RANTOUL, Ill. - More and more these days, college coaches are shutting down media access to team practices.
This is partly due to paranoia. Some coaches think rivals will sneak into practice incognito and steal secrets: plays, formations, personnel groupings, etc. Though, to be fair, that type of spy work has been known to happen before (Spy-gate, anyone?).
This is also partly due to a lack of trust of the media. Some media members may indeed betray that trust, but most understand a trade off must occur for that access.
We media shouldn't divulge too much about play formations, trick plays, etc., that may compromise competitive balance. And the best policy is to not report any injuries you may witness until you ask the coach about it. By doing that, 1) you better know the severity of the injury 2) the coaches can notify the player's parents of a severe injury before it goes viral. But I've always thought opening practice to the media allowed reporters to be more knowledgeable about the team they cover, which usually leads to more accurate reporting of said team.
Illinois coach Tim Beckman closes most of his practices (outside of stretching) but keeps open his teams' sessions at Camp Rantoul. The fourth-year coach has gradually extended the team's NFL training camp-like stay 20 miles north of Champaign from one week (in Year One) to two weeks this season, allowing us media to learn more about the 2015 Illini.
After more than 20 hours of watching pratice, here's what the Illini learned about the Illini offense.
- Junior quarterback Wes Lunt is the most talented passer in the Big Ten West division. The 6-foot-5, 225-pound signal caller consistently makes throws that 'wow' you, the type of throws many NFL quarterbacks struggle to make. He's got the arm strength to make back-shoulder throws that only his receivers can catch. But the thing that separates Lunt from many great "throwers" is his accuracy. I didn't log every pass attempt he made at Rantoul, but I can only remember one interception -- a sideline throw that was held up by a 30-40 mph wind gust. Lunt routinely zips, lofts or drops passes into small windows. Remember, this is a quarterback who had a 63.5% completion percentage last and a 14-to-3 touchdown to interception ratio last season. Lunt's weakness, of course, is his lack of mobility. But fully healed from a leg fracture that derailed his 2014 season, Lunt is capable of making subtle lateral moves and steps up in the pocket to avoid pressure. Still, whether fair or not, Lunt wears the label of "injury-prone" because he hasn't stayed healthy for an entire season dating back to his high school -- due to a myriad of injuries. Lunt isn't the prototypical vocal leader, like say Nathan Scheelhaase. But he has become noticeably more vocal lately. He even yelled some constructive criticism at a few wideouts after mistakes during Friday's practice. If Lunt stays healthy, he has the talent to lift the Illini to a surprise season. If not...
- ...it could be a long season for the Illini. No one could've predicted Reilly O'Toole's hero finish to 2014. Until he led the Illini to three wins in five games to earn bowl eligibility, O'Toole had struggled with every opportunity. But, he was -- at the very least -- experienced. Behind Lunt, no other quarterback on the Illini roster has played a down of Division I football, let alone Big Ten football. The three freshmen quarterbacks currently are led by redshirt freshman Chayce Crouch. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound second-year player is the biggest and most athletic of the backup bunch, and easily the most dangerous runner. He can make something out of nothing and scramble outside of the pocket. But if you charted Crouch's effectiveness during training camp on a line graph, it'd look somewhat like the readout of a healthy heart on an heart-rate machine. Crouch is the weakest thrower of the four Illini scholarship quarterbacks and his accuracy left a lot to be desired. Crouch must make faster decisions and progress through his reads quicker. Like the true freshmen quarterbacks, he holds onto the ball too long and takes too many sacks. We must remember that Crouch is just a redshirt freshman. O'Toole wasn't productive or ready to lead a Big Ten team as a true sophomore. Crouch needs more seasoning. But if the injury-prone Lunt goes down again, he'll be put in the pressure cooker right away.
- True freshman Jimmy Fitzgerald probably doesn't do any one thing better than another quarterback in the group (Lunt strongest arm, Crouch best running ability), but he does everything well. He's big (6-foot-3, 220 pounds), athletic, smart and has decent arm strength. He looks fully recovered from a torn ACL, though he wears a brace on the knee. He made some impressive throws throughout camp, between expected moments of inconsistency. Fitzgerald at times looks like Lunt's most likely heir apparent. He reminds me a lot of the quarterbacks offensive coordinator Bill Cubit coached at Western Michigan, specifically Alex Carder -- a solid-even-if-unspectacular signal caller for the Broncos. Like Crouch, Fitzgerald doesn't yet have a mastery of the offense and must adjust to the speed of the college level. Ideally, Illinois will be able to redshirt Fitzgerald. But if Lunt gets hurt and Crouch proves ineffective or is injured, Fitzgerald may be forced into early action (he repped a bit with the starters on Friday as Lunt got a rest).
