1. Who will be available?
Some of the most recognizable returning faces of the Illini will remain on the sidelines this spring. Lovie Smith said Mike Dudek and Dre Brown -- who each tore and ACL in each of the last two springs (Dudek the same knee, Brown both knees) -- are making progress, but that neither will do much this spring. Same with starting quarterback Chayce Crouch, who is still recovering from season-ending shoulder surgery. More players, including WR Dominic Thieman, LB Dele' Harding, are expected to miss significant time this spring as well.
With so many injuries and the number of scholarship players on campus in about the high-50s -- offensive lineman Zach Heath and safety Darwyn Kelly also are leaving the program as fifth-year transfers -- the Illini will narrowly fill out a two-deep this spring. That means there won't be many hard-hitting drills or much 11-on-11 scrimmaging during the 15 spring practices between Valentine's Day and March 10. This spring simply is back to the basics of fundamental football -- and furthering comfort in this staff's schemes.
"We want to focus in on the fundamentals and become more fundamentally sound than we were last year," Illinois defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson said. "So we'll spend a lot of time in slowing things down for the guys and going back throughout our alignment, our assignments, our keys, our technique and our fundamentals. Those are things we'll go back through and spend a lot of time on that. We don't have the numbers to really get after it and bang like we really want to, so we're going to use this time to really drill down on the details of what we want to get done and get better there. When we get to training camp, we'll be full speed ahead."
2. Will we learn anything about the QB situation?
The Illinois quarterback position will look a lot different this fall with juniorand tough runner Chayce Crouch as the likely starter, 2017 signee/track star Cam Thomas joining the fray and junior college specimen Dwayne Lawson likely arriving to push Crouch for the starting job.
But the spring will provide little glimpse at the future of the position. With Crouch sidelined following season-ending shoulder surgery and Lawson still getting work done in the classroom at Garden City Community College, the spring will mostly be the Jeff George Jr. show. The redshirt sophomore played in four games last season made four starts last season. He went 38-for-94 passing for 470 yards, four touchdowns and five interceptions.
"I'm really excited about Jeff going into spring ball," Illinois offensive coordinator Garrick McGee said, "because Jeff's been out there now. He knows what it's like to be on the field with Michigan State on the other sideline or Michigan in his first start. He's going to get a lot of work this spring, and I think he's -- or he better get a lot -- better throughout the spring if I'm doing my job right. I expect Jeff to come out of spring really with a good understanding of what we're doing in our offense and how to execute our offense."
McGee confirmed the walk-on Cam Miller -- who threw to Illini signee Ricky Smalling at Brother Rice -- will be the No. 2 quarterback during spring ball. Trenard Davis, who already has played cornerback and receiver at Illinois, is expected to receive mostly third-team reps.
"All three of those guys are going to get a lot better," McGee said.
Needless to say, very little will be learned about the most important position on the team. The more interesting storyline may be what Lawson is accomplishing in the classroom and what Crouch is accomplishing in his recovery from surgery.
"Chayce is doing good," McGee said. "He's throwing the ball now. He's running and pulling sleds and working. We're going to hold him. It happens with quarterbacks a lot with their throwing arm, so it's not a crisis or anything. You just want to take your time and make sure the rehab is nice and slow and make sure we do everything the right way and not try to rush him for spring ball when we don't have a game, just to make sure we get him back in fall and he's ready to go."
3. Who will be the ninth assistant?
Illini linebackers coach Tim McGarigle's departure for an analyst position on the Green Bay Packers staff leaves Smith with a spot to fill -- and maybe quickly before spring ball starts. Don't assume that Illinois will simply fill the ninth assistant spot with a linebackers coach. After all, the Illini have a pretty darn good linebackers coach on staff.
Nickerson, a five-time Pro Bowl linebacker in the NFL, acknowledged he could definitely assume the linebackers coach into his defensive coordinator duties -- possibly opening up the Illini to hire an assistant elsewhere, like a tight ends coach or a cornerbacks coach.
"I played the position," Nickerson said. "I coached the position at the highest level and have experienced some great production out of the guys I've coached in the past. That's something I could definitely do. We'll see how it all shakes out."
