Spring Preview: Five Illini freshmen to watch

Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner breaks down five Illini freshmen to watch during spring practice.

Spring Preview: Five Illini breakout candidates

Spring Preview: Five Illini who must step up

Gabe Megginson, OL

Former four-star recruit Gabe Megginson looks the part. The 6-foot-5, 300-pound offensive lineman turned down dozens of power-five conference offers to play for his state school and gives the Illini much needed strength and athleticism up front. Megginson was on the two-deep last season and could’ve contributed, but Illini coach Bill Cubit made the long-term play and redshirted the Jacksonville (Ill.) product last season. Even if he eventually projects as a tackle, Megginson enters the spring as a frontrunner for one of the two vacated starting guard spots. New offensive line coach A.J. Ricker prioritizes run blocking and promotes feistiness up front, so he should like Megginson. The redshirt freshman certainly will have some growing pains but must focus on technique this spring. He has all the physical tools.

Dre Brown, RB

Before Ke’Shawn Vaughn -- who showed up on campus in June -- proved himself worthy of his four-star recruiting ranking, Dre Brown had won the No. 2 running back job last spring. But the 5-foot-11, 205-pound DeKalb product suffered a torn ACL during noncontact drills, costing him his true freshman season. Brown brings a nice mix of size and speed. He’s not elite in either area but is a long strider with above average straight-line speed and has the muscular build to take some hits. He complements Vaughn, who is more shifty between the tackles, and should lessen the load on the Illini’s No. 1 back. This spring is about gaining confidence after the injury and continuing his progress as a blocker and receiver.

Patrick Nelson, S

Chicago native Patrick Nelson took a few reps with No. 1 defensive unit last spring. He projected as one of the Illini’s top four safeties and a special teams mainstay. But like Brown, Nelson suffered a torn ACL during a noncontact drill during spring practice and missed the 2015 season. One of the state of Illinois’ top prospects in 2015, Nelson packs a punch in run support, similar to graduated senior Clayton Fejedelem, and fits well in Mike Phair’s scheme. His focus this spring will be on recognition and coverage skills. But he will earn every chance to win the starting strong safety spot.

Jamal Milan, DT

Chicago native Jamal Milan was a breakout star during fall training camp, earning a spot in the defensive rotation. But he suffered a knee sprain during practice following the season-opening win over Kent State, missed the rest of the season and is expected receive a medical redshirt. The 6-foot-2, 310-pound defensive linemen projects as a three technique, similar to senior starter Chunky Clements. He has a great burst off the ball, solid strength and surprisingly developed hand skills. With more work under Mike Phair, Milan has a bright future -- likely as the Illini’s best defensive lineman in 2017 and beyond. But he also has an intriguing present as a fixture in the 2016 rotation.

Trenard Davis, DB

Florida native Trenard Davis had a summer of workouts with the Illini before academic issues resulted in him heading to junior college (Parkland) for the fall semester to wrap up some loose ends. Again enrolled at Illinois, the 6-foot, 195-pound defensive back could play cornerback or safety. He adds some length and physicality to the secondary, something Phair desires. He doesn’t have great straight-line speed but has quick hips and good ball skills. He probably projects best as a free safety. But in a wide-open secondary, Davis likely will find a role in the rotation and could push for a starting role.

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