- True freshman Jeff George Jr. has the second best arm of the group. He can sling it with a tight spiral and has a great understanding of the game. But he doesn't have much throwing experience. He can move a bit in the pocket but is not as good of an athlete as Crouch or Fitzgerald and has a much slighter frame (6-foot-3, 200 pounds). George has some talent. Is he good enough to make a Big Ten impact? Too early to tell. But he has the arm. He just needs some time to develop. The Illini have three freshmen who all had moments during camp. It'll be interesting to see which one turns into the future starter. Illinois just hopes that that future is delayed for a couple seasons..
- Senior Josh Ferguson is one of the most versatile weapons in the Big Ten. He's not the best running back in the conference -- he's not a bell-cow back -- but he's a really, really good one. And he may be one of the best slot receivers in the conference. Ferguson is the Illini's best big-play threat and is dangerous in space. Ferguson's biggest past issue has been staying on the field through the entire game. He's battled cramping issues in the past (he often drinks pickle juice before games to combat it) and also has suffered injuries in the past. The Illini would like to keep his workload in check, but he is the offense's best game breaker. If another back can step up and handle 10-12 carries a game, the Illini will use Ferguson more in the slot to fill in for the injured Mikey Dudek. Ferguson is 1,252 total yards from becoming the Illini's career all-purpose yard leader. Assuming health, I'd assume he tops that number this season with about a 65/35 rushing-to-receiving yard split.
- The Illini freshmen class of running backs is exciting. Dre Brown emerged as the leading candidate for the No. 2 spot during spring practice before suffering a torn ACL. The DeKalb native has Big Ten size with a long stride. He is a good fit in a zone-blocking scheme. But Nashville native Ke'Shawn Vaughn may be an even better fit. The four-star freshman arrived this summer with a lot of hype and so far has backed it up. Vaughn isn't the biggest guy (5-foot-10, 205 pounds) but he has good strength for a freshman. What makes him special is his vision. He picks his hole quickly and has great one-cut-and-go ability to burst through it. He might not have Ferguson's ability to run away from every defender but he can pick up chunks of yards at a time. He's also a willing and decent pass blocker, usually a part of the game in which freshmen struggle. Illinois thinks it may have a special one here. Vaughn suffered a minor ankle injury during last Saturday's scrimmage but has been full-go at practice the past few days.
- Junior Henry Enyenihi had a rough spring. He didn't show the physicality the staff desired. But the 5-foot-11, 215-pound junior college transfer looked much less tentative at Rantoul and looked capable of contributing as an in-between-the-tackles runner. He won't run away from many defenders but he has a better-than-expected burst. He's a solid No. 3.
- Before suffering a season-ending torn labrum in his shoulder, freshman Reggie Corbin had shown some flashes of being a Josh Ferguson lite. He's small but has quickness and straightline speed. Eventually, he'll be a nice change-of-pace back for Vaughn and Brown. Since Corbin's injury, senior cornerback V'Angelo Bentley has repped with the offense and is dangerous with the ball in his hands. Bentley already has a kick return for a TD, punt return for a TD, fumble recovery for a TD and an interception return TD (the only player in Illinois history to do so). How cool would it be if he added a rushing and receiving touchdown (and maybe a passing TD?) to that list?
- Sophomomore Kendrick Foster moves up to the No. 4 spot. Despite a stellar high school career at Peoria Richwoods, Foster is small (5-foot-8, 200 pounds) with subpar speed, though he is strong. Cubit has mentioned senior walk-on Cam Tucker a few times at camp. Despite some injuries, the Illini depth at running back is OK -- as long as the top-three stay healthy.
- Mikey Dudek's injury was an obvious blow. The sophomore is one of just six Illini to top 1,000 receiving yards in a season -- and he did it as a freshman. The 5-foot-11 fan favorite not only is a playmaker (speed to burn and athleticism to go up and get it) but he's a safety valve as well. I've heard mixed feedback on whether or not he'll return this season after suffering a torn ACL this spring. Dudek has been running straight lines for a while and started lateral work the first week in Rantoul. If he is medically cleared to play by the Big Ten opener against Nebraska or the following week at Iowa, I'd imagine Dudek will return. But he may not be the 2014 Dudek until he gets over the mental hurdle of a traumatic knee injury. But if Dudek isn't ready to go until Week 8 or so, he and his family may decide it best for his long-term future to redshirt the season. The staff -- which is in a make-or-break season -- obviously wants him back but shouldn't pressure Dudek if he isn't ready.
