Five pleasant surprises from Illini training camp

Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner provides five pleasant surprises from two weeks of Illini football training camp

1. Kendrick Foster

Kendrick Foster, a 5-foot-8 running back, showed some flashes near the end of last season as a pound-it-between-the-tackles back, rushing for 78 yards on 15 carries (5.2 yards per carry). But days after the season ended, Foster announced he planned to transfer. But he had no idea to where. When he found his options limited, Bill Cubit allowed him back on the team -- and he's made the most of the opportunity. Lovie Smith met with Foster soon after he was hired and said the running back was carrying excess fat. Foster since has dropped 10 pounds and five percent of body fat and is quicker and better because of it. Illinois needs a No. 2 back to ease some of the burden off of Ke'Shawn Vaughn. Following a fall training camp where Foster showed he is still tough but more explosive in the run and pass game, the Illini staff is much more confident in giving Vaughn a few spells a game.

Jeremy Werner

2. Zach Grant

No one can replace Mikey Dudek, but someone must replace some of his production. Last season, Desmond Cain assumed the role of Wes Lunt's safety blanket, though he couldn't replicate Dudek's big-play ability, averaging just 9.3 yards per catch. Following a frustrating 2015 season that included 60 receiver drops, Lunt needs another reliable target and a familiar face is stepping into that role. A teammate of Lunt's in high school, Zach Grant set an IHSA single-season receiving yards record at Rochester and has re-emerged as one of Lunt's trusted targets. Grant isn't as athletic or as fast as Dudek, but he finds the soft spot in the defense and usually hauls in the past. He also displayed an ability to get on top of the defense and haul in the big catch downfield. It took Grant a while to catch up to Big Ten size, speed and athleticism, but he now looks like a valued -- and trusted -- weapon for Lunt.

Jeremy Werner

3. Use of the tight end

For a program that hasn't used the tight end much recently, Illinois sure has produced a great share of current NFL players at the position: Jeff CumberlandMichael Hoomanawanui and Matt LaCosseHead coach Lovie Smith joked last week that he's already heard Illini fans complain about the lack of use of the tight end. "We value the tight end," Smith said. Based on the tight end use in Garrick McGee's offense during the first two weeks of training camp, Illini fans should finally get that wish granted this season. McGee uses the tight ends, as most coaches do, so the offense can be multiple and dynamic. Tight ends, because they can block and catch, help the offense gain mismatches -- whether by using tight ends as an extra, capable run blocker or as a big, athletic receiver against smaller defenders. McGee employs a lot of rollouts and tight end match-ups on smaller linebackers or  defensive backs. The tight end also makes the play-action game more effective. Will the Illini tight ends be ready for the lime light though? Senior Tyler White is a plus blocker with inconsistent hands. Senior Andrew Davis is an athletic, long receiving threat with marginal strength and inconsistent hands. Senior Ainslie Johnson is bulky and short but looks more at ease in this offense. Redshirt freshman Caleb Reams has been slowed recently by a minor lower leg injury, yet even though he's a few inches shorter than ideal, he's shown the best athleticism and hands of the tight end group. Freshman Zarrian Holcombe isn't quick-twitch enough to play receiver and not yet strong enough to be an in-line tight end. But he's athletic with a huge catch radius. Right now, he's working as a split-out tight end. McGee has plenty of options at the position, and it will be fascinating to see how he employs them and how effectively he employs them.

Jeremy Werner

4. The present at linebacker

During the spring, few Illini positional groups brought about as many concerns as the Illini linebackers, where there were few knowns outside of junior weakside linebacker James Crawford. But with a few key additions, this might be the Illini's second-best group -- behind the defensive line. Cal  graduate transfer Hardy Nickerson was a heck of a packaged deal with his father, defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson. The younger Nickerson fills the Illini's biggest need on defense. He's a veteran leader and a heck of a player. He's fast, instinctual, strong against the run, experienced against the pass (after playing in the pass-happy Pac-12) and familiar with this defense. He's a huge upgrade at the position. The return of Julian Jones, who has practiced at strongside and weakside linebacker, gives the Illini a top athlete to the depth chart. Freshman Dele' Harding looks like a future starter at MLB. He's not the biggest, but he has an innate nose for the ball. Nickerson's arrival allows him some time to adjust to the Big Ten level. Redshirt freshman Justice Williams also has emerged as a potential breakout candidate and has held the starting strongside linebacker spot throughout camp. Williams is long and athletic and added about 15 pounds of muscle since last fall. He will probably have some early struggles, but he's emerged as a possible difference-maker. The Illini have a good mix of veterans (Tre Watson and Mike Svetina) and youth (three true freshmen) to fill out the rest of the depth chart. The Illini now look like they have a good group of linebackers to make plays behind that fearsome front four.

Jeremy Werner

5. The future at defensive tackle

Illini fans should enjoy the 2016 Illini defensive line. It's as good as any since Whitney Mercilus, Akeem SpenceGlenn Foster and Michael Buchanan led the Illini to the nation's No. 6 total defense in 2011. But also, it's only going to last for a season. Illinois loses its top five defensive linemen (including all four starters) after the season, leaving a huge void on the front four -- a void from which it may take two recruiting classes to dig out. Edge rusher remains a huge concern with run-stuffer, high-motor Henry McGrew and athletic but always injured Sean Adesanya as the top holdovers. That position remains a huge concern that must be addressed in the Class of 2017, possibly with a JUCO transfer. But training camp provided some hope on the interior. Redshirt freshman Jamal Milan looks like a future stalwart and NFL talent. After missing last season with a knee sprain, Milan looks stronger, quicker and more polished. He dominated the Illini second-string defensive line and already looked like a legit Big Ten starter when he repped against the first string. He'll play a big role this season in the rotation and a starring role next year. Redshirt sophomore Tito Odenigbo doesn't have quite the flash, but he is a big, strong presence with a good motor. He should be a solid rotational player and complement to Milan. Freshman Kenyon Jackson may have been the biggest surprise. He's really short (5-foot-10) so he won't be knocking down many passes, but he's really strong for a freshman, he's quick off the ball and he has advanced handwork for such a young defensive lineman. He has a lot of similarities to Minnesota All-Big Ten candidate Steven Richardson. He repped at times with the second string and really held his own. Fellow freshman Tymir Oliver has some similarities to Odengibo. He definitely has a Big Ten frame but must improve his burst and technique. He might not be fully ready in 2017, but he should be a solid rotational piece moving forward. The Illini must add more future depth and complements on the edge, but the interior at least has a fighting chance in 2017 and 2018.

Jeremy Werner

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