Spring Preview: Five important Illini backups

Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner breaks down five Illini backups who could play important roles in 2016

So far in our spring previews, we've provided five potential breakout candidates, five who must step up and five freshmen to watch.

Today, we'll focus on five backups who could play or fill important  roles. There have been some backups mentioned in previous previews, including TE Caleb Reams, RB Dre Brown, DT Jamal Milan and DE Henry McGrew. But here are five more backups/rotation players who could play or fill important roles for the 2016 Illini.

Chayce Crouch, QB

The storyline of the 2015 offseason was whether oft-injured starting quarterback Wes Lunt could stay healthy. It turned out that Lunt was one of the few offensive weapons who played all 12 games. Still, Lunt's history and lack of mobility suggests he's always a risk to miss a few games. Redshirt sophomore Chayce Crouch again enters spring as the No. 2. He received mop-up duties last season, showing the strengths and weaknesses he showed last spring and summer. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound Ohio native showed off his running skills, running for 96 yards and a touchdown. But his arm is wobbly and inaccurate. He completed 15 of 34 passes (44.1%) for 160 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. The offense changes with Crouch, but he needs to take a step forward in his passing. While he's a great runner, he might be the worst passer of the scholarship quarterbacks. And with no worries of burning a redshirt seasons, redshirt freshman Jimmy Fitzgerald -- who is solid-but-not-great at most traits -- could push Crouch this spring, while strong-armed-but-skinny redshirt freshman Jeff George Jr. also will get a shot. Crouch, though, has the most reps under his belt, both in games and practice.

Teko Powell, DT

Senior -- that's what he's listed as on the official roster though he qualified for a second medical redshirt waiver -- Teko Powell has played just  20 games in his first four years, including just three the last two seasons. Powell has suffered a fractured fifth metatarsal in his right foot three times in the past two years. He received a medical hardship waiver after playing just three games in 2014. Illinois will have solid interior depth without Powell. Senior starters Chunky Clements and Rob Bain return, talented freshman Jamal Milan returns from a medical redshirt and redshirt sophomore Tito Odenigbo provides depth.  Also, fifth-year transfer Gimel President can shift inside on passing downs. Given his injury history, Powell cannot be counted on and Illinois must be careful with his reps in practice. But if somehow he stays healthy, he will give them another talented, physical rotation piece and make defensive tackle a huge strength for the Illini. Powell, one of the program's more talented defensive tackles of the past few seasons, can play both nose tackle and the three technique. 

Adam Solomon, OL

Like classmate Gabe Megginson, redshirt freshman Adam Solomon certainly looks the part. Since he arrived to campus last summer, the 6-foot-5, 315-pound offensive lineman made the Illini look better coming off the bus. He also plays with the physicality Illinois needs. Now, we'll see what new offensive line coach Luke Butkus can mold this large piece of clay into. Megginson and redshirt sophomore Nick Allegretti -- who projects to the Illini's future center -- will get the first shots at the guard spots vacated by graduated seniors Ted Karras and Chris Boles. Junior college transfer Zach Heath also figures into the mix, but he likely will miss most of the spring as he recovers from a knee injury. That provides a big opportunity for Solomon, who projects later on in his career as a tackle. The Indiana native needs some technique work but he, like Megginson, would make the Illini look more like a Big Ten offensive line.

Mike Svetina, LB

Senior linebacker Mike Svetina actually may now be a starter. No offense to Svetina, but that's a scary thought given that he's played only six games over the last two seasons. He missed the 2014 season with a foot injury and missed the first six games of 2015 due to reaggravation of that foot injury. Like defensive tackle Teko Powell, the Illini seemingly shouldn't count on health for Svetina, who totaled 97 tackles in his first two seasons at Illinois. But their options appear limited. The status of talented sophomore Julian Jones still remains unclear following a charge of sexual assault last fall. He is on campus and taking classes but is suspended indefinitely from team activities until the legal process runs its course. Three freshmen arrive during the summer, including talented Maryland product Dele' Harding. Barring some shifting of positions, the only other options on the strongside this spring -- James Crawford will play the weakside and Tre Watson is slotted in the middle -- appears to be unproven redshirt sophomore Austin Roberts and walk-on Nathan Echard, who played H-Back/tight end last season.

Justin Hardee, WR

Senior wideout Justin Hardee really isn't a backup. The Illini will employ a four-, five- or six-receiver rotation depending on how many they trust. Hardee likely would have been a starter last year, but a broken foot cost him his season. And Hardee -- who had 47 catches, 527 yards and three touchdowns over his first three seasons -- was an underrated loss. He provides the Illini with a stretch-the-field threat it so sorely needed. He should complement slot receivers Mike DudekDesmond Cain and Dionte Taylor and bigger, longer targets Malik Turner and Sam Mays. He'll definitely improve the team's speed and depth.


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