2018 Gridiron: Illinois College Blueboys
2017 Overall Record: 5-5
Head Coach: Ray DeFrisco
Years at School: 2
Record at School: 11-9
Overall Record: 11-9
THERE’S BEEN AN AWAKENING: BLUEBOYS TAKE AIM AT TOPPLING THE MONMOUTH MWC SOUTH MONOPOLY
PRE-SNAP READS: I’m not sure I’ve ever once typed these words in a Football Preview but in all sincerity one could make a compelling argument that the best thing that happened to Illinois College Football in 2017 was a three game losing streak to start the season. As counterintuitive as it sounds, the short term harm the Blueboys did themselves in that disastrous opening string of games apparently awakened and unlocked a deeper potential. Wake-up call answered, Ray DeFrisco’s crew changed the narrative on a dime, winning five of their last seven games to salvage a 5-5 finish on one campaign; while more resonantly setting the tone for an even more promising future to come. With no true offensive and defensive identities established, IC rides into this Fall with seventeen total full or part-time starters returning. “The Awakening” and the simmering potential it unearthed in Jacksonville did not go unnoticed among the Blueboys Midwest Conference brethren. IC was picked third preseason in the South Division and received the only first place vote not accorded to reigning powerhouse Monmouth. Suffice it to say, expectations have risen for The Men in Blue this Autumn.
AS IF BY CHANCE: There’s apparently something magical about an Auburn High Kid playing Quarterback for IC, I suppose. Among the more positive developments of the Blueboys 2017 campaign was the rise of Drew Chance, Signal Caller Extraordinare. All he did as Freshman was lead the Midwest Conference in Total Offense at 277.5 yards per game. To put a finer point on it, Drew completed 60% of his 360 attempts for 2560 passing yards and 20 touchdowns. Chance was second in the MWC with 256 passing yards per game. He also rushed for 431 yards and a pair of scores as well. It was a command performance, well ahead of his years and very reminiscent of the one fellow Auburn Trojan Michael Bates delivered to jump start his stellar IC Tenure eight years ago. Drew is mobile, smart, and tougher than a three dollar steak. And he’s got room to improve with his passing discipline after tossing eleven interceptions in his debut season. The IC Staff has unearthed a very special and promising difference maker here. Expect the next three years to provide ample offensive fireworks and plenty of fun as long as Drew Chance is commanding the offense in Jacksonville.
BLUE BY YOU: IC returns four other full time starters on Offense, creating a capable niche nucleus. Wide Receiver Glen Gibbons, Jr is the most accomplished skill position holdover. The Sophomore from Mascoutah delivered 35 catches a year ago for 548 yards and seven total touchdowns. Juniors Mason Farris and Bryce McKinney are also experience targets in play for Drew Chance to utilize. Farris had 26 catches for 270 yards and a touchdown a year ago. McKinney caught ten for 53 yards. The IC Coaching staff is really high on Sophomore Wide Receiver Austin Patton (6’3” 185lbs) so don’t be surprised if he emerges as another weapon in the pattern for a passing game trying to better the 259 yards per game it produced in 2017.
Senior Jason Barbour is the top returning rusher from a year ago. He played in only seven games and had only 68 attempts, which he converted to 259 yards and four touchdowns. In the interest of better balance, the Blueboys are hoping a healthy Barbour can push the IC per game rush average well beyond the 99 yards nightly it delivered a year ago. West Virginia native Shak Johnson had just nine carries for 53 yards and touchdown a season ago but the Sophomore looms large here as potential set piece moving forward, especially in the absence of All-MWC performer Greg Cross. The Illinois College Offensive Line working in front of those backs is a very fascinating proposition. The Blueboys boast two of the very best young blockers in the league. Zach Heren of Auburn (6’2” 260lbs) earned 1st Team All-MWC South Division honors last year as a Junior. Classmate Austin Gruber was a 2nd Team South pick in his own right. Those are two outstanding anchors around which to build. By the same token, Offensive Coordinator Travis James has three critical spots to plug on his Offensive Line and that looms as the most glaring issue for this otherwise stacked unit heading into August Workouts.
GOOD GRAEF: Defense is Ray DeFrisco’s personal bread and butter. So I’d expect last season’s undue generosity (29. 5 points per game against) likely sat uneasy with him for the last eight months. Granted, Midwest Conference Offenses tend to be high octane in nature but if you want to compete with the Monmouths and St Norberts of the world, you’ve got to lean things up.
To that end, the Blueboys will be far better heeled to attack the run in 2018, relative to last season, thanks to the return of Linebacker Matt Graef. A true impact tackler who earned All-MWC South First Team honors in 2016 and Second Team accord the year prior, Graef was forced to sit out the entire 2017 campaign due to injury. The ability here to pair Graef with JD Roesch really ups the ante. The Senior from Chatham Glenwood is coming off a monster campaign in Graef’s absence; one that saw lead his team with 72 tackles, 3.5 Quarterback Sacks, and 10 Tackles for Loss. Those are two A Level building blocks. The return of Mike Koos here also should yield dividends. As a Sophomore, Koos bagged 39 tackles, 5 stops for loss, and three fumble recoveries. The IC Staff is already super high on Freshman Kyle Lane as well, so Linebacker now reads on paper as an incredible well of strength.
HEAD WEST: Speaking of big splash guys, Logan West could not have debuted more impressively for the Blueboys at Defensive End. With thirteen and half tackles for loss, the Lovington Product earned South Division Newcomer of the Year honors. He also added 48 tackles and 3.5 Quarterbacks sacks to given him plenty of momentum headed into his Senior Season. Sophomore Jaylin Swan also saw spot duty last Fall at Defensive End, which should provide IC plenty of edge pressure. Caleb Crawford is the most experienced of a green group of interior Line Candidates.
In the Blueboy Secondary, Carter Hilley and Illini West Product Dalton Merry are returning starters. Hilley had 24 tackles a year ago. Merry had seven in three games, with one start. Sophomore Jasuan King of Mascoutah is a gentleman who will likely factor in there significantly as well as the IC Defense attempts to cut down on the 188 yards per game it gave up in the air a year ago.
THE DUERR DIAGNOSIS: Between IC and MacMurray, Football Saturdays are going to be lit, as the kids like to say, in Jacksonville this Fall. Both teams are positioned incredibly nicely for not only winning seasons but maybe watershed Conference outings as well. Obviously, the Blueboys have the harder row to hoe. Monmouth is a legit D-3 Top Ten National Power these days and the Fighting Scots read as IC’s most formidable obstacle to greatness. The upshot for the Blueboys is this: they get Monmouth at home in mid-October. And IC won’t see Lake Forest until November. Thus allowing Ray DeFrisco and staff ample time to fine tune and attend what few question marks they have before the big money games on the slate. Obviously, in the wake of last season, a strong start here is a must. I’d suspect no one has to tell the IC Players this, given the roller coaster of emotions they rode last September. That established, this on paper is the most gifted and exciting since the 2011 Playoff Qualifier. Granted, health and luck are always a factor but I love what DeFrisco and James have built here; not just in terms of the two-deep but in the way they’ve raised the entire level of competition in practices with increasingly better and better bodies from bottom up. Here’s the real signal moment for you: If this team shows up in Memphis on September 1st and just starts ripping it up on Defense at Rhodes College’s expense, there may be no slowing their roll. The biggest battle Ray DeFrisco faces here is convincing his kids that they can be this good. If that lesson takes root, England Field may be the best ticket in Tri-State College Football this Fall. Color me the least surprised guy here if that comes to pass.