So who would be some targets? With Smith as the head coach, Illini fans should have confidence. He has a deep Rolodex of contacts in the coaching business and he has the cache, long-term contract and salary pool to draw some great candidates. Smith's focus last spring was to add good coaches. Now, the focus should be on adding someone with established recruiting ties. Thad Ward and Garrick McGee have deep ties, and Luke Butkus, Mike Phair and Andrew Hayes-Stoker have shown potential in recruiting. But the Illini could use someone with deeper ties in Chicago, Texas or Florida.
As has been talked about on this site last week, IMG Academy defensive coordinator Donnie Abraham checks a lot of these boxes. He played for Lovie and with Nickerson in Tampa and has coached in the Tampa area for about a decade.
4. Will newcomers stand out?
Illinois welcomed four newcomers to campus this spring, and at least three are expected to make immediate impacts.
Garden City (C.C.) linebacker Delshawn Phillips, a junior, is expected to fill the vacancy left by middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson.
"He's a guy we expect to come in and learn the system right away," said Illini defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson. "He's been in that type of role during junior college and also in high school, so that's going to be nothing new for him. It's just going to be about getting in the defense, operating in it and getting the calls and terminology and all of that down. I think he'll be a guy who will pick it up pretty quick and get moving pretty fast in the scheme."
Miami Central wide receiver Carmoni Green, a freshman, will add much-needed raw speed to the Illini receiver corps.
"There's an argument right now if Carmoni's the fastest guy on the squad," McGee said. "There's some guys, Malik (Turner) and Kendrick (Foster) are saying, 'I don't know about that coach,' but Carmoni's going, 'Yeah, it might be me.' Already with our strength and conditioning staff, he's already shown he has elite foot speed."
Freshman defensive end Owen Carney, Green's prep teammate, will earn an early opportunity to crack the starting lineup at one of the Illini's weakest position.
"Owen Carney is a guy who can move from right end to left end," Nickerson said. "These guys are high-motor guys, they're physical guys, they're difference-making type of guys who fit the mold of what we want to do defensively in our scheme. The biggest challenge is probably getting acclimated to football life in the Big Ten. That's the biggest thing. But we were recruiting the guys not only in fitting the scheme, but these are guys we feel can help us right away."
Freshman offensive lineman Howard Watkins should crack the two-deep rather quickly at guard (he likely will move to quickside tackle eventually) but probably needs some time to compete for a starting spot.
5. Who will surprise?
Last spring, several Illini emerged as potential difference makers. Junior running back Kendrick Foster shed weight and two-tenths of a second off his 40 time and looked like the best running back on the team. That proved to be true during the fall. Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Jamal Milan dominated on the second string. By midseason, he was a starter Redshirt freshman Cameron Watkins showed flashes of the length, athleticism and physicality that made him a late-season bright spot for the Illini.
So who will take big steps this spring and emerge as a surprise difference-maker in 2017?
Here are a few to watch:
- Doug Kramer, C: Want a sleeper starter on the offensive line? The undersized Kramer is your guy. Right now, Illinois plans to trout out a first string with Nick Allegretti at center, Darta Lee and Gabe Megginson at guard and Christian DiLauro and Jordan Fagan at tackle. But this group has versatility, and if Kramer -- a bright spot as a true freshman during fall training camp -- emerges, Allegretti could move to guard with Megginson shifting out to tackle. Kramer is short but he holds his own strength-wise, has a nasty streak and is really intelligent.
- Griffin Palmer, TE: The redshirt freshman has no experience but he has the most complete skill set (solid size, athleticism and hands) in a wide-open competition at a position full of questions.
- Evan Jones, DB: The redshirt freshman is a bit of a 'tweener, but he hits like a linebacker and is just a smidge slower than what the Illini want at cornerback. Yet, like Watkins, he has length, physicality and speed. At worst, he should be a contributor on special teams.
- Jake Hansen, LB: With Dele' Harding recovering from an injury, Hansen -- who was one of the Illini's best special teams players last season and earned a start -- will receive a ton of reps.
- Adam Solomon, OL: The redshirt sophomore has the Big Ten size and physicality the team is looking for, but he arrived on campus as a pretty big project. He should receive plenty of reps to gain even more comfort.
- Tymir Oliver, DL: The sophomore played as a true freshman despite a deep group of veterans in front of him. With Milan banged up, he will earn even more opportunity on the inside. And he has the versatility to rep a bit at strongside defensive end on running downs.