Five Illini freshmen who may play in 2016

Most freshmen aren't ready to play Big Ten football, so expect Lovie Smith to redshirt most of his first-year players. But here are five true freshmen who have shown earn playing time in 2016. Plus, quick hits on the rest of the freshmen class!

Former Michigan commit Dele' Harding was a celebrated late get for Bill Cubit's coaching staff, and he's certainly living up to the hype early. Harding is only about 6-foot, but he has what defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson calls "juice." He's an instinctual middle linebacker reminiscent of former Illini Jonathan Brown. He has a nose for the ball, gets there quickly and has the strength to finish off tackles. Harding was expected to play middle linebacker early, but the addition of Cal grad transfer Hardy Nickerson allows him some time to get acclimated at the college level. Harding has repped recently with the second string, though so have redshirt sophomore Tre Watson and senior Mike Svetina. Still, it will be hard for Illinois to keep Harding off special teams units. He will be right in the thick of the competition for the starting MLB position in 2017.

Dominic Thieman knows what it's like to compete for playing time against talented teammates. He played on a St. Thomas Aquinas receiving corps last season that included current Miami (Fla.) freshmen Sam Bruce and Michael Irvin Jr. as well as 2017 five-star recruit Trevon Grimes -- and Thieman led STA in receiving yards. During camp, Thieman looks like he's been well-coached. He runs pretty crisp routes, has hops and high-points the ball in traffic. But typical for freshmen, he's shown inconsistent hands and doesn't block well at all. Still, with other receivers struggling this fall, Thieman has the chance to find a spot in the receiver rotation.

Tre Nation isn't flashy, but he simply produced for back-to-back 4A Alabama state champion Leeds, rushing for 7,604 yards and 120 touchdowns during his prep career. Illinois wants Nation to slim down about 10 pounds and trim some baby fat so he can improve his quickness. But he's a tough runner who can pound it between the tackles. Nation isn't an explosive talent and currently is the No. 4 back. But given Illinois' thin depth chart at running back and the likelihood of injuries at the position, Nation should get the rock at some point this season.

An injury has limited Mj McGriff during the past week, but he showed some positive traits during his first week of camp. McGriff is about 5-foot-8, but he's one of the few players on the Illinois offense with explosive speed and agility. He also has strong hands and competes in traffic. With Mikey Dudek out, the Illini are looking for a playmaker in the slot. McGriff is behind Zach Grant and Dionte Taylor at the position, but he may get an opportunity at some point. McGriff could make an even bigger impact as a kick and punt returner, where Illinois is still looking for someone to grab the job.

Kenyon Jackson doesn't look the part because (despite his listed height) he's a 5-foot-10 defensive tackle. But that doesn't stop Jackson, the son of former NFL tight end Keith Jackson, from being a highly effective defensive lineman. Jackson has great power for a true freshman. He bench-presses 425 pounds about three times. He has great quickness and burst off the ball, which Mike Phair prioritizes from his "Rush Men" and Lovie Smith wants in his one-gap scheme. He also has highly advanced handwork for a true freshman and has an array of rush moves. And his lack of height actually helps him a bit because it's difficult for bigger offensive linemen to get under him, and usually the low man wins. He simply gains leverage over most of his opponents. Jackson has a lot of similarities to Minnesota's All-Big Ten candidate Steven Richardson. Illinois shouldn't need Jackson to play in 2016, but he has repped with the second string and looked effective doing it. Ideally, he'll redshirt. But if he needs to play, he looks prepared to hold his own.

The rest

Christion Abercrombie, LB: The Atlanta native is earning mostly scout and special reps due to Illinois depth at linebacker. He has nice size and athleticism but needs work in the weight room. 

Jake Cerny, OL: The 6-foot-5, 300-pound offensive tackle has nice feet and has the potential to be a good pass blocker. But he needs a year in the weight room.

Harvey Clayton Jr.,DB: The Florida native is strictly a safety because he doesn't have the quickest hips to turn and run with defenders, but he does have nice length and range.

Trenard Davis, WR/DB: After spending last fall at Parkland Community College to iron out some academic issues, the Florida native offers some versatility to the Illini roster. He already moved from defensive back to wide receiver, where he's looked like a natural so far. Davis has nice hands and athleticism. He actually is similar to American Heritage School teammate Desmond Cain.

