Lovie Smith seems at ease. Well, that's kind of his personality, but the college game includes a lot of teaching. And at his core, Smith is a teacher and a pretty good one. He's got a big task, but I think he'll translate well to leading a college football program of about a hundred 18- to 23-year-old men.. Some also thought Smith may be combative or closed off to the media after his sometimes turbulent relationship with Chicago, but he's been nothing but gracious so far. Of course, he hasn't lost a game yet. There are certain things he doesn't want to talk about -- even if us media members have to ask about injuries -- but it's been courteous so far during this honeymoon period.
The defense seems a bit ahead of the offense. That's usually the case during the spring, especially when switching schemes. But each side of the ball has its days, which can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on which way you look at it.
Position groups Illinois should feel good about: defensive line, quarterback, running back.
Position groups Illinois fans should feel OK about: receiver and offensive line.
Position groups Illinois fans should worry about: tight end, secondary and linebacker.
Position group I have no idea about: special teams. Hard to get a gauge on this group until game action.
Sometimes I think what could've been the next few seasons if Tim Beckman didn't have to play some guys as true freshman. Next season would look a lot better if Austin Schmidt, Dawuane Smoot, Jarrod Clements and Caleb Day all had redshirted instead of making minimal impacts in 2012. Beckman needed some available to play due to the thin roster he inherited, but he and Cubit both did a good job of not burning guys' eligibility in subsequent years.
The defensive line will be really good this season. But the linebackers and secondary will go through some growing pains. The linebackers and secondary could be pretty good in a season or two, but the defensive line will take a huge -- I mean, huge! -- step back in 2017. So goes Illinois football.
There is no quarterback competition. Not for QB1 anyway. Wes Lunt is head and shoulders above the rest of the group. Yes, he's immobile. But he stiill can make any throw on the field and usually does it accurately (his 56.1 percent rate last season was largely due to 60 receiver drops). He must do a better job of patrolling the pocket, and it'll be interesting to see if this staff is as cautious with him. The past staff wanted him to get the ball out quick and not take big hits on sacks, which is partly why it looks like he goes down so easily. Is Lunt a first-round NFL prospect? Unlikely. But he reminds me a lot of Indiana quarterback Nate Sudfeld -- a mid-round draft prospect -- and you can win plenty of college games with that type of quarterback, as long as he receives some help. If Lunt were to get injured, this team's ceiling goes from about seven wins to about four or five wins. As offensive coordinator Garrick McGee said, hopefully Illini fans don't have to find out which QB won the QB2 job this season.
Illinois continues to recruit athletic quarterbacks, and it makes you wonder where the current backups fit in for the future. Chayce Crouch can run but can't pass. This sounds crazy due to this guy's collegiate success, but Crouch reminds me a lot of Jordan Lynch: strong, athletic runner with a wobbly arm. Crouch could run havoc in the MAC, but those NIU-type offenses don't play so well in the Big Ten. Jimmy Fitzgerald is solid or better at everything but doesn't do one thing great yet. Jeff George Jr. has a big arm and had a great day Saturday, but it's the outlier so far. He must maintain that accuracy and continue to add strength to his skinny frame. Freshman Eli Peters is at least a year or two away from getting in the mix, though like Fitzgerald, he has an intriguing set of skills. I still think Fitzgerald has the best overall skill set for the future.
Ke'Shawn Vaughn and Dre Brown are going to get a ton of touches. McGee wants to run the football, and I love that and Lunt should love that. But does McGee have the personnel? The offensive line is excited about trying to prove it is more capable of run blocking than it's showed the past few seasons. McGee certainly has two young running backs capable of big impacts. Vaughn is the workhorse. He does everything well and gained a lot of experience as a bellcow back when Josh Ferguson was out for four Big Ten games. The Illini have been careful with Dre Brown this spring as he works his way back from last spring's torn ACL. But he looks the part. He'smost dangerous in space and has really shown a lot of upside as a receiver out of the backfield. His biggest question is how he deals with Big Ten physicality between the tackles. The Illini need those two to stay healthy, though. Scatback Reggie Corbin and Kendrick Foster, an undersized bruiser, have shown some flashes, but neither has the upside of Vaughn or Brown. Both look like they can contribute though.
