Spring Preview: Five Illini who must step up

Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner breaks down five Illini who must step up this spring

ICYMI - Spring Preview: Five Illini breakout candidates

Nick Allegretti, OL

Last spring, Nick Allegretti had the chance to solidify a starting spot. He did not, eventually losing a starting guard job to senior Chris Boles. The 6-foot-4, 305-pound rising sophomore still received reps in a the Illini offensive line rotation (a few series per game). That experience could give him a head start to a significant spring under new offensive line coach A.J. Ricker. Allegretti has the size, physicality and nastiness Ricker likes, but the game moved a bit too fast for Allegretti last season. He struggled with the mental aspect of the game and must continue to improve his technique. Allegretti likely will be the heir apparent to senior center Joe Spencer, but the Illini need him to step up at guard this season. If he doesn't, junior college product Zach Heath, who missed most of last season with a knee injury, or freshman Adam Solomon could push him for the starting spot.

Andrew Davis, TE

Iowa Western product Andrew Davis came to Illinois as one of the top-rated junior college tight ends and was expected to make an immediate impact. While he played a role due to injuries, he proved unready to be a productive Big Ten player. He caught five passes for 26 yards and a touchdown in 2015. But he struggled most in the run game. Despite gaining 15 pounds and his willingness to be physical, Davis just did not have the strength to hold up against Big Ten defensive lineman. But all hope is not lost. Davis has the height and hands to be a threat in the passing game and the attitude to contribute as a blocker. He just has to gain about 15 more pounds. With Tyler White likely out all spring as he recovers from a torn ACL, Davis will get plenty of reps.

Tre Watson, LB

Redshirt sophomore Tre Watson figured to be in the linebacker mix entering this spring. But following T.J. Neal's defection and Julian Jones' legal issues, Watson's emergence becomes a necessity. Watson showed flashes of Neal-like ability last season, finishing with 21 tackles and 1.0 tackles for loss in a backup role during his first season. He isn't the fastest and he isn't the biggest, but Watson has good instincts and is physical. He might not be a star this fall, but this spring could set a good foundation for him to be a reliable leader in the middle of the 2016 defense -- behind a strong defensive line.

Caleb Day, DB

Senior defensive back Caleb Day came to Illinois with some hype. He is one of the fastest and most athletic players on the Illini roster. But the 6-foot-1, 205-pound senior has made little on-the-field impact in his first three seasons -- though he made some nice special teams plays last season -- and was suspended the first three games of last season due to a violation of team rules. Day has been a "breakout candidate" the past few seasons. But it's put-up-or-shut-up time for the senior. He will play a big role this fall due to the Illini's lack of experience in the secondary. But where will he play (he could shift again from safety to cornerback)? And how effective will he play? He certainly has the physical ability (speed, height, length and quickness) to be a good Big Ten defensive back, and Illinois needs him to finally become one.

Jaylen Dunlap, CB

Speaking of speed and length, junior cornerback Jaylen Dunlap has plenty of both. At times last fall, Dunlap looked like a breakout performer. But he never broke past Darius Mosely on former defensive coordinator Tim Banks' depth chart. With new defensive coordinator Mike Phair prioritizing length, physicality and speed, this feels like Dunlap's time to shine. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound junior is a likely starter but Caleb Day and junior college transfer Ahmari Hayes also figure to be in the mix. Dunlap must show more consistency this spring to win the job.

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