Eddy Fish, OT: The Massachusettes native is big (6-6, 310) but extremely raw. He's only played football for two years and looks lost. He also suffered a shoulder injury and has missed a week of training camp. He's about two or three years away but has a pretty high ceiling.

Kurt Gavin, OL: The Illinois native is a solid overall prospect, but he must make strength gains to hold off some big boys who are committed in 2017. Redshirt and see how he progresses.

Stanley Green, DB: The East St. Louis native is working at cornerback, though he might best fit as a safety despite his height (5-foot-11) -- or maybe as a nickel back. He's a physical player who must add some strength during a redshirt season.

Jake Hansen, LB: The Florida native may never be a star player but the staff is confident he'll be a contributor, especially on special teams.

Zarrian Holcombe, WR/TE: The Texan is a 'tweener. He has great length and uses it well to shield off defenders, but he's not fast enough to be a top receiver and not strong enough to play as an in-line tight end yet. He needs to gain 20-25 pounds to do so, and his thin waist suggests that might be a struggle for him. For now, he's a mismatch creator in the slot. Redshirt him and see if he can gain the weight and play with it.

Brandon Jones, DE: The Columbia, Mo., native is a big project. He has a nice frame but needs to add 20-25 pounds to it. He has solid straight-line speed but is very raw as a pass rusher.

Evan Jones, DB: Credit Al Seamonson -- one of the previous staff's most underrated recruiters -- for finding a great, toolsy prospect here. The Georgia native has a great combination of length, speed and versatility. He's repping at CB now and showing some flashes but his future may be as a nickel back or strong safety. He also looks like a special teams ace in the making. Lovie wants more length, athleticism and speed on defense, and Jones fits the bill.

Doug Kramer, C: Maybe the biggest surprise of the freshman camp, the Illinois native wasn't even supposed to be here. Kramer planned to attend College of DuPage and join Illinois this spring. But he got a call from the staff -- which had a few open scholarships -- three days before camp started to report and enroll at Illinois. Kramer -- who comes from the same high school that produced Michigan State centers Jack and Brian Allen -- is small (6-foot-2, 270 pounds), but he is strong, has an advanced blocking skill set and displays a bit of a nasty streak. He has spent a lot of time with the second string and even repped with the first string for a few reps on Wednesday. He looks like a no-doubter as Joe Spencer's successor.

Darta Lee, OL: The Texan is listed at 320 pounds but that seems a bit generous. He wins the award for "Best Gut" of camp, and that's not a good thing. Lee has great potential as a road-grading run blocker, but he must lean up and gain some quickness. He may take a few years and that weight could be a lingering issue, but he is the type of lineman wiho can help Illinois get more physical up front. He's a boom-or-bust type guy, similar to former Illini Chris Boles.

James McCourt, K: The St. Thomas Aquinas kicker is used to pressure situations, playing on national television and in several huge games in high school. He has a solid leg in the kicking game but probably won't play this season. He and Chase McLaughlin likely will battle for kicking duties next season. McCourt definitely is not a punter based on what we've seen in practice, which is why Illinois likely will use a scholarship on a punter in 2017.

Tymir Oliver, DT: The Philadelphia native and former Rutgers commit has a Big Ten body, but he's raw technically and must add strength and quickness. He's a redshirt candidate who should turn into a solid rotational player with more work under Mike Phair.

Griffin Palmer, TE: The St. Louis area native is one of the surprises of the freshman class. He showed up to camp with huge strength gains since his senior season of high school. He has a great frame and is a solid athlete. He may be the most complete tight end of the three freshmen at the position. Redshirt him and see where he's at next year.

Ayo Shogbonyo, LB: The Texas native must add about 10-15 more pounds of strength, but he's got some raw athleticism and speed that seems to fit the weakside linebacker position. He's raw though and has missed time due to injury. He faces a lot of competition at this position the next few years.

Andrew Trainer, TE: The former Virginia recruit stands above his teammates -- literally. He's the tallest Illini on the roster at 6-foot-7. Though he's 245 pounds, that's a big slight for his height, so he must add 10-15 more pounds of strength. He's kind of a bulky runner, so he's not going to run by or around many defenders. But Trainer has the potential to be a good in-line blocker and red-zone threat. 

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