Wide receiver: Justin Hardee is the guy drawing much praise for growing up the most since last season. He's got the look of a real deal guy at the position. Martize Barr seems to be on track, too. He's certainly a threat. Always has been. His thing is, he has to be consistent and focused. There are no excuses now that he's a senior and in his second spring at Illinois. Behind the upperclassmen, Geronimo Allison has been no-contact due to a broken arm suffered near the end of last season. He has all the right tools, just needs to gain weight, add strength and get 100 percent healthy (he's fine, the staff is just being careful with that arm). I like Marchie Murdock and Dionte Taylor and Mike Dudek are going to get plenty of looks, too.
Cornerback: I'm guilty of it. Many are. I sleep on what Eaton Spence brings to this battle. V'Angelo Bentley gets the pub for the special teams fearlessness. And Darius Mosely, Jaylen Dunlap and Caleb Day get that ‘newest dudes around' bump, too. All the while, Spence does his thing, spectacular in that he's so solid. He's still young, too, and has a long way to go before he's hits his max level. So far this spring, Spence and Bentley have held on to their starting gigs. Day is running with the twos with Mosely, with Dunlap hampered by an unknown injury.
Linebacker: Mason Monheim is a lock. I guess I don't have to keep typing that, right? The spot next to him is what's up for debate. Ralph Cooper is entering his final season and Coach Beckman told me he's acting like a senior should. With Jonathan Brown no longer the clearcut coach/leader in charge, Cooper is doing the extra film work and being more vocal during practice. Is that enough to make him a starter? It's definitely part of it. I still like T.J. Neal to win out, but Mike Svetina has a lot of game experience, which should help him in this battle. B.J. Bello is the wild card. I don't know if he's good enough, but his skill set and body type is different than everybody else. That's enough for me to keep typing his name.
LEO: Young gun Duwuane Smoot has made his move. He's been seen with the No. 1 defense on more than one occasion. How much does this mean? Well, considering only he and senior Dejazz Woods are the only ones repping at the spot, maybe not as much. Not a lot of depth here at this moment, but I think Smoot has the potential to be one of the better players on the defense as the gap between his upside and ability continues to close.
STAR: Earnest Thomas seems to be a good fit here. It's a two-way street, too. He's better for that spot and the spot is better with him. There's some depth here now, with Eric Finney and Zeph Grimes as guys who have seen action in the past and redshirt freshman James Crawford a talented guy still finding his way.
Right tackle: Austin Schmidt seems to be a good option here… But, it's not set in stone. If Joe Spencer can man the center spot, that would free up Alex Hill to move to guard if need be. That would free up Michael Heitz to go to right tackle. I don't think he's better suited for that spot instead of guard, but A.J. Ricker is going to put the best five guys out there, regardless of position. He'll look at any and all mix and match possibilities.
Defensive line: Right now it seems like the best look is Austin Teitsma, Jarrod Clements and Kenny Nelson. Joe Fotu is a guy that could move up, as he has good technique and the kind of ability and body you look for. He's still getting use to the Illinois scheme and terminology. Paul James is becoming a myth. I'd love to see what he could do if he gets everything back in order.