Jeff George Jr.
Outside of senior starter Wes Lunt, redshirt freshman quarterback Jeff George Jr. has the most arm talent of the Illini quarterbacks. But the son of Illini great and former NFL No. 1 draft pick Jeff George finally harnessed that big arm on Saturday. George Jr. was the star of Saturday's scrimmage, throwing several touchdown passes and showing a touch that he hadn't previously. He hit his favorite target, Andrew Davis, in traffic on the seam for several big gains and touchdowns. But his best throw of the day was a soft-touch, high-arcing touchdown to running back Kendrick Foster on a wheel route that was placed beautifully over the defensive back. Redshirt sophomore Chayce Crouch, the biggest and most athletic of the QB group, has received most of the No. 2 reps but is the most inaccurate of the backup quarterbacks. Redshirt freshman Jimmy Fitzgerald has shown the most complete skillset (athleticism, running ability, solid arm, etc.), but George Jr. -- who is the skinniest of the quarterback -- may have put himself more squarely in the mix in the backup competition. No, there is no competition for QB1, where Lunt is far and away above the rest.
The junior college transfer struggled mightily last year and dropped more than a handful of passes last season. But the senior is receiving a lot of spring reps as starter Tyler White recovers from last season's torn ACL. Davis made the most of those opportunities on Saturday, especially with George Jr. Though the pair rarely play together during practice -- Davis reps mostly with Lunt and the first team while George Jr. gets mop-up reps -- they showed a great connection Saturday. Davis high-pointed several passes in traffic and came down with the ball despite taking some hits. Davis has the highest ceiling of the tight ends as a pass catcher, but he needs to gain confidence following a frustrating junior season. Saturday should help.
Senior defensive end Dawuane Smoot was a breakout star last season (15.0 tackles for loss, 8.0 sacks) and will get the attention of a lot of offenses this season. That should open up a lot of opportunity for Phillips, who has been a dominant presence so far this spring. He built on that Saturday with an early sack of Lunt (don't worry, he just grazed the quarterback with his hand). Phillips has the quickest burst off the line of scrimmage of any Illini defensive lineman and has been tough for even the proven Illini pass-protecting tackles to contain. Oh, and Smoot had a sack and several pressures, including one that forced an interception. The Illini have a potentially potent pass-rushing pair this season, which should help the inexperienced secondary and linebackers.
Cameron Watkins, the high school teammate of sophomore star running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn, is starting to make a name for himself this spring. While other defensive backs, including Chris James and Darius Mosely, pulled down some interceptions, Watkins continues to solidify himself as a threat to steal the open starting cornerback job alongside junior Jaylen Dunlap. Watkins, a redshirt freshman, has track-star speed, long arms and showed the physicality on Saturday -- crushing a few running backs -- that the Illini coaches want in a press corner. Watkins likely will have some bumps along the way, but he looks like a Big Ten talent.
The sophomore may be the most talented linebacker on the roster and that showed on Saturday. He has great range and athleticism and the ball found his hands several times. He showed play-making ability after a few interceptions, reeling off long returns. He missed the start of spring practice due to an ongoing legal issue. But since he was cleared to play by the athletic department and coaching staff, Jones has shown the raw ability to make a sizable impact this fall. He's still working mostly with the second unit but has the athleticism and versatility to eventually crash the starting group.