- Even without Dudek, Illinois has a true No. 1 receiver. Senior Geronimo Allison has been simply stellar at camp. He and Lunt are a sometimes indefensible duo. The 6-foot-3 Allison has a huge catching radius that meshes so well with Lunt's ability to throw to the back shoulder on the sidelines. Allison can leap over defenders and high-point passes. We saw flashes of it last season but a knee injury at Washington -- and Lunt's injury troubles -- limited Allison's production the rest of the season. Allison likely won't match Dudek's quantity of catches because he plays on the perimeter, but he still is one of the Big Ten West division's better receivers.
- Sophomore Malik Turner has Allison-like potential but hasn't broken through yet. Like Allison, Turner has great size (6-foot-3, 200 pounds) and a wide catching radius. But Turner, one of the team's top athletes, is really inconsistent. He must continue to refine his route running and footwork. Turner has moments of looking like a future No. 1 but still more moments of looking like a young wideout finding his way. In this offense, he still may be ready for a breakout, but it's not a certainty.
- Dionte Taylor takes over in the slot position for Dudek. I dubbed the 6-foot junior a breakout candidate earlier this week. Taylor doesn't have top-notch speed but he is quick in and out of his breaks -- a must for the slot position. His hands are somewhat inconsistent (he has great days and bad days). But in the slot position, he'll have plenty of opportunity and could be a 30-40 catch threat.
- But Taylor may be pushed by Desmond Cain. The 5-foot-11 freshman was recruited to play defensive back but switched to receiver due to injuries and a big senior prep season as a wideout. Cain has great quickness, pretty reliable hands and has caught on quickly in the slot position. In four wide receiver sets, he often is the fourth wideout, so it looks like he will play this season. If Taylor struggles, Cain may see an even bigger opportunity.
- Freshman Sam Mays also has repped with the second string. The 6-foot-3 Texas native looks like a clone of Allison: long and really athletic with solid hands. Mays could help this season, but it'd probably be a small impact. So Illinois may decide to redshirt him and ride it out until senior receiver Justin Hardee returns from a foot injury a few games in to the season. Hardee (6-foot-1) is one of the fastest players on the team and looked poised to start before suffering a foot fracture. Another Texas native, sophomore Marchie Murdock, always seems to produce nice moments during training camp. The 6-foot, third-year player isn't great at any one thing but looks like a capable backup and should be able to fill in as the fifth wideout until Hardee comes back, possibly allowing the Illini to redshirt Mays.
- Similar to junior safety Caleb Day, junior wideout Tyrin Stone-Davis looks the part but just hasn't put it together. He drops too many passes and struggles with his concentration too often. The junior college transfer currently is probably the sixth or seventh guy in the rotation and likely won't play much in meaningful games -- even if the talent is there. Junior wideout Zach Grant, Lunt's high school teammate at Rochester, is a decent depth piece but has been passed at the slot position by Taylor and Cain.
- At no other position is Illinois less experienced than at tight end. Tyler White takes over as the starter. The 6-foot-5, 235-pound junior is a physical specimen and is by far the position's best blocker. But his hands have been very suspect through his first few years. White missed most of the first week of practice with a bad case of the flu but had some really nice moments as a receiver mixed with more moments of rusty hands. White won't be a go-to target but he's a good redzone target. And if he softens up those hands, he can be a pretty solid three-down contributor.
- Junior college transfer Andrew Davis is the best receiving threat of the group. The 6-foot-6, 235-pound target looks like a basketball player and has soft hands, but a hamstring injury basically robbed him of training camp. That probably will limit his immediate impact. He's a willing blocker but needs to add more strength. He'll likely struggle with the physicality in the Big Ten early. Davis has a pretty intriguing ceiling. But after missing camp, it may take him a little longer to reach it.
- Freshman Caleb Reams was one of the surprises of camp. Illinois would like to redshirt him but the 6-foot-3, 240-pound Gurnee native displayed a pretty complete skill set (strong and physical with good hands and solid hieght). He looks the part of a future starter and may play this season if injuries occur.
- Fellow JUCO transfer Ainslie Johnson struggled during camp. The Illini were hoping for a replacement for the athletic, versatile Jon Davis in the H-back role, but Johnson (6-foot-2, 230 pounds) has struggled to adjust to the speed and physicality of this level. Senior Tim Clary is the better option at H-back. Clary has the size (6-foot-2, 245 pounds) and experience to make an impact as a blocker and drop-down target in the flat.
