Five things learned during Illini spring football

Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner gives five big takeaways from Illinois spring football, the first under Lovie Smith

1. Lovie is a teacher

Attend an Illini football practice and you may find yourself dozing off during the first hour. New Illini coach Lovie Smith devotes about 45 minutes of each practice to a walk-through, a bit more than previous Illini coaches. The offense and defense separate to opposite sides of the field and without helmets, repeat play after play in slow motion. It's simple mental repetition. On this play, where do you step? What are your responsibilities? Over and over and over again. It's a bit boring to watch, but this is how Smith has run practices for the past 11 years as an NFL head coach. Of course, following the walk-through Lovie ratchets up practice a bit. The team stretches, goes through positional drills and goes 7-on-7 and 11-on-11. He hired most of his coaches with teaching in mind, which is why he brought in a lot of guys with NFL experience. It will be interesting to watch how this approach -- and how this staff -- impacts the team this fall.

2. McGee wants to run

In each of the last three seasons under Bill Cubit, Illinois passed on more than 52 percent of plays: 52.5 percent in 2013, 53.3 percent in 2014 and 57.2 percent in 2015. The last two seasons at Louisville, new Illini offensive coordinator Garrick McGee passed just 45.3 and 45.5 percent of plays, respectively. McGee runs a balanced pro-style offense similar to Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino with a few wrinkles. But expect McGee to commit the Illini more to the run. The question is whether it can be successful. While Cubit unquestionably likes to spread it out and pass it, he didn't seem to have the personnel to run it when he wanted. Also, McGee -- who is recruiting dual-threat quarterbacks for the Class of 2017 -- showed a penchant to pass with pocket passers similar to Illini senior Wes Lunt. With Ryan Mallett and Tyler Wilson leading his  Arkansas offenses in 2010 and 2011, McGee's offense passed 52.4 and 53.3 percent of the time, respectively. McGee has a Big Ten-caliber bellcow in Ke'Shawn Vaughn. But is the offensive line improved enough to open holes against Big Ten defenses? Illinois certainly needs Lunt to be effective through the air to be successful, but expect McGee to keep the run/pass split closer to 50/50 -- if he can.

3. Illini have a pair of bookends

Illini offensive tackles Austin Schmidt, a senior, and Christian DiLauro, a redshirt junior, were pretty darn good last season. They were a big reason Illinois ranked 24th nationally and  third in the Big Ten in quarterback sacked percentage. Both are plus protectors and were OK in the run game. But both gained strength this offseason and look better off the ball in McGee's scheme. DiLauro had some struggles adjusting to the footwork of switching sides but that should be solved with repetition this summer and fall. He has a nasty streak and could shine with a more power-run scheme. Meanwhile, Schmidt looked like a potential pro in camp. It's difficult for defensive ends to escape his long reach and quick feet. The Illini have one of the most experienced (35 combined career starts) and better tackle duos in the Big Ten with a very experienced center (Joe Spencer) in the middle. A lot will come down to the performance of the two new guard starters, likely Nick Allegretti and Gabe Megginson. But having a pair of good bookends gives the Illini offensive line a higher floor.

4. Front four could be great

As good as the Illini offensive tackles are, they struggle at times to contain the Illini defensive ends. Knowing that Schmidt and DiLauro kept most Big Ten pass rushers at bay last season, that tends to speak more to the strength of the Illini defensive ends than to weakness of the tackles. Dawuane Smoot already is a proven potent pass rusher in the Big Ten (15.0 TFLs, 8.0 sacks last season) and returns  as one of the Big Ten's best. Fellow senior Carroll Phillips eventually won a starting spot late last season -- moving Raiders  second-round pick Jihad Ward inside to defensive tackle -- and had a really strong spring. He has a devastating first step off the line of scrimmage and is adding more moves to  his pass-rush repertoire. Jarrod Clements fits perfectly as the disruptive 3-technique in this defensive scheme due to his quick step off the line of scrimmage. Senior Robert Bain and redshirt freshman Jamal Milan sat out most of spring with injuries Smith said were not that serious. Bain is trimming a bit of weight to get quicker and Milan is a talent. Sophomore Tito Odenigbo earned more reps due to their absences and looked like a solid rotation piece. The Illini also add a former SEC starter in Auburn transfer Gimel President, who is stout against the run and a solid pass rusher. Illinois isn't counting on much from Teko Powell due to his bad foot, but anything he adds would be a bonus because he had starting-caliber talent before the injuries. That's a legit Big Ten two-deep.

Enjoy it now. Because with all four starters and two possible rotation players graduating after 2016, it could get really ugly up front in 2017.

5. Reinforcements arrive at linebacker

No position looked worse to start spring practice than linebacker. The Illini lost two starters -- Mason Monheim (graduation) and T.J. Neal (graduate tranfer) -- who had combined for 72 career starts and 637 career tackles with the Illini. Of the 20 career starts returning, 16 were from Mike Svetina -- who hasn't started a game in two seasons. But the additions of sophomore Julian Jones (suspension lifted) and graduate transfer Hardy Nickerson drastically changes the outlook of this group. Nickerson simply is a massive addition. He started 27 games in his first three seasons at Cal and earned All-Pac 12 honorable mention honors last season after leading Cal with 112 tackles. He's stout against the run, smart and a leader. He knows his father's defense well and will start immediately at MIKE linebacker, allowing redshirt sophomore Tre Watson more time to season before taking over next season. Jones seriously upgrades the Illini's speed and athleticism at strongside linebacker and likely will allow freshman linebacker redshirt freshman Justice Williams to play a smaller role. He has the potential to be one of the Illini's best playmakers at a position Illinois often uses as a blitzer. Junior weakside linebacker James Crawford certainly now has a lot more talent next to him on the first string depth chart. Plus, four freshman, including highly-rated Dele' Harding, arrive this summer. The Illini linebackers went from a huge deficiency to a possible strength.


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