The top four of the offensive line looks established: Austin Schmidt (quickside) and Christian DiLauro (strongside) at the tackles, Joseph Spencer at center and Nick Allegretti at one of the guard spots. I've been a big fan of DiLauro for a while. He's quick, nasty and stronger. But I've really fallen for Schmidt lately. He probably was the most reliable lineman last season and is a pain in the butt for pass rushers due to his good feet and long arms (36 inches). I think he at least has a chance to play in the pass-happy pros. Spencer is solid and a leader in the middle. Allegretti has taken a step forward this spring, and finally looks ready to start making the impact fans expect out of a recruit who went to the Army All-American game.
The other guard spot seems like a competition between redshirt freshman Gabe Megginson and senior Connor Brennan. That battle reminds me of last season's battle between Allegretti and Chris Boles. Allegretti, a redshirt freshman at the time, clearly had the higher ceiling and brighter future. But Boles was more consistent, even if he was a bit a limited. He provided a serviceable option. Megginson has the size and athleticism advantage and could be a four-year starter. But he's inconsistent, which is to be expected. Most linemen need two years before they're really ready to make an impact, especially in the Big Ten.
Gabe Megginson and Adam Solomon both look like guards to me -- at least right now. Both look like Wisconsin linemen: huge. Both will probably play tackle at some point. Both are repping at tackle for large chunks of the spring. Solomon is massive and could be a road-grading run blocker. He also has longer arms but needs to continue refining his technique and footwork. Megginson has the size/athleticism combo you want in a future NFL prospect, but he doesn't have the longest arms (neither does DiLauro, though). Also, both likely will play tackle in the future because Illinois doesn't have a lot of tackle prospects in the pipeline. Maybe Jake Cerny and Eddy Fish?
Tight end is a problem. They are a big part of McGee's offense. Right now, they just don't have the bodies. I loved what I saw from Andrew Davis in the open spring practice. That could go a long way for his confidence. I've continually said that I hadn't given up on him because he has the potential to be a dangerous pass catcher. But most of his big day came against backup defenders. It's a step in the right direction for Davis but he must continue to build on it to make a Big Ten impact. Tyler White is coming off a torn ACL. The Illini need him as an in-line blocker. What the Illini really lack is a "superback," the hybrid tight end/fullback/H-Back. Caleb Reams and Ainslie Johnson are built in the mold of that position but neither are proven blockers. Illinois needs to find a Jay Prosch or Dan Vitale kind of recruit to fill this role. Freshman Andrew Trainer is built like a taller White, and Zarrian Holcombe could be a really good receiver with the potential to bulk up to about 250 pounds. One of Trainer and Holcombe will likely play, but you'd love to redshirt both if you could.
A lot is riding on Malik Turner this season. After another season-ending injury to Mike Dudek, Illinois has a solid group of receivers as long as it doesn't suffer another injury. But few on the depth chart have as high of a ceiling this season as Turner. The 6-foot-3 junior is one of the top athletes on the team, has a long catch radius and can be a key blocker in McGee's scheme. The Springfield product had a great end to last season after gaining some confidence (his biggest issue early in the season). I don't know if his numbers will top Geronimo Allison's production from last season (65 catches, 882 yards, three touchdowns), but I think Turner can be a better overall player. With Dudek out, the Illini need a No. 1 and Turner seems like the one guy with that potential. Sophomore Sam Mays looks like a younger Allison and has a high ceiling but is still struggling with consistency and confidence. Justin Hardee gives the team speed, but the senior isn't that refined of a route runner. Florida products Desmond Cain and Dionte Taylor should give the Illini a quantity of catches but they need to make bigger plays to help supplant Dudek's would-be production. Zach Grant's history with Lunt -- they played together at Rochester is a bit overrated -- but a window has opened for the walk-on and he's had a strong spring. Expect him to crack the receiver rotation if he can hold off freshmen Dominic Thieman and Mj McGriff this fall.
