Anyone expecting big things from Illinois football in 2017 probably should take in the open practice on Saturday, March 4.
Tuesday's two-hour, unpadded practice provided media with their first full look at the Illini spring roster in action. It will be just one of two fully open practices this spring (among 15). Personally, it saves me a lot of time that they are closed -- because there probably isn't much to learn about the 2017 Illini in these spring sessions.
Here are a few quick observations that illustrate the state of the Illini roster:
- The Illini have eight scholarship seniors and 13-14 scholarship juniors, depending on if kicker Chase McLaughlin is on scholarship. So, about a quarter of its scholarship roster this fall will be upperclassmen.
- Nine players were sidelined with injuries on Tuesday, many of them key players: WR Mike Dudek, RB Dre Brown, WR Dominic Thieman, WR Mj McGriff, DT Kenyon Jackson, DB Stanley Green, LB Dele' Harding, TE Brandon Jones and FB Austin Roberts.
- Redshirt freshmen Jake Cerny and Kurt Gavin were elevated to the second-string offensive line, and early enrollee HoJo Watkins immediately cracked the two deep. Well, they had to -- because there are no third-string offensive linemen.
- Freshman Carmoni Green already is the third receiver on the depth chart. Sure, his quick feet and blazing speed have something to do with it -- but it's also because outside of senior Malik Turner and junior Sam Mays, there are no other healthy scholarship receivers available. Instead the Illini picked up three rail thin walk-on receivers to use as healthy fill-in bodies.
- Illinois' back-up quarterback is 6-foot walk-on Cam Miller, and Trenard Davis is just your prototypical third-string quarterback/punt returner.
Illinois is banged up. After all the season just ended 80 days ago. It basically is practicing this spring with half the roster we will see in August. It makes for a spring practice with little intrigue.
Most of the players we're itching to see in 2017 -- Dudek, Crouch, Dwayne Lawson, Ricky Smalling, Larry Boyd and the rest of the 2017 class -- won't be partaking this spring. That meas a lot of reps for some unknowns and likely fall third-stringers. It also means a lot of growing pains are likely this fall.
First look at depth chart
Please advise: the spring practice Day One starters are not a lock. Coaches mess with the rotation all the way until the the week of Game 1. But here were the starters and backups at each position on Tuesday.
QB - Jeff George Jr. // Cam Miller (wo) // Trenard Davis
- The Jeff George Jr. Show starts. Cam Miller had a nice rapport with Harlib on a few throws. But George Jr. should be the only on in the top-four of the depth chart by fall.
RB - Kendrick Foster // Reggie Corbin // Tre Nation // Chrisian Bobak (wo)
- One position that actually looks all right during spring. Foster may be the face of the team this season.
WR - Malik Turner // Keith Jones (wo) and Shaun Magill (wo)
- Turner looks like a pro.
WR - Sam Mays // Shawn McPartan (wo)
- Big year ahead for Sam Mays, who has the length and athleticism but must find consistency.
WR - Carmoni Green // Samuel Harlib (wo)
- Carmoni is just the kind of quick-twitch athlete Illinois needs more of. He's raw mechanically, but that's where this spring should really help him.
TE - Caleb Reams // Griffin Palmer // Zarrian Holcombe // Andrew Trainer
- Reams is short but the most experienced. Palmer is the most dynamic (and yoked) but has no experience. Holcombe still is pretty thin, and Trainer still is pretty slow. A lot of depth here, but not sure if there's a Big Ten starter here yet.
ST - Christian DiLauro // Adam Solomon
- Solomon is massive. It's his time to step up. He could compete at the other tackle spot or a guard spot if he does.
SG - Gabe Megginson // Kurt Gavin
- Megginson probably is a natural guard, but I think he'll have to move out to tackle
C - Nick Allegretti // Doug Kramer Jr.
- Kramer probably can hold his own at center despite his lack of size, which could allow Allegretti to move to guard.
QG - Darta Lee // HoJo Watkins
- Lee doesn't look quick, but he's pretty solid pulling. Still needs to lose some baby fat, but this is a big spring for him. HoJo looks the part, but he'll need a year.
QT - Jordan Fagan // Jake Cerny
- I just can't see Fagan actually starting here. I expect this to shake up in the fall.
DE - James Crawford // Owen Carney
- Crawford has now played at all three levels of the defense. He looks out of place at DE, but he's a pure speed rusher. Carney looks the part (as a freshman), but he'll take his lumps this year.
DT - Tito Odenigbo // Zeke Martin
DT - Jamal Milan // Tymir Oliver
- Good to see Milan healthy, and neither Odenigbo or Oliver has moved to DE, meaning the Illini are going to ride some freshmen out there.
DE - Henry McGrew // Sean Adesanya
- Adesanya certainly looks the part. He's big, quick and jacked. But due to injuries, we've never seen him play in a game -- nor many practices.
WLB - Tre Watson // Julian Jones
MLB - Delshawn Phillips // Christion Abercrombie
SLB - Justice Williams // Jake Hansen
- Delshawn Phillips immediately inserted into the starting lineup, as we expected. And he looks comfortable. No hitting yet, so hard to make an evaluation.
CB - Jaylen Dunlap // Ahmari Hayes
CB - Cameron Watkins // Frank Sumpter
NB - Chris James // Evan Jones
FS - Julian Hylton
SS - Pat Nelson
K - Chase McLaughlin // James McCourt
P - Ryan Tucker // James McCourt
- Neither punter looked great, but neither looked absolutely dreadful. Ligashesky needs to find a guy.
PR - Reggie Corbin // Malik Turner // Carmoni Green // Trenard Davis
- Donnie Abraham was in attendance. The former NFL player and IMG defensive coordinator officially was a "volunteer" assistant today. His hiring is simply a formality at this point, but the necessary paperwork takes time to get through campus protocol. Abraham today coached the safeties, with the help of Lovie. Paul Williams coached the cornerbacks. Lovie said after practice that the new assistant -- referring to Abraham -- willbe a quick learner. He also said Abraham will play a big role in the recruiting department. We will ask Lovie when Abraham's hire is official if that means he heads the department.
- Andrew Hayes-Stoker spent a lot of one-on-one time with Carmoni Green today. That's his focus for the next month.
- Defensive end Brandon Jones has moved to tight end. I think he's a better fit there. But there was a reason SEMO was his other scholarship offer. He's a project, but he has a big frame and is a good straight-line runner.
- New walk-on freshman Ethan Tabel will compete with redshirt freshman Sean Mills at longsnapper.
- Illinois hosted potential preferred walk-on candidate Alex Pihlstrom, a tight end out of Glenbard West. The 6-foot-6, 220-pound tight end holds some FCS offers. Expect him to hop on board with Illinois. I got to say, I'm kind of impressed by the caliber of preferred walk-on that Illinois is adding.
- I'm told Illinois will have three waves of junior days over the course of spring ball. But instead of hosting a hundred or so prospects per day, Illinois is going to be very selective and make it more personal for their top 2018 targets. Houston Griffith, Devin O'Rourke and Joseph Bonds are a few visitors this weekend. I heard Coran Taylor may visit too.