Five lingering questions after Illini spring football

Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner breaks down lingering questions following Illinois football spring practice.

1. Who's the mystery man at QB2?

Yes, I'm disappointed we never heard Lovie Smith say, "Wes Lunt is our quarterback." But he was never really asked -- because it is clear. Lunt is head and shoulders above the rest of the Illini quarterbacks, which is probably why offensive coordinator Garrick McGee has told media he hopes we never figure out the identity of the top backup. That tells me two things: 1) McGee thinks highly of Lunt; and 2) McGee doesn't have much confidence in his backups. Illinois also is researching transfer and JUCO quarterbacks to add competition to the quarterback room next spring. As I broke down in the Spring Scout: Quarterbacks column, no quarterback stood above the rest. Chayce Crouch seems to have the edge because he's the most unlike Lunt: a big, powerful, athletic runner with a shaky arm. Jeff George Jr. put himself in the mix with his strong and (now) slightly more accurate arm. He had a great open practice in front of fans but can he string those performances together against better defenders? Jimmy Fitzgerald has the best overall skill set (athletic, big, smart, solid arm) but needs more reps to gain consistency. The battle among these quarterbacks will be fascinating. Hopefully, it's not a huge story until 2017.

2. Who will step up as Lunt's playmakers?

How can you not feel for Dre Brown and Mike Dudek? Two in-state kids -- who badly wanted to play for Illinois -- will combine for just one season played over five years of potential eligibility after each suffered season-ending ACL tears for the second straight spring. But Illinois also lost two key playmakers on their offense. We don't know how each would have responded to traumatic injuries but both looked quick and explosive in their short appearances this spring. Dudek was Lunt's playmaker and safety blanket. He may not have duplicated his 1,000-yard 2014 output, but he probably would've come close. Brown was solidified as the No. 2 back. While he isn't the big, bruising back McGee seems to prefer, Brown was a playmaker in space. The long-striding back showed a penchant in the passing game this spring with sure hands and a burst off one cut.

At receiver, sophomore Desmond Cain last season showed he can produce a quantity of catches (53 for 492 yards) but can he produce more big plays? Senior Dionte Taylor is technically sound but has inconsistent hands. Walk-on Zach Grant impressed the staff and will have opportunities to crack the rotation. More pressure is now on junior Malik Turner to become a No. 1. Justin Hardee adds a lot of speed but struggled with consistency early in his career. Sam Mays has a high ceiling due to his length and athleticism but still is a bit raw and needs to gain confidence. The Illini also need to get more out of the tight end position. Tyler White was injured most of spring. Andrew Davis showed some signs of progress as a receiver but needs to gain strength. Caleb Reams has a chance to  make an impact as McGee's "super back," a blocking/pass-catching H-Back-like role.

At running back, the Illini are thin behind bellcow Ke'Shawn Vaughn. Redshirt freshman Reggie Corbin can fill the scatback role and make plays in space but doesn't have strength between the tackles. Junior Kendrick Foster has strength between the tackles but doesn't have the quickness to make plays in space or the speed to run away from the defense. The Illini will look to add a transfer to add depth to the backfield.

3. Who is the fifth man on the o-line?

McGee said he has four of his five starters. They are: strongside tackle Christian DiLauro, center Joe Spencer, quickside guard Nick Allegretti and quickside tackle Austin Schmidt. The battle for the strongside guard is a three-man race among redshirt freshman Gabe Megginson, senior Connor Brennan and junior Zach Heath. The battle reminds me of last year when Allegretti entered spring as the assumed frontrunner for the open starting guard spot. This year, that's Megginson -- who like Allegretti, played in a high school All-American game. But sometimes we forget how hard it is to play offensive line as a redshirt freshman. Heck, even Wisconsin struggled last year when it had to play a bunch of redshirt freshmen. Allegretti said he struggled immensely with the mental aspect of the game last year, and ultimately lost the starting job to seldom-used senior Chris Boles, who was just serviceable last season. Megginson is going through the same process now. He's undeniably talented. He has the strength and athleticism of a future pro. But the unspectacular Brennan was more consistent during the spring. Heath should make a push when he returns from injury this fall. If Megginson -- who also repped at tackle, likely his future position -- starts, he will have ups and downs as a freshman. The question the Illini must ask is whether that upside is worth the downside or if they'd rather have a more steady presence, like Brennan.

4. Is the secondary ready?

Entering spring, I thought there was talent in the secondary. But I still don't think there is enough Big Ten-ready talent. I've been a Jaylen Dunlap fan for a while, and the junior has locked down a starting spot at cornerback. He's long, quick and physical and will be depended on this season. Taylor Barton is a solid Big Ten safety and will play strong safety, probably a better fit for him than free safety. Outside of those two, there are a ton of questions. The enigma Caleb Day looks to be the starting safety, but Darwyn Kelly also earned reps with the first string. Day hasn't taken advantage of his previous opportunities. This is his last one. He has the length, range and athleticism you want in a free safety. But does he have the reliability and leadership needed? At the other cornerback spot, redshirt freshman Cameron Watkins flashed the length, speed and physicality that is really enticing for the future, but he's a bit raw. Darius Mosely and Chris James each seemed to take advantage of a new set of eyes. Mosely looks like a nickel and dime corner, while James looked more confident and comfortable than he did last fall when he consistently received an earful from former defensive coordinator Tim Banks. Junior college transfer Ahmari Hayes adds length and is a hard worker but is very thin. There are a lot of names here. But are there any playmakers? Check back in the fall.

5. Who will Illini add before the fall?

Illinois filled a big hole in the middle of the defense with the addition of Cal graduate transfer linebacker Hardy Nickerson, the son of Illini defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson. He will start and lead the Illini defense from the MIKE linebacker position. The Illini also added depth to the front four with the addition of Auburn graduate transfer Gimel President, who will likely be the third defensive end in the rotation and can play inside on passing downs. The Illini still have open scholarships and still have several needs. The Illini are scouring the transfer markets for players who can fill the voids, either on the 2016 depth chart or future depth charts. Following Dre Brown's season-ending ACL tear, running back is the top priority. They need someone to spell Vaughn and possibly fill in if he gets hurt. They also have looked at possible graduate transfer options at wide receiver and offensive line. Another option? A transfer quarterback who can add competition next spring.


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