Junior college transfer Delshawn Phillips was brought in to make an immediate impact in the middle of the defense. He will fill the big shoes of another transfer, Hardy Nickerson, but Phillips is an athletic, hard hitter whom Garden City (Kan.) Community College coach Jeff Sims likens to former Nebraska star and Tampa Bay Bucs star Lavonte David. As an early enrollee, Phillips should have the opportunity to learn the defense and take a vocal leadership role on a very young defense.
One of three freshmen joining Illinois this month as an early enrollee, defensive end Owen Carney will earn tons of reps at the Illini's thinnest position. The Miami Central product has the length and athleticism Illinois wants. Most importantly, though, he gets into Joey Boese's strength and conditioning program five months prior to most of his classmates. Carney has the chance to get a leg up on the other defensive ends Illinois will sign.
Carney's high school teammate Carmoni Green also will enroll early. And given the Illini receiving corps struggles last season, there will be a lot of new faces at the position this season. Green, a fast wideout who chose the Illini over several power-five offers including North Carolina, has a great chance to crack the 2017 rotation. Like Carney, Green needs to add strength. Getting to Illinois early also allows him more time to learn the Illini offense and refine his route-running.
Illinois coach Lovie Smith said before last season that Ke'Shawn Vaughn could start for most Big Ten teams. But by Game Three, Vaughn was third on Smith's depth chart. Rising senior Kendrick Foster and rising sophomore Reggie Corbin simply performed better behind a shaky offensive line and made defenders miss. But offensive coordinator Garrick McGee said Vaughn still has a chance to be really good. Some thought Vaughn was a transfer candidate, but how he responds to a disappointing sophomore season will be a big story to watch.
Mike Dudek and Dre Brown both suffered torn ACLs each of the last two springs. The big question is whether they will participate at all in spring practice this time around. Dudek of course was an exciting playmaker and is progressing nicely in his recovery. But Illinois may take it slow with him. While they'd love to adjust him back to football as much as possible, they also just want him healthy for September. Brown won the No. 2 running back job each of the last two springs but with the emergence of Foster and Corbin and the future additions of incoming freshmen Mike Epstein and Ra'Von Bonner, it will be interesting to see how Brown fits in -- or if he switches to safety, where he played well in high school and where the Illini need depth.
Everyone was excited to see former four-star offensive lineman Gabe Megginson play last year. But as Inquirer warned, most redshirt freshmen offensive linemen struggle -- and Megginson was no exception. The Jacksonville, Ill., native flashed the natural ability that makes him a high-ceiling prospect, but he lost his starting spot midway through the season due to his inconsistencies. He likely will now switch from guard to tackle and more will be expected. Optimists should look at Nick Allegretti's monster leap last year as a possible path for Megginson. Allegretti was so inconsistent in 2015 that he couldn't win a starting spot as a redshirt freshman. But in 2016, he arguably was the Illini's best offensive lineman.
With Megginson likely shifting out to tackle and Allegretti possibly moving to center, the Illini need some players to step up at guard. Darta Lee became the first Illini true freshman offensive lineman to start the season opener in 20 seasons, but he only started one game the rest of the season. Lee certainly brings mass and physicality to the Illini offensive line, but he must add strength, lean up a bit and hone his technique.
Junior college transfer Sean Adesanya is a really good athlete, but we haven't seen it at Illinois yet due to multiple injuries. Yet, Adesanya is one of just three scholarship defensive ends returning to Illinois, along with rising junior Henry McGrew and redshirt freshman Brandon Jones, who suffered an injury late last season. If Adesanya is healthy, he should receive a lot of reps. With so many questions at his position, the Illini would like to see enough to think he can make a Big Ten impact.
With the state of defensive end, Illinois could move a defensive tackle out to defensive end with rising junior Tito Odenigbo and rising sophomore Tymir Oliver as potential movers. Oliver played in all 12 games last season and recorded six tackles. He doesn't have the speed to be a big-time pass rusher, but he has the size and enough athleticism to be stout against the run and provide a presence on the edge. Even if Odenigbo moves out to DE, Oliver must step up on the interior as the top rotation piece behind Jamal Milan and Kenyon Jackson.
Rising sophomore cornerback Cameron Watkins was one of the surprise performers of spring ball last year. Injuries kept him from making an early impact, but talent eventually won out. Watkins made two starts and totaled 21 tackles and three PBUs. He has length, speed and athleticism and should be the starter opposite senior Jaylen Dunlap as long as he shows more consistency.null