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The future is bright for freshman receiver Ricky Smalling despite Illinois’ losing season

The Fighting Illini have a star in the making on their hands.

Ricky Smalling
Michael Hickey

There hasn’t been much for Illinois to celebrate this year.

The Fighting Illini own a 2-8 record and haven’t won a game since Week 2, back in September. They’ve yet to beat a Big Ten team and are headed towards their sixth straight losing season.

For all their shortcomings, Illinois can take solace in the young talent currently on their roster.

Before they got injured, freshmen running backs Ra'Von Bonner and Mike Epstein were tearing it up on the field, combining for eight total touchdowns. Freshman tight end Louis Dorsey has also led the way on offense, tallying 18 receptions, 332 yards and three touchdowns.

But the biggest threat Ohio State should be on the lookout for on Saturday is wide receiver Ricky Smalling.

A Chicago native, Smalling has grown into a legit playmaker for coach Lovie Smith and Co. He’s compiled 28 catches for 488 yards and a pair of scores despite being virtually nonexistent the first two weeks of the season.

Here’s how Smalling has fared as a true freshman.

Ricky Smalling 2017 Stats

Date Opponent Result Receptions Receiving yards Receiving yards per game Longest reception Receiving touchdowns
Date Opponent Result Receptions Receiving yards Receiving yards per game Longest reception Receiving touchdowns
9/2 Ball State W, 24-21 0 0 0 0 0
9/9 Western Kentucky W, 20-7 2 8 4 9 1
9/15 @South Florida L, 47-23 3 99 33 76 0
9/29 Nebraska L, 28-6 1 10 10 10 0
10/7 @Iowa L, 45-16 3 44 14.7 26 0
10/14 Rutgers L, 35-24 5 111 22.2 32 1
10/21 @Minnesota L, 24-17 8 71 8.9 22 1
10/28 Wisconsin L, 24-10 1 26 26 26 0
11/4 @Purdue L, 29-10 2 46 23 42 0
11/11 Indiana L, 24-14 3 73 24.3 31 0
Total 25 415 16.6 76 2

Considering he’s only a first-year, playing for talent-devoid Illinois no less, that’s not a bad way to start off a college football career.

The 6-foot-1, 205-pound Smalling has had success outmuscling defenders to gain separation. He isn’t the most refined receiver, but his soft hands and ability to make plays after the catch are why No. 4 is one of the better freshmen in the Big Ten.

In a losing effort to Rutgers last month, Smalling racked up 111 receiving yards and a touchdown on just five receptions.

With two games to go before the regular season ends, Smalling leads all Illinois pass-catchers in receptions and receiving yards, and is second in average yards per reception and receiving touchdowns.

He’s third among all eligible FBS freshmen in average yards per reception.

Once Smalling gets more talent around him on offense, let alone a competent quarterback, watch out. You’ll see him produce like he did against Minnesota with frequency, when he caught eight passes for 71 yards and a touchdown.

A third win doesn’t appear to be in the cards for Illinois. But the final score isn’t of much concern to the Fighting Illini at this point.

Building a steady, sustainable program is what Smith and his staff are focused on. And it’s players like Smalling that represent the first steps in that process. He’s a difference-maker at receiver and will play an important role in whatever future success his team has.

Keep an eye out for Smalling on Saturday when Illinois takes the field in Columbus. You’ll be seeing a lot more of him down the road.