Ricky Smalling

WR / ILLINOIS

Freshman Ricky Smalling starting at receiver for Illinois isn’t an anomaly, it’s a sign of the times.

In the second year of the rebuilding campaign under coach Lovie Smith, the Illini have turned to their 2017 recruiting class not just for depth but for frontline personnel as this season has progressed. In so doing they have become the youngest team in the nation, with 15 true freshmen having gained at least one start.

Though Saturday’s game at Ohio State is the penultimate in a season that to date has seen Illinois go winless in the Big Ten, it’s obvious what is going on, OSU coach Urban Meyer said.

“You can tell they’re building for the future and there are some young players on the offensive side of the ball who have brilliant futures,” Meyer said. “And we’ve just got to make sure that future isn’t this Saturday.”

Smalling is one of the freshmen the Buckeyes will be watching. Though the Illini have struggled to find consistency on offense, at 6 feet 1 and 205 pounds, Smalling has shown the ability to get open and to go up and grab contested passes. It’s the kind of playmaking Smith and his staff have sought, even as they’ve rotated through three quarterbacks, including Jeff George Jr.

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“We have leaned on Ricky quite a bit, we kind of knew that (would be the case) coming in,” Smith said of the first-year player from Brother Rice High School in Chicago. “We really like Ricky, thought he could have an impact right away.”

Smalling leads the team with 28 catches for 488 yards — a healthy 17.4-yard average per catch — and two touchdowns.

“In an ideal world you don’t want to rely on as many young players as we have and put them in those positions as soon as we have, but that’s how it’s gone,” Smith said. “Ricky has really stepped up. We feel like if we get him in a one-on-one situation, it’s a good thing for us most of the time. And he has met our expectations and has risen to the occasion time after time.”

tmay@dispatch.com

@TIM_MAYsports