The 90 Illini - 90 ~ 86

Jun 04, 2017

90 Days to Illini football! Which means the return of The 90 Illini where I rank every player from 90 to 1 in a summer-long countdown to the first game. First, some history on this IlliniBoard series, and then I'll get to ranking the first five players.

First off, every year, when the News-Gazette starts their countdown from 50 to 1, someone will tweet them saying "hey, you stole Robert's idea". No, I stole theirs. In the summer of 2009 I did a series called Dear Bob, You're Doing It Wrong where I questioned Bob Asmussen's top-50 list and instead ranked the players on my own (the formatting on the post I linked there is way off - the blog has gone through four changes since then - but hey, the words are still there).

The year after that, I expanded to 90 players - the full roster of 85 scholarship players plus five walkons. The year after that, I moved to one post per day all summer. Then, in 2014, after moving things over to IlliniBoard, I skipped doing The 90 Illini. Moving to the "six free reads and then you need a subscription" model meant that anyone who wanted to read the series would need 30 clicks per month. I hate the idea of "use up your clicks with a bunch of short, meaningless posts" so I refused to write the series.

I got more feedback on that than any series I've done (WHERE IS THE 90 ILLINI??) so I brought it back in 2015, this time ranking five at a time. I did the same thing last year and will do the same this year. Every five days, you'll get a post with five more players. The last two years the every-five-days thing fell apart once training camp started - there was just too much to write about, and I was spending 3 hours per night writing the preview at the time - but I was able to finish the series just before the season started. This year, I'm writing several in advance so I shouldn't have that problem.

One last thing: It feels good to be starting the series again. I am A Man Of Routine, so this post marks the end of my spring writing vacation. Just sitting down to write it gives me the feeling of the last day of school. Summer can now begin. And summer only means one thing: Illini football is just around the corner.

90. James Bartholomew

Wide Receiver/ATH
True Freshman (walkon, 5 years to play 4)
Hilton Head Christian HS / Hilton Head, South Carolina

What I Know About Him

Bartholomew is a walkon added just last month (story here). We were woefully thin at wide receiver in the spring, at one point down to only three healthy scholarship wide receivers. It's really hard to practice when there are only three receivers, so Lovie held a campus tryout, adding three walkons for practice.

Some of those scholarship receivers will be healthy once training camp starts (guys like MJ McGriff, Dominic Thieman, and some receiver named Mikey Dudek), but they still need walkon receivers. So when Bartholomew sent some tape to Lovie, Lovie bit.

What I Expect From Him

Wide Receiver is one of those positions where a walkon will get tons of practice reps. When they're in 11 on 11 and they're practicing four-wide formations, they'll run through the first, second, and third string offense in the same formation. Which means they need 12 wide receivers. You now see why it was impossible to practice with three healthy wide receivers this spring.

Many of those injured players will return to practice at training camp. But they'll still need numbers, which is why Bartholomew gets his name on The 90 Illini while other walkons did not. Play your cards right as a walkon WR and you can find yourself catching a lot of passes at practice (and then, after a few years, making the traveling team).

89. Jake Stover

Offensive Lineman
True Freshman (walkon, 5 years to play 4)
St. Rita High School / Chicago, Illinois

What I Know About Him

Stover is a high school teammate of incoming recruit Marc Mondesir. You see that happen from time to time - high school teammate walks on where high school friend accepted a scholarship (first one that comes to mind - Miles Osei and Peter Bonahoom).

I believe he's the one who had some FCS offers but wanted a shot at the big time so he turned down the scholarship money to chase the walkon dream. As you know, this makes him my new favorite person. People who choose to play football at Illinois on their own dime: the best of the best.

What I Expect From Him

As usual, this first set of The 90 Illini will be all walkons. Sometimes a scholarship player will fall down into the upper-80's (like when we're full on 85 scholarships and we have a starting kicker/punter who is a walkon). But with only 81 scholarship players on the roster, we'll be in the walkons for a while.

Stover is another walkon who is walking into a better situation than he realizes. With the dismissal of Darta Lee and Howard Watkins after their arrest last month, Stover has a chance at second string as a true freshman walkon. There are only 11 scholarship linemen, which means a walkon is going to get serious reps in camp.