This defensive line could be really good -- and Illinois needs it to be. Dawuane Smoot already is established as one of the Big Ten's top returning pass rushers. With his combination of strength and burst, he'll be an NFL pass rusher. But Carroll Phillips has been even tougher for the established Illini offensive tackles to contain. While Phillips isn't as stout against the run as Smoot, he has a better burst off the line of scrimmage. Phillips bounced around his first year between end and linebacker, but he's at home with a simple task: get to the quarterback. Jarrod Clements fits everything Lovie wants in a three technique. He's quick off the ball and disruptive in the backfield. Senior nose tackle Rob Bain hasn't done much this spring due to an injury, which has provided a lot of opportunity for Tito Odenigbo. The redshirt sophomore isn't nearly as strong as Bain but he has a bit more athleticism, which Lovie desires. He should be a solid contributor this season before taking over fully as a starter next season. The second string should look a lot better this fall. Defensive tackles Jamal Milan and Teko Powell have been limited due to injuries -- I still think any reps this fall from Powell are a bonus -- and Auburn transfer Gimel President arrives to add depth on the edge (and maybe on the interior during passing downs).
Linebacker is a problem. Listen, I like the futures of Julian Jones and Tre Watson -- and maybe even the rangy, athletic Justice Williams -- but you're counting on them to win against Big Ten running attacks this season. I think the linebackers' athleticism and speed have improved but it's a group that lacks strength and experience. I do think James Crawford is a great fit in this scheme as the weakside linebacker, usually the linebacker who makes the most plays. He has good range and sideline-to-sideline speed and has bulked up a bit. The four incoming freshmen will have opportunities this fall, especially Dele' Harding.
The secondary is a big question too, but there are some intriguing talents. Taylor Barton is a solid, reliable starter at safety. Senior free safety Caleb Day and junior cornerback Jaylen Dunlap both seem locked in as starters and ooze untapped potential as upperclassmen. Both add length and range to a secondary that lacked those qualities last season. Redshirt freshman Cameron Watkins also has opened eyes this spring. Most considered him the throw-in of a Pearl Cohn packaged deal to land Vaughn. But Watkins has shown he's not just a track star, but he has some intriguing football traits. He's long and made some big hits during Saturday's open practice. Length and physicality are two traits Lovie wants out of cornerbacks. Senior Darius Mosely looks entrenched as one of the top-three cornerbacks but lacks the upside of Watkins and struggled against Big Ten speed and height last season. Dillan Cazley seems to have found a role in nickel and dime subpackages. Cazley (5-foot-9) is short but plays physical. Darwyn Kelly and Julian Hylton are getting second-team reps at safety along with Patrick Nelson. Freshmen Trenard Davis and Nelson were favorites of the last staff but seem to be struggling to find a spot in the rotation right now.
Recruiting is going slow. I'm not worried yet. The Illini need time to establish their staff and strategy. But the Illini are far behind. They're still evaluating a lot of prospects other staffs have invested in for months or even a year or more. A delayed spring practice schedule also has delayed their schedule to get on the road recruiting for the evaluation period. Smith's hire gives the Illini a higher potential on the recruiting trail But the Illini didn't instantly pass Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska in recruiting. This will take time ... and, eventually, wins. Illinois wants to get the ball rolling. They'd love for it to be someone like Micah Awodiran or Olalere Oladipo, but both in-state defenders likely will wait until the summer to make a decision.
The Illini are shooting for the stars a bit, and Smith's hire has opened a lot of doors. Illinois likely will land a few difference-makers (especially out of state?) that Cubit's staff wouldn't have had a chance at. A handful of those players each year would change Illinois football. But the staff may be in danger of falling into a similar trap of previous Illinois staffs: waiting to prioritize solid, in-state prospects thinking they can land better from out of state. Zook did this, chasing D.C. and Florida prospects. Beckman did this, chasing Ohio prospects. But during the fall, they all come back to those solid in-state three-star prospects (think prospects ranked Nos. 15-35 in the state) expecting those prospects to have some allegiance to Illinois. That didn't work for Zook nor Beckman. Few in-state players, especially those in Chicagoland and St. Louis, have allegiance to Illinois. It might behoove Illinois to prioritize guys like Isaac Hawn, John Mitchell, Caylon May, Juawan Treadwell, Jamir Whitelow and Kendrick Green. Now, Illinois has interest in all those players. But they want to see all in camps before going all out for. You just hope those prospects haven't been turned off by Illinois' slow play or that they have blown up by then -- and more interested in more aggressive pursuers. Again, it's far from time to panic about 2017. The staff has time. They've just had less time than most, and five of the state's top eight prospects -- and 13 of the top 30 -- already have committed elsewhere.