CHAMPAIGN -- When Lovie Smith was announced as head coach of the football program, the Illini knew they were getting a respected and experienced leader with an NFL pedigree and connections to the game at the highest level.
On Tuesday, the Illinois football team was graced by the presence of one of the best corners the NFL has seen over the last decade: Charles Tillman.
Smith's former defensive playmaker in the Windy City came to Champaign with his kids to watch practice and speak to the team afterwards. Tillman talked about the advice that he gave to the wide-eyed and open-eared players on Tuesday afternoon.
"Buy what Coach Smith is selling. It's good stock. I bought it for a number of years and I had success with it," Tillman said. "Just believe in the system and good things will work. You win your games now in training camp -- in the offseason training camp. You don't win your games on Saturday or Sunday. You win them now."
Tillman has experienced for himself what Smith brings to a team, and he knows what staples Illinois can expect with their new head coach.
"Leadership. Integrity. And he's a great mentor for these kids to look up to," Tillman said. "In the NFL, you got a bunch of men. But in college, these kids are 18 to 22, and I think he's a great role model for these kids to know how to play the game of football. To teach them how to work together. To teach them how to be better men and be better husbands and be better fathers. He's that guy. He's the right guy for the job."
Smith told the media that it was a mutual effort to get Tillman down to campus.
"Charles is a lifetime friend. He has other friends now in this area," Smith said. "He lives in our state, right? So there's only one flagship university so people sometimes just kind of travel along and want to see what their state university is doing."
Fans of pro football in this state loved watching what Tillman did on Sundays during his 13-year career.
"No one could take the ball away like Charles Tillman did. No one played harder," Smith said. "It was a blessing to be around him for those 10 years or so, and that I had a chance to coach him."
Having Tillman on the practice field was an undeniable asset for the team. While he is currently enjoying his retirement with some fishing and spending time with his family, Tillman has plenty to offer to younger players.
"I think that most players that played at that level, if they wanted to coach, they know how. I know as a coach, I learned so much from players like Charles on how they played, how they prepared -- constantly talking to them," Smith said. "It's always about giving back to a game that's helped you so much, and he has a lot of knowledge that can help a lot of players."
- Graduate transfer defensive end Gimel President was sidelined on Tuesday with a walking boot on his left foot and ankle. Smith said that President's injury is not serious, but he "will be out for a while". President was injured during a two-minute drill towards the end of practice on Monday. He has been a strong performer at training camp, and the Illini certainly hope he will be back when it counts.
- Junior defensive back Jaylen Dunlap has clearly separated himself as the No. 1 corner in the Illini secondary. He has played well -- being physical with receivers at the line of scrimmage, and using his size and athleticism to cover his opposition. Dunlap is headstrong and carries a swagger with him on the field. He took in a tip here and there from Tillman on Tuesday.
- Dunlap battled with senior wide receiver Justin Hardee during 7-on-7. After an incompletion was thrown Hardee's way, words were said and instantly the players went at each other in a heated and fist-throwing exchange. Smith kicked both players out of practice after the fight.
- Tight ends were showcased in Tuesday's practice. Offensive coordinator Garrick McGee got his quarterbacks and tight ends together for an individual session in the early stages of practice. The group worked on a variety of routes, including combination routes for two-TE sets. With both tight ends lined up on the same side, Wes Lunt and the quarterbacks practiced making reads. For example, watching the outside linebacker while the inside tight end ran a flat and the outside tight end ran a seam. Creativity with the tight ends can make for manageable completions, and that's something McGee wants to implement.
- McGee called a handful of plays for his tight ends during 7-on-7 and the team session. Redshirt freshman Caleb Reams took advantage of the opportunity. He has good size (6-foot-3, 240 lbs.) and good hands. Reams was found in the flat off of play action on numerous occasions, and he turned it up for good chunks of yardage.
- True freshman wide receiver Dominic Thieman has people inside the program excited about his future. In fact, they think he can make an impact right away -- and he's been showing flashes of that ability the last few days. Tuesday was one of his best showings. Thieman skied for a jump-ball in the end zone for a score during the 7-on-7 session. He high-pointed the ball like a seasoned veteran, and came down with an impressive catch.
- There is plenty of opportunity to be had in the secondary, and that has opened up a battle to watch at corner. Dunlap and senior Darius Mosely have taken the first-team reps recently with sophomore Chris James getting snaps as the nickel. After Dunlap was removed from practice, Mosley moved over to the No. 1 spot, James took the other side and senior Dillan Cazley stepped in at nickel on the first team.
- Junior running back Kendrick Foster had another good day. A chance to get the ball in his hands is exactly what Foster has been looking for, and he's showing that he is deserving behind Ke'Shawn Vaughn. Foster broke off some smooth runs on Tuesday. His footwork and cuts have been crisp, and he has the ability to change directions when he sees an opening. His vision has been a highlight of his game over the last two days.
- Smith has decided to give his team the day off on Wednesday. The team will resume practice on Thursday from 2:30-4:30 p.m.