CHAMPAIGN — Throughout the first three years as head coach of the Fighting Illini football team, Lovie Smith has tried to build a roster of talented players on both sides of the ball. As the cupboard was left bare after interim coach Bill Cubit was let go, Smith did his best to bridge the gap by bringing in players, whether it be junior college transfers or guys that fit his system.
With the transfer portal more fluid than ever, Smith has utilized that avenue by bringing in several transfers from schools, and those players are immediately eligible to play this season.
One area has produced three players, and that trio should produce immediate returns once the season begins later this month.
Trevon Sidney, Josh Imatorbhebhe and Oluwole Betiku Jr., who all came from USC, have been bright spots thus far in training camp, and as the second week of workouts begin, these three guys have impressed.
“I think this offense is a lot simpler to run and coach Rod (Smith) makes it easy for us to learn,” Imatorbhebhe said last week after practice on the simplicity of the Illinois offense under offensive coordinator Smith.
Sidney, who also is a receiver, echoed the sentiments of Imatorbhebhe regarding the ease of running the offense, but went one step further in singing the praises of how he feels to be in this system.
“I love it. Coach Rod has a special way of calling plays and picking apart defenses, which fits my style of play perfectly,” Sidney said about the Illini offense and how he fits into it.
Betiku, who is a defensive lineman, has a special bond with Illini defensive line coach Austin Clark, his position coach with Trojans. Betiku reunites with Clark and is glad he’s back learning from his mentor.
“Working with Coach Clark again has been great. He was my position coach at USC, and I learned a lot from him and cannot wait to continue learning from him,” Betiku said of his reuniting with Clark on the defensive line.
Lovie didn’t stop with the transfers at USC. He found several other players to bring into the system to fill key positions that either needed another veteran presence or a depth piece.
Perhaps the position that needed a boost the most was quarterback, and much like last season, Smith brought in a signal caller with some experience to bridge the gap for the younger players in the system.
Brandon Peters, who transferred from Michigan after losing the starting job in Ann Arbor, is a much different player than last year’s transfer, A.J. Bush. Peters is more of a drop back passer, something that fits right in to the offensive scheme that Illinois runs. Peters remarked on the move and why he did it.
“Basically, I felt it was the best fit for me to transfer (to Illinois). I had some other offers, mostly from MAC schools, but wanted to stay in the Big Ten,” Peters said on the transfer from Michigan.
Another transfer that will produce immediate dividends is Richie Petitbon, a transfer from Alabama, to replace Nick Allegretti, who now is in the NFL with the Kansas City Chiefs. Petitbon, who is reunited with Illini running back Reggie Corbin, is happy to be helping Illinois up front, but also is glad to see a familiar face on the roster.
“I’m glad to be teammates again with Reggie because we had some good times playing together at Gonzaga Prep (in Washington D.C.), and it will be great blocking for him again,” Petitbon said regarding his reuniting with Corbin on the offensive side of the ball.
A fifth transfer, Luke Ford, was geared to play this season, but a denial in his appeal to transfer from the University of Georgia was upheld, so Ford must sit this season. Ford, who is an imposing figure, would give a much-needed boost to the tight end position, but Illini fans will have to wait until next season to see him on the field.
Other transfers, such as Milo Eifler (Washington) and Donnie Navarro (Valparaiso) are eligible to play this season after sitting out last year, while a newly added player, running back Chase Brown, must sit out this season after transferring in from Western Michigan. Brown is the twin brother of Illini safety Sydney Brown, and the addition of Chase to the roster will boost the running back room once Corbin and Dre Brown graduate at the end of the season.
Offensive coordinator Smith is excited for the new guys in his system but knows that they have a long way to go to reach their full potential.
“I’m super excited about all of those guys, but they’re still learning, and it is a feel-through process with all of them, but each have done some good things so far in camp. It’s good to have some depth at the wide receiver position,” Smith said about his new guys and how they are adapting to his system.
Usually it takes some time for transfers to make their mark, but in the case of the handful of players added to the Illinois roster for 2019, that process may have been expedited just a little bit.