Spring Preview: Five Illini breakout candidates

With spring football just a month away, Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner breaks down five Illini who could break out in 2016

Carroll Phillips, DE

Senior defensive end Carroll Phillips techinically had his breakout toward the end of last season, when he broke the starting lineup. He had four tackles for loss over the final six games. With Dawuane Smoot established as one of the Big Ten's premier pass rushers, Phillips -- a 6-foot-3, 240-pound senior -- is ready to boost his production. Phillips is one of the Illini's fastest defenders and has great burst off the line of scrimmage, the latter of which is defensive line coach/defensive coordinator Mike Phair's priority. Phillips must become more consistent and more reliable against the run. But he should be a player who produces double digit tackles for loss and around half a dozen sacks.

Malik Turner, WR

All that junior wideout Malik Turner really needs is confidence. Turner has some of the best physical tools on the Illini roster. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound receiver is long, strong, athletic and fast. But he struggled early last season, catching just two passes for 15 yards over the first three weeks. But he showed his potential late in the season, finishing the year with 39 catches, 510 yards and three touchdowns -- including 19 catches for 233 yards over the final three weeks. Yes, Mikey Dudek returns as quarterback Wes Lunt's No. 1 target, but Turner takes over for NFL-bound Geronimo Allison as the big, physical target with a widecatch radius. Turner has the chance to be a pro. He can start building that resumé now.

Caleb Reams, TE

Redshirt freshman tight end Caleb Reams could have contributed last season, but head coach Bill Cubit made a future play, redshirting the Gurnee native. Reams flashed a solid skill set during fall training camp. He's thick, solidly athletic with good hands. He does not have ideal length (6-foot-3, 240 pounds) in Cubit's offense as an always-on-the-line tight end. But that doesn't mean he can't be an effective weapon. Reams actually fits quite well as a pass-catching, run-blocking H-Back out of the backfield, similar to Jon Davis (though not quite as athletic) and Tim Clary. With Tyler White likely out during spring camp as he recovers from a torn ACL, Reams will get plenty of reps. He might not be a breakout star, but he could be a breakout role player at a position the Illini lack depth.

Julian Jones, LB

Sophomore linebacker Julian Jones came to Illinois as a rangy but skinny linebacker. But after just one offseason in the weight room, he developed into one of the Illini's best-looking prospects on the hoof. He received early playing time, mostly on special teams, and flashed some exciting talent in his first seven games. But he was suspended in November following an October incident near his hometown of Atlanta. A young woman accused him of sexual conduct, he was arrested, he was sent back to Georgia and Illinois suspended him indefinitely from team activities. He remains suspended from team activities, pending resolution of the ongoing legal case. But Jones was cleared to return to campus and remains on the team roster. While the issue off the field is much more important than spring football, if he plays this spring, he has the chance to earn a starting spot. With T.J. Neal's surprise defection, two linebacker spots are wide open. And Jones would fill a big Illini need at the second level: speed.

Henry McGrew, DE

Redshirt sophomore defensive end Henry McGrew is a nice complement to Phillips. Phillips is the speed rusher. McGrew, a 6-foot-3, 250-pound sophomore, is the run stuffer. While you wish you could combine the two, McGrew gives the Illini much-needed depth at a position with little behind him. While the Illini eventually envision signees Tymir Oliver and Izon Pulley as the defensive ends of the future, 2016 and 2017 provide a huge opportunity for McGrew, who had seven tackles and 2.0 tackles for loss last season. McGrew doesn't have Phillips' burst, but he holds the point of attack and sets the edge well, which could come in handy against run-heavy teams in the physical Big Ten West.

Illini Inquirer Top Stories