CHAMPAIGN - To make a depth chart, Lovie Smith's staff needs to see its players in live action. The new Illini coaches certainly learned a lot more about their team during Saturday's almost hour-long scrimmage and the subsequent film review.
"We're having some players step up and making us take notice," Smith said after Monday's practice, the 10th of 15 spring sessions. "We see improvement daily. We took another step today. Especially on the offensive side, I think we did some nice things."
On offense, Smith seems to have taken a liking to sophomore running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn, who despite just one season in college is the Illini's most proven returning playmaker following Mike Dudek's second straight season-ending knee injury.
"I think he's looked really good," Smith said of Vaughn. "I think he's a legitimate starting tailback in the Big Ten. He can run inside. He's a north-south runner. He can catch the ball out of the backfield. I'm very impressed. I've seen a lot of good running backs in my time, and it's good to see another good young one coming up."
Offensive coordinator Garrick McGee called junior receiver Malik Turner a "big-time player" but a "work in progress." He also said senior Justin Hardee "is sticking out," sophomore Sam Mays has "potential" and sophomore Desmond Cain is "a competitor."
"I think he's so technique sound that it's hard to defend him," McGee said. "He understands angles and understands how to set defenders up. You could say he's not the fastest guy, but his technique is so sound that he's going to be out there a lot making a lot of plays for us."
As for the offensive line, McGee said "at certain points, they did well." McGee said on Saturday that four offensive linemen looked like established starters. The four consistently receiving first team reps are tackles Christian DiLauro and Austin Schmidt, center Joseph Spencer and guard Nick Allegretti, who also has repped at center. Senior Connor Brennan pushing redshirt freshman Gabe Megginson for one of the starting guard spots. Megginson also has repped at tackle.
The backup quarterback competition also received some renewed interest following redshirt freshman Jeff George Jr.'s standout performance on Saturday. But one day does not decide a depth chart and McGee said that there still is a battle for the QB2 spot -- with sophomore Chayce Crouch and redshirt freshman Jimmy Fitzgerald squarely in the mix.
"If we get blessed (with health), you may never have to find out who that is," McGee said, "which would be a great thing for us."
Defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson was more mum on the standouts on his side of the ball.
"I saw improvement from a bunch of our guys," Nickerson said. "At this stage, we're working to get better and better. We're in that process right now. Guys are working hard to improve. We're taking those steps we need to be taking. We're still in the evaluation process. Some guys got some really good looks. We're excited about that. Guys are working hard and competing for spots. We're trying to figure out at the same time where guys can be a best fit for our defense."
While the coaches won't make them public, the Illini depth charts are rounding into shape.
"We have a better idea," Smith said. "But of course the depth chart doesn't mean anything this time of year. We've had one really padded practice where we've gone live throughout. We're having a better idea of who to get the first reps as much as anything."
Catching up in recruiting
Illini director of player personnel Josh Sternquist and his still-developing staff have been hard at work the last few weeks as Smith's staff establishes its feet in recruiting.
"Doing a great job," Smith said. "He and Pat (Embleton) both are, and Nina (Baloun), the three that we have right now that are primarily running the personnel department. Good week in for us. We continue to get guys (on campus). I think this is the first day we haven't had a prospect here. Can't ask for anything more right now. Most of the other teams are out (on the road) right now, and we're not. But we'll catch up."
Smith is referring to the evaluation period, which began on Friday and extends through May 31. The Illini coaches finally are able to visit recruits at their schools or homes, something prohibited since Smith's hire due to a quiet period. But the Illini staff won't hit the road hard until spring practice ends next week.
Is that a concern?
"No, not really," Smith said. "We're going to get our days in. We got a lot of places we're going where spring ball hasn't started for them. So no, not really. We feel good about where we are."
Injury report ... kinda
Both players are nursing injuries. Smith -- who does not relay much publicly on injuries -- did not specify much about the extent of the injuries but said there is "nothing major going on" with the defensive tackles.
"There are no major concerns," Smith said. "Mike (Dudek) of course is out. But beyond that, the players you see here, in the spring we take precautions in the spring."