- Make a list of Illinois' best/most important players that casual Illini fans don't know about and sophomore right tackle Christian DiLauro may top the list. Last season, DiLauro started seven games as a redshirt freshman and held his own. So far, he's the best offensive lineman recruited in the first three years under Tim Beckman at Illinois. The 6-foot-5, 300-pound Ohio native was an undersized prospect and played defensive line and tight end in high school, but the Illini liked his footwork and rolled the dice that he'd keep his quickness with added strength. It paid off. DiLauro is the team's best pass blocker and has a bit of nastiness in the run game. He may not reach his high ceiling (NFL?) this season, but he's a Big Ten quality starting tackle.
- Junior left tackle Austin Schmidt has an interesting body type. He's got a strong upper body and extremely long arms, which make him a very solid pass blocker. But he has small legs and calves, which limit his effectiveness in the run game (which is why DiLauro is on the right side). Still, Schmidt (6-foot-6, 300 pounds) looks like a solid starter and had a very consistent camp. Schmidt was pushed into early playing time his first two seasons and started the last four games at left tackle for the injured Simon Cvijanovic. The Illini tackles aren't a terrorizing duo yet. But with another year of development in the books, they should be an improvement over the last few seasons.
- Senior Pat Flavin was a starter at right tackle out of camp last season but only started the first two games. Flavin is probably better suited at guard but at least offers experience as a swing tackle. Unlike DiLauro, Flavin wasn't able to keep his quickness after packing on the pounds in college.
- For the first time under Beckman, Illinois added two Big Ten-sized tackles in one recruiting class. Freshman Adam Solomon (6-foot-5,315 pounds) is a mammoth and a physical run blocker. The staff will redshirt him and develop him for the future. Four-star freshman Gabe Megginson, though, already has elevated to the second string. The Illini hope to redshirt the Jacksonville native, but his strength and physicality might make him the team's third-best tackle on the team already. He needs to continue to work on his footwork and technique (he can lunge sometimes in pass pro), but if injuries occur, Megginson might see the field this season.
- Junior college transfer Jordan Fagan has slipped a bit behind Megginson and also would benefit from a redshirt season. Fagan has a good frame (6-foot-6, 295 pounds) and OK feet, but he must add strength. He appears to have the body type to put on some pounds.
- Don't worry about senior guard Ted Karras. He's a team leader and Mr. Reliable on this line. He looks fully recovered after suffering a torn ACL last fall. Karras is the physical, nasty, blue-collar interior lineman for whom every team is searching. He and DiLauro make for a formidable right side of the line.
- Junior center Joe Spencer is solid. He's a great communicator up front. While he's not as nasty or as physical as Karras, he knows his responsibilities and is a very solid pass protector. The Illini would love to see Spencer take another leap, but they at least know they can rely on some solid blocking out of the Ohio native.
- Left guard is the biggest concern on the line. Chris Boles, whose only game experience in four seasons at Illinois includes three games on the field -goal protection unit, would be an amazing story if he seizes the left guard starting spot and keeps it. I wrote about Boles as the unlikeliest of breakout candidates. But Boles has repped with the first string throughout training camp and looks ... OK. He's a physical player and pretty solid in the run game, though he does struggle at times when he has to pull or trap. His biggest test will come during pass protection. His foot quickness is below average and his technique can suffer when he gets tired. If he can be serviceable, it's a huge win for the Illini, however.
- Nick Allegretti was the starting left guard most of spring practice, but he doesn't appear quite ready for the starting gig. Allegretti is a future starter. He's got a nice blend of size (6-foot-4, 205 pounds) and decent quickness. He probably projects better at center, though, than left guard -- which is why he's currently repping as the backup center. Allegretti also reps at guard but needs to add strength and fine-tune his technique. Next season, Allegretti may take over at center with Spencer switching to guard to replace Karras. For now, Allegretti provides good depth at center and guard.
- Zach Heath is the most playing-time ready of the three new junior college offensive linemen. He's strong and physical. But he missed all of last season with a shoulder injury. He and senior Chris O'Connor may not be what you want in starters but both give the Illini players capable of stepping up in a pinch and giving serviceable reps. JUCO transfer Connor Brennan probably won't add much this season. Freshman Zeke Martin (6-foot-5, 285 pounds) has the frame of a tackle but likely projects as an interior guy. He'll redshirt and add strength. Megginson may play at guard if injuries occur.