88. William DuPont

Wide Receiver
No Idea (He played baseball in the Blue Jays organization for the last 5 years so he's a 23 year-old who enters as a... freshman?)
Lafayette High School / Wildwood, Missouri

What I Know About Him

He had a baseball scholarship to Mississippi State coming out of high school but the Blue Jays drafted him in the 16th round so he decided to skip college and head straight to the minor leagues. After five years bouncing around the Blue Jays organization, he's giving up baseball and is headed to college. At Illinois. As a preferred walk-on wide receiver.

Lafayette High School has been good to Illinois in the past, at least on the basketball court (Robert Archibald, Tyler Griffey). And it's been a bit of a baseball hotbed (Ryan Howard, David Freese). So naturally the next great walkon wide receiver in college football will be a 23 year-old baseball player from Lafayette High.

What I Expect From Him

As mentioned above under Bartholomew, there is room for a walkon receiver to make some noise. This spring there were six scholarship receivers and three of them were sitting because of injury. There will be eight this fall (nine if Trenard Davis goes back to receiver once we have a few more quarterbacks in camp), but that still gives opportunity for a walkon to get some reps.

Will he ever see the field? It's doubtful - for every one Fej there are 10 walkons who never see the light of day. But we need numbers right now, so I'm thrilled that we found a 23 year-old option.

87. Ethan Tabel

Long Snapper
Redshirt Freshman (walkon, 4 years to play 4)
Barrington High School / Barrington, Illinois

What I Know About Him

I know we need a long snapper. And I know He's a long snapper. So... there you go.

What I Expect From Him

I think the likely long snapper is Sean Mills. Mills was brought in from New Jersey last year to be the one-year backup to Michael Martin and then, hopefully, starting long snapper in 2017. But you always need two guys competing for the job, and Mills will be competing with Tabel.

I don't really know much else so I guess I'll just add some titles for future blog posts if Tabel wins the long snapping job:

Who's Available At LS? Tabel, For One
Lovie Turns Tables, Starts Tabel
From Walkon To Scholarship Player, Tabel Saw It All

86. Zac Holman

Defensive Back
Junior (walkon, 2 years to play 2)
De La Salle Cronulla High School / Cronulla, Australia

What I Know About Him

Did you know that when you say "rise up, lights" out loud it sounds like an Australian saying "razor blades"? Go ahead, try it. Guarantee you'll still be saying "rise up, lights" all day tomorrow. Why do I say this? Because Zac Holman is from Australia. I'm now totally kicking myself for not interviewing him last year and asking him to say "rise up, lights".

What else do I know... well, on Insta, he's LilAussieVert. If you're into rap (I'm not - I just have sons who are), that's pretty clever.

What I Expect From Him

I'm sensing a theme here. That theme is "wow, numbers are down, so some of these walkons have a chance to contribute, not only in practice but maybe also in games". I'm not really seeing Holman as another Fej or anything, but with 40 of the 81 scholarship being freshmen (FORTY), there's room for a junior walkon to make some noise.

And, really, at safety, we don't really know much at all behind the top three (Stanley Green, Pat Nelson, Julian Hylton). The Aussie as the fourth safety this fall? If none of the freshmen are ready, why not?


Norcal Illini on June 05 @ 06:59 PM CDT

If you say rise up, lights with an Aussie accent, it sounds like roiz op loits. They rotate all the vowel sounds to confuse us.

FosterFanClub on June 06 @ 10:40 AM CDT

Robert, can you include basic measurables (height/weight, maybe), at least for the walkons and guys like DBs? I think it helps when looking at freshmen and DBs to identify their fit (are they a corner? nickel? safety?) and general readiness (6'3 175? probably not ready yet)

Sweetchuck13 on June 07 @ 08:39 AM CDT

Great idea FosterFanClub - I might even get greedy and ask for a jersey number too!

And adding something similar when you start discussing each position in the annual preview would be helpful too - name, jersey number, year, height, weight, hometown. Some of us don't quite have the entire roster memorized like you do Robert!

Eagle on June 11 @ 04:32 PM CDT

Walk-on WR to starter is definitely possible. Zach Grant is exhibit one.

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