Freshmen Earning Their Stripes

The game against Charleston Southern was a proving ground for a number of freshmen. We break down four standout performances by Illinois freshmen Saturday.

Illinois Head Coach Tim Beckman isn't shy when it comes to playing his young guys.  Without as much depth as the coaching staff would like, a number of freshmen are being counted upon to play big roles for the Illini this year.  We take a look at a few who had a big role in the win against Charleston Southern.

LB Mason Monheim:

With Houston Bates out of the lineup, Monheim started in just his third collegiate game.  One thing was clear from the start, instincts aren't an issue.  Monheim went out on the first defensive series and it was pretty much all him.  Two tackles and an interception that set up Illinois at the Charleston Southern 7-yard line and the first score of the game.  He was counted upon a majority of the game and always seemed to be around the ball.  

Monheim's game parallels a lot of characteristics of guys like J Leman and Brit Miller, two former Illinois linebackers who were deceptively athletic and were in on just about every play.  Monheim is a smart kid too.  A high school valedictorian, he doesn't overthink the play and acts very naturally on the field.  If he keeps this up, he could be the guy who takes over once Jonathan Brown moves on, and Coach Beckman has to feel better seeing Monheim step up the way he has.

WR Justin Hardee:

Let me fill you in on a not-so-secret secret.  Wide receiver depth at Illinois isn't anywhere near where they want it to be.  The only three receivers with significant experience are Ryan Lankford, Darius Millines, and Spencer Harris.  But one guy who is getting a lot of early reps is Justin Hardee.  The freshman out of Cleveland's Glenville High School isn't short on confidence, which is good because he's looking like he'll figure in a lot more than originally anticipated by many.  

When Charleston Southern started to zone in on Ryan Lankford following his hot start, Hardee stepped up, got open, and hauled in some big catches, including a long 48-yarder from Reilly O'Toole.  Hardee recorded 5 catches for a total of 99 yards and really looked sound hauling in passes as they came in over his shoulder.  Good hands, good speed, crisp routes: Just what you'd expect from a former Tarblooder.

RB Dami Ayoola:

Donovonn Young got off to a bit of a slow start in the game, and Josh Ferguson sat out with a concussion.  So the coaches threw in freshman back Dami Ayoola out of Florida powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas to try to give the run game a spark.  It took a little bit, but he did just that.  Ayoola's isn't a burner, but he has good vision and burst.  Most importantly, though, is that he keeps his legs moving.  That came in handy on one play in particular.  Ayoola ran through the middle of the line on an iso, and just when it looked like another "2 yards and a cloud of dust" run, Ayoola squirted through the line, spinning out the backside of the line and rumbling to the endzone.  The effort he showed on that play alone fired up the crowd at Memorial Stadium and had to earn him the respect of his teammates and the trust of his coaches.

If the running backs continue to suffer little nicks and injuries that hold them out of games, Ayoola could see his role increase significantly.  He has good size and runs with a low pad level.  And once Illinois enters the Big Ten season, He should be right in his element of running with power and hitting his gaps.

CB V'Angelo Bentley:

The top end of the Illinois cornerback depth chart is in good hands with Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green, but after those two, it's an open competition with no clear pecking order.  But freshman V'Angelo Bentley has seen himself on the field often early on.  Bentley isn't the tallest or the fastest guy on the field, but when it comes to being a stereotypical cover corner, he fits the mold to a T.  Of course he'll have growing pains, but he's a guy who embraces a challenge and will pick up on things quickly as he gets more in-game experience.  

Bentley led the team with two pass break-ups and was draped all over his receivers most of his time on the field.  He's physical at the point of attack and has no problem going at his man at the line of scrimmage.  To say it in a word, he's "scrappy."  Give him credit, he held his own when placed in one-on-one coverage.  If he can prove himself early on, he could be one of Beckman's young go-to guys later in the season and provide some very valuable depth backing up corners Hawthorne and Green.

There you have it.  Beckman is staying true to his word of playing his best players, whether they're freshmen or seniors.  

All throughout camp, Beckman made a ritual of "de-striping" the newcomers to the team as they proved themselves, but for these four freshmen, you can really say they earned their stripes today.

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