The 2019 college football season was an amazing campaign for the Illinois Fighting Illini. It was the program's first year since 2014 in which it posted both a winning season and played in a bowl game. It was also the year in which Lovie Smith's rebuilding project was finally starting to bear fruit.
So now the Illini have expectations put upon them for 2020. The main area that will help this team meet those expectations is recruiting, a department that Illinois has made vast improvements in under Smith.
The Illini's latest recruiting class is ranked 87th in the nation by 247Sports. And here are some players from this group that may already have a lineup spot for 2020.
Reggie Love, RB
With Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown onto the next phase of their lives, and with Mike Epstein's future in doubt to due recurring knee injuries, Ra'Von Bonner needs a new backfield mate. And the Illini feel that they have that with Love, who's a four-star player. The St. Louis native only posted 668 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns for Trinity Catholic High School, but his speed, vision, and elusiveness made him the 22nd-ranked running back in the nation. Corbin and Brown combined for 1,259 rushing yards, 149 receiving yards, and 13 total touchdowns last season. Perhaps Bonner and Love could be Lovie Smith's next productive running back combo.
Lavar Gardner, LB
Dele Harding (236 career tackles, 21 TFLs, a sack, 3 interceptions, 3 forced fumbles, 2 touchdowns) is another veteran who's graduating from Champaign. And Gardner, a three-star recruit, is primed to take his spot in the lineup. He recorded 65 tackles, four sacks, nine tackles for a loss, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, and two pass breakups at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas last season. Prior to that, Gardner registered 137 tackles, 21 tackles for a loss, 12 sacks, two forced fumbles, and scored a defensive touchdown at Columbia High School in Atlanta.
Garnder can play both the run and the pass, move sideline to sideline, and keep up with the up-tempo offenses he'll be facing in the Big Ten. One downside is that he'll need to add size to his 200-pound frame.
Cooper Davis, DE
Lovie Smith can never have too many defensive ends on hand, and Davis has the tools to be his next successful pass rusher. Over his final two years Viera High School in Melbourne, Fla., this three-star recruit combined for 200 total tackles, 68 tackles for a loss, 43 sacks, and 18 quarterback hurries. His ability to disrupt blocking schemes will go a long way in a conference that boasts some of the best offensive lines in all of college football.
James Frenchie, WR
Reggie Love will be joined by his high school teammate in Champaign. Frenchie is a four-star player who accounted for 3,204 all-purpose yards and 40 total touchdowns at St. Louis' Trinity Catholic High. In addition to being a dynamic pass catcher, Frenchie can also be used on running plays, and he can return kicks and punts. It'll be nice to see both Love and Frenchie wreaking havoc on opposing defenses in 2020.
Deuce Spann, QB
Brandon Peters missed two games due to a concussion in 2019. And in his absence, the Illini used Matt Robinson, Isaiah Williams, and Cam Miller with very limited success (combined to complete just 46-of-88 attempts for 525 yards and 1 touchdown). Should the injury bug strike Peters again, perhaps offensive coordinator Rod Smith should consider giving Spann some game reps. As a three-star signal-caller out of Lakewood High School in St. Petersburg, Fla., Spann totaled 4,771 passing yards, 2,165 rushing yards, and was responsible for 72 total touchdowns. Spann is a dual-threat athlete who will fit in perfectly with this offense.
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.
(Top photo courtesy of @IlliniFootball)