Instant Impact: Fall Camp Update

A look at the top Illinois freshman performers of training camp.

CB Jaylen Dunlap

Looking back on it, maybe Dunlap's emergence in fall camp shouldn't have been such a surprise. He's 6-foot-1, 175 pounds with long arms and a build more like a safety than a corner. And he comes from a top-notch high school program in Crete-Monee, where he helped win a state title and 14-0 record as a senior. Still, Dunlap was an under-the-radar recruit that was a late addition to the signing class. He's played well above his rankings so far in training camp, earning time with the second-team defense and intercepting an Aaron Bailey pass in the first scrimmage.

Why he will contribute: As is the case with all the young defensive backs, there's plenty of opportunity due to a lack of depth at cornerback.

Why he won't play: The addition of Caleb Day at the cornerback spot only adds to the number of people competing to get on the field at the position. The battle will be tough and will be on-going all season.

QB Aaron Bailey

The highly-touted quarterback came in and did exactly what he needed to do – he's learned, impressed, wowed and fought back after making mistakes. His arm is clearly elite, in terms of strength, and his speed adds another element to his game that no other quarterback on the roster can match. Now, Bailey has a tendency to throw too hard at times, when it's not necessary, and has some work to do with touch and accuracy. And of course, he's still learning the offense. But his raw abilities are on display during every practice and the thought of him playing, whenever it happens, is certainly exciting.

Why he will contribute: He's too good to redshirt. He may not be quite ready to supplant starter Nathan Scheelhaase, but he's more than ready for a package of his own or a handful of plays to run. In the least, I foresee a Wes Lunt-Bailey battle to be the starter in 2014, so Bailey needs game reps to get ready for that.

Why he won't play: If Scheelhaase can stay healthy and win some games early, Coach Beckman and OC Bill Cubit may not want to disrupt positive momentum. Bailey is unlikely to redshirt, but meaningful series may not come his way if Scheelhaase can get it, and keep it, going.

LEO D.J. Smoot

"Atta boy Smoot!" I can't tell you how many times I've heard that screamed out the last few weeks. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound Smoot immediately impressed the coaching staff with his quick first step and explosiveness off the edge. He earned the respect of his teammates with his constant hustle and never-ending effort. Manning the Leo position, Smoot has proved capable of rushing the passer, something the Illini desperately need this season.

Why he will contribute: Houston Bates has emerged at the Leo position as one of the best players the defense has, but there is no proven depth behind the junior to back him up. Dejazz Woods has never played in a game, so it's not like Smoot's lack of experience is necessarily a disadvantage.

Why he won't play: If Woods continues to prove he's a capable backup and Bates stays healthy, reps for Smoot at Leo will be limited. He's not currently cross-training at other positions, so third on the depth chart makes it tough for upward mobility.

TE Tyler White

Credit Alex Golesh for finding White, identifying him as a viable prospect and offering him early. Golesh has himself a win there and a complete recruiting steal. White committed to Illinois as a complete unknown, leaving some questioning the move. White's play in training camp has erased any doubts and then some. At 6-foot-5, 245 pounds, White has excellent speed and hands, too. Adding it all up, White has a lot to offer and has taken advantage of increased reps due to injuries this camp to Matt LaCosse and Jon Davis.

Why he will contribute: Who knows what's up with Davis' knee? It appears he'll be able to play, but the staff has been playing it safe and trying to rest him as much as possible. LaCosse has had a good camp and is the most complete tight end behind Davis. Evan Wilson is more of a blocking type and Tim Clary is splitting time at fullback and tight end. White may be young, but he's right there with Davis and LaCosse in terms of being a complete tight end.

Why he won't play: Who knows what's up with Davis' knee? He might be ready to finally leave the training room behind him and break out this season. LaCosse will see plenty of time and Wilson and Clary could be used in running, heavy and goal line situations.

CB Darius Mosely

It doesn't even feel like Mosely is a freshman any longer. Coach Beckman stopped bringing his name up when asked for young players that were standing out. That wasn't a knock on Mosely's play – it was actually a compliment. No longer viewed as a newcomer after impressing in spring drills as an early enrollee, Mosely has seen time with the second-team defense at cornerback and is in the fight to get the ball on special teams.

Why he will contribute: He's too dynamic, too athletic and too good to keep off the field. It appears he's taken control of the third cornerback role, to be used in sub-packages. It's unlikely he unseats starters V'Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence, but he's right behind them on the depth chart.

Why he won't play: Again, like others on this list, Mosely is going to see time on the field. But there's still plenty of time before the opener for others in the secondary to make a move. Nobody's spot is solidified.

