of 130 teams in total defense last season. Well, UConn is the team that finished 130. The Huskies opened their season with a 24-21 win over FCS opponent Wagner.
The schedule is definitely set up for Illinois to get off to a 3-0 start before hosting Nebraska on Sept. 21. The third nonconference opponent is Eastern Michigan next week.