CHAMPAIGN -- Illini head coach Lovie Smith returned to practice on Sunday after a trip to Canton, Ohio on Saturday to be there for the Hall of Fame inductions of Tony Dungy and Orlando Pace.
Smith sat among the Dungy contingent at the ceremony, and he received a shoutout from his mentor for being the first pair of African-American head coaches to square off in a Super Bowl (XLI).
Smith was the linebackers coach under Dungy in Tampa Bay from 1996-2000. He was also part of the Rams staff from 2001-2003 as the defensive coordinator during Pace's time in St. Louis.
He reflected on the experience after practice on Sunday.
"Great trip. The game has meant so much to me, and it means so much for the guys right here," Smith said. "To have a chance to be around some of the guys that molded the game, who these guys grew up seeing. For us to be there, when you have guys that played at a certain level and they're acknowledged for being the best around, that's pretty special."
Smith did not have an easy time making it back to Champaign, though, as his plane had mechanical issues. His return home was pretty late on Saturday night, which may have stretched into Sunday morning.
Nevertheless, Smith was back to work on the practice field with his team and coaching staff as they take things day by day towards the start of the season.
- Illini quarterback Wes Lunt is not a runner by any stretch of the imagination. He was often knocked last season for a lack of mobility within the pocket -- looking like a statue behind his offensive line. Given time and space, Lunt's arm talent isn't one for much criticism. That continues to be the case heading into this season. But on Sunday, he put on display the type of pocket presence you'd expect from a senior quarterback. Lunt showcased clean and efficient footwork as pressure came from an Illinois defensive line known as the "Rush Men". He was able to extend plays, which made for positive gains that would have otherwise been blown dead as a sack. One such example came during a third-down team drill, where Lunt evaded pressure crashing down from the left to find a tight end in the flat for a first down.
- Utilizing tight ends is a staple that offensive coordinator Garrick McGee wants to instill in this system. It's been a while since Illinois fans have seen that as a legitimate aspect of the offensive attack. The Illini do not have eye-popping talent at the position. But they are going to use what they have, and that should only help Lunt. A tight end can be a crucial asset to a quarterback as a hot read when blitzers come. In general, it gives the offense a bigger target in the middle of the field. McGee utilized shotgun formations with the tight end on Sunday in 7-on-7 and team action. He often traded the tight end to the opposite side, and then followed with motion of the slot receiver back across to make the defense adjust their assignments. The Illini also lined a tight end up in the slot, and backup quarterback Chayce Crouch hit freshman tight end Griffin Palmer on a seam route for a 20-plus yard gain down the middle on the second team.
- Redshirt freshman quarterback Jeff George Jr. took most of his reps on Sunday with the third team. As you'd expect, the growing pains are evident. George made some good throws. But he also struggled -- even with a few gimmes. During a team session, George executed a play-fake and rolled to his left. His tight end released late and was wide open with plenty of space. But throwing across his body, George missed high for an incompletion. On another occasion, George rolled out right to buy more time and chucked one deep across the field for an interception that was returned all the way. Repetition and seasoning are the remedies for young quarterbacks.
- Fellow redshirt freshman quarterback Jimmy Fitzgerald was absent from practice again on Sunday. Smith repeated that Fitzgerald's absence is because of undisclosed "personal reasons". He did not specify on when he would return, and did not offer anything else on the matter.
- The backfield is open for competition behind Ke'Shawn Vaughn, who has the look of being the next big-time back to wear No. 5 in the orange and blue. Vaughn ran well on Sunday -- hitting holes with full steam ahead. He will be a workhorse, and he is built for it. But the Illini will need someone to spell him, and it could be redshirt freshman Reggie Corbin. He has some big-play ability with his speed and elusiveness. Corbin would be a good change of pace as a smaller back (5-foot-10, 185 lbs.) with some explosiveness. Corbin was one of the standouts on Sunday by showing what he brings to the table. He made defenders miss in breaking off a pair of big runs. His highlight of the day was catching a screen pass, hitting a move and turning on the burners to go the distance.
- Illinois has to replace their starting corners from last season, and junior defensive back Jaylen Dunlap is ready to take advantage of that opportunity. Dunlap showcased his athletic ability and physicality on Sunday. He looks like the No. 1 corner for the Illini, who allows defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson to play some press coverage on the outside. Dunlap played mostly on special teams last year. But he is mentally and vocally confident out on the field for a defense that is trying to develop a swagger.
- According to Smith, Monday's practice will be the first one in full pads.