James Crawford

One of the more surprising players this fall camp, James Crawford emerged as a viable candidate to start at the Star position following his play at Camp Rantoul. With Eric Finney's status still in question for the season opener and B.J. Bello nursing a sore groin, Crawford made the most of his opportunity with the second-team defense. His 6-foot-2, 200-pound frame and build is perfect for the Star position, a linebacker/safety hybrid.

Why he will contribute: Mike Svetina seems to be the best bet to start if Finney can't go, but there's always the chance he'll be needed at his natural linebacker position. Even if Svetina is locked in, Crawford is currently on the two-deep, one play away from getting out there on the field.

Why he won't play: Finney won't be out for long and Bello will return to full health as well. Those guys returning could squeeze Crawford to a special teams role.

DB Caleb Day

Day spent the first few weeks at safety before seeing time at cornerback in recent practices. That's how versatile the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Hilliard, Ohio is, a player who could probably make an impact this season on the offensive side of the ball if the staff had him over there. The whole point in cross-training Day is obvious – he's too good not to be on the field, so DC Tim Banks is going to find a place for him one way or the other.

Why he will contribute: Given the lack of depth at both safety and corner, Day's ability to play both position gives him a distinct advantage. It's unlikely he starts, at least not early in the season, but he'll be in the mix for primary backup roles at multiple spots.

Why he won't play: He's gonna play, but he'll be battling with plenty of other young defensive backs to get on the field. In these types of competitions, there's always winners and always losers.

WR Marchie Murdock

A bit of a wildcard in the 2013 signing class, Murdock came to Illinois from Arlington, Texas as a wideout that not much was known about. He caught the eye of Coach Beckman and OC Cubit the first week of camp and has kept the momentum ever since. He caught two touchdown passes from Aaron Bailey in the first scrimmage at Rantoul and has impressed throughout with his sound hands and solid work ethic. At 6-foot-1, 180 pounds, Murdock doesn't stand out physically, but his No. 16 jersey is unmistakable once the action starts.

Why he will contribute: This isn't a foreign concept, but Cubit has stated he's going to get his best playmakers on the field. What is a little different than most offenses, though, is Cubit won't shy away from odd personnel groupings if that's what he has to do. Two tailbacks, three tight ends or five wideouts – whatever the best look, that's what Cubit will roll with. Murdock could find his way to the huddle if the wide receivers prove themselves worthy.

Why he won't play: The wideout room is full of players eager to prove they should be catching the football. And many of those guys are seniors, such as Ryan Lankford, Spencer Harris, Miles Osei and Steve Hull. Throw in names like Martize Barr and Justin Hardee and it's easy to see – winning over the right to be on the field isn't going to be easy.

CB Dillan Cazley

Another young defensive back in the mix, Cazley has been running with the No. 2 defensive unit for weeks now. He's listed at 5-foot-10, 175 pounds, but Cazley looks and plays bigger than that when suited up in full pads. One thing that he's made clear this camp is he's a playmaker when the ball is in the air. He's made multiple interceptions in one-on-one drills against wide receivers and in 11-on-11 action. His ceiling may not be as high as some of his fellow defensive back peers, but his floor might be higher, too. He's shown to be a solid player to this point.

Why he will contribute: Cornerback is one of the most shallow positions, in terms of depth, on the team, so somebody has to step up and play. Cazley will be right in the thick of the fight to be in there for nickel and dime packages, as well as one of the next guys in line should something happen to starters Eaton Spence and V'Angelo Bentley.

Why he won't play: Cazley will get on the field this season, but he's competing with Mosely, Dunlap and Day for meaningful snaps and a high standing on the depth chart.

OL Austin Schmidt

The 6-foot-6 offensive lineman has been a member of the second-team offense since training camp began, mostly repping at left guard. Enrolling in January made a big difference for Schmidt. It's not just that he went through 15 spring practices, which surely benefitted him. But more importantly, the Galena, Ohio native got to spend an entire offseason in the weight room under the direction of the paid professionals on Illinois' strength staff. That's what took his weight to over 280 pounds (and rising) and has him at least in better physical condition to play at the college level.

Why he will contribute: There's not exactly stellar depth on the offensive line. Schmidt may be young, but most of his competition on the second o-line unit hasn't played in a game yet either.

Why he won't play: At this time, it appears the staff likes Patrick Flavin as the primary backup at tackle and Joe Spencer as the next man up at guard. Starter Michael Heitz can play any position on the line as well, with Jake Feldmeyer serving as a senior backup at center. If the group has some luck concerning injuries, Schmidt's services may not be needed this season.


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