2013 Surprise Players

IlliniPlaybook counts down the list of Illinois players who will surprise during the 2013 season.

No. 8 - DL Vontrell Williams

Why Vontrell Williams? Why not?

The Chicago native redshirted during his first year on campus in 2012 and enters this season listed at 6-foot-4, 300 pounds. He's currently listed as the primary backup to Jake Howe at nose tackle, but given Howe's lack of game experience, the starting job is anything but solidified.

There's plenty to like about Williams. He has ideal size and he comes from a winning program. He had 15 sacks while helping Mount Carmel High to the 2011 Chicago Prep Bowl Championship.

No. 7 - OL Austin Schmidt

The true freshman enrolled in January and went through spring drills, an advantage for any player but especially important for an offensive linemen.

Maybe more importantly, Schmidt was able to spend all winter and spring in workouts on campus, taking his 6-foot-6 frame to 275 pounds to ready himself for a shot at the field this fall.

Schmidt did everything that was asked of him this spring -- he worked hard and learned as much as possible. He did enough to earn himself the primary backup role at left tackle on the depth chart, a fact that didn't go unnoticed by fans and the media.

The former three-star recruit may not start out of the gate, but he's in position to get meaningful reps should anything come up. With his early enrollment and progression to this point, the staff should feel fairly comfortable throwing him in there if need be.

No. 6 - DL Teko Powell

Powell was headed for a redshirt as a freshman in 2012 before injuries dictated otherwise. He played in the final seven games, totaling four tackles while, more importantly, gaining valuable experience heading into this season.

He'll need to draw on his prior playing time, as he's currently listed as the No. 2 player at defensive tackle. At 6-foot-3, 295-pounds, Powell has the size advantage over current starter Austin Teitsma, but does give up a wide edge when it comes to experience.

Still, the defensive line has numerous spots as open for grabs as any on the roster. And even if he doesn't start, Powell is in line for plenty of reps this fall.

No. 5 - LB T.J. Neal

The depth chart isn't in his favor, but T.J. Neal has plenty of talent on his side.

He redshirted last year, forced to watch as classmates Mason Monheim and Mike Svetina made a name for themselves on Saturdays in the fall. Now it's Neal's turn to get out into the action.

It will be tough to crack the starting rotation, with Jonathan Brown and Monheim pretty well penciled in. Svetina, Zeph Grimes and others will compete for playing time in a battle Neal should be a prime contender amid.

No. 4 - WR Steve Hull

Hull enters his final season at Illinois at a familiar position, switching back to his original wide receiver spot after spending the bulk of his career at safety.

Hull's shoulders most likely couldn't have withstood another year on defense, so the move makes sense to help give him a shot at ending his career on a high note.

Hull has good speed and good hands, so those are his physical advantages. He's also very close with quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and has a unique perspective on the position given his many years trying to stop passes from being completed.

Can Hull adjust to offense and make some noise? That remains to be seen, but he showed enough raw talent in spring to say he'll be in the mix. And since a brand new offense was installed this offseason, it's not like Hull is behind anybody on the roster in terms of playbook knowledge.

No. 3 - CB Eaton Spence

Just a redshirt sophomore, Spence became one of the oldest and most experienced corners on the team after the unit was hit hard by graduation following 2012.

The 6-foot, 180-pound native of Belle Glade, Fla., impressed as a first-year player last season, making three starts and recording 16 tackles, one sack and one pass breakup.

Spence exited spring drills as the No. 1 corner on the team, a spot he'll have to work hard to keep with young players like V'Angelo Bentley, Darius Mosely and Caleb Day trying to take his crown.

That competition should benefit all involved, with Spence projecting to improve and get better as he goes.

No. 2 - WR Justin Hardee

Depth will play a factor in Hardee's reps this fall, as wide receiver is one of the deepest and senior-laden positions on the team. Still, Hardee is one of the most athletic players Illinois has, a trait that will keep him in the conversation regardless of the competition around him.

He switched from corner to receiver prior to last season and it didn't take long for him to see the field and make an impact. He finished 2012 with 17 catches for 192 yards, including a five-catch, 99 yard performance against Charleston Southern in Week Three.

He plays bigger than his 6-foot-1, 190-pound frame and has enough speed to stretch the field. He's one of the more complete wideouts the Illini have, even if he does lack the game experience some of the older guys hold as an advantage.

No. 1 - CB V'Angelo Bentley

V'Angelo Bentley made one thing clear as a freshman in 2012 -- he's a playmaker with a knack for being in the right place at the right time.

He played in all 12 games, totaling 11 tackles, forcing a fumble and blocking a kick. That's not a bad line for a true freshman supposedly learning his way in the Big Ten.

The Cleveland, Ohio native kept the momentum in spring drills, earning a starting spot at cornerback opposite Eaton Spence and winning the punt and kick return duties.

He'll have to maintain those roles with his performance in fall camp, but it's going to be hard for anybody to unseat the 5-foot-10, 180-pound speedster.

He's as hungry as anybody on the roster. Given his former high school teammate Justin Hardee is as eager to prove himself and get on the field, don't expect Bentley to slow down one bit. Look for exciting one-on-ones between those two during the month of August.

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