Illinois held spring practice No. 12 on Saturday, only the second spring practice open to media and the only practice open to the public. Here are my biggest takeaways
- Illinois got after it a bit, a rarity this spring. Lovie Smith scheduled 72 plays for live 11-on-11 -- and they went full-out tackle to the ground. It was good to see some actual football, even if I did sneak inside to watch a little of that atrocity at Rutgers.
- Saturday was another reminder that Illinois is incredibly thin this spring. One scholarship quarterback. Three scholarship wide receivers. Four scholarship defensive tackles. And many of the intriguing players on this team are either on the sideline or not on campus yet.
- Quarterback is an issue right now. Jeff George Jr. still puts the ball in danger far too often. He doesn't have much to work with and I still like a lot of his intangibles. Freshman WR Carmoni Green had a ball go through his hands, and George Jr. just screamed at him, "You got to catch the ball!" Behind him are walk-on Cam Miller and former DB/WR Trenard Davis. The latter can be fun when he's on the run and improvising, but if either is on the field at QB, Illinois has major issues.
Some good news: Chayce Crouch started throwing the ball today during warm-ups and a few drills. This was the first day he was cleared to do so. He won't have any competition until Dwayne Lawson gets to campus, whenever that is.
- The Illini are in good shape at running back. Like they were with Ke'Shawn Vaughn last offseason, the Illini are taking it easy on Kendrick Foster. I didn't see him take any reps in 11-on-11, but he was in full pads and doing some workouts on the side. Reggie Corbin again showed his shiftiness and broke off some medium-sized gains. He still doesn't have breakaway speed, but he's a playmaker. He just has to show more consistent hands in the passing game. Tre Nation is solid and had a few nice medium-sized runs. One kid coming on is walk-on RB Christian Bobak. He looks capable of contributing in a pinch if need be. He's not very big or very fast, but he has good vision and hits the hole fast and hard. The Illini are pleased with him.
- Malik Turner is the best offensive player on the field. I think he's a pro. Long, athletic and underrated speed. Sam Mays will make a few plays but must be more consistent. The Illini need him this season. He's still thin, but he can be a go-up-and-get-it weapon. Carmoni Green is raw speed. Great foot quickness and gets in and out of breaks quick. He's just really unrefined -- especially compared to Ricky Smalling -- but that's why it's great that he's here this spring. A lot of one-on-one time with Andrew Hayes-Stoker.
- I like what I see out of Griffin Palmer. He's probably a year away from being truly ready to be a Big Ten starter, but he's physical and is good in the intermediate pass game (more dump-offs and outs). The guy who may emerge at tight end is Nate Echard. He's playing more on the line of scrimmage. He's the most physical blocker of the group and caught a touchdown pass today. Zarrian Holcombe is athletic and long, but he's still a 'tweener. He plays in some two tight end sets and usually goes in motion and splits wide. Andrew Trainer and Caleb Reams both are out with injury. Walk-on Bobby Walker is getting a lot of reps. He needs to add some strength, but he seems to be doing everything the staff asks.
- Illinois is mixing up the offensive line to find its best five. Today, Doug Kramer started at center, moving Nick Allegretti to guard and Darta Lee to the second group. Adam Solomon started the day at tackle but Jordan Fagan replaced him midway through the day. I'm a fan of Kramer. He's undersized, but he's strong, scrappy and smart. He holds his own. Allegretti is their best guard too, so that might be the right combination. Christian DiLauro looks healthy after playing with a knee injury last season. He's just solid and still has quick feet and a nasty streak. Solomon struggled a bit in pass pro, especially against speed rushers. That's to be expected, but his ceiling is so much higher than Fagan, who just isn't strong enough and really isn't that great in pass pro either. Lee still needs to drop weight. He should have redshirted last season. Larry Boyd is going to have a chance. Gabe Megginson is gradually getting better. I think he'll get to his ceiling, but I do think he is a guard rather than a tackle. With Kramer on the first string, Kurt Gavin took over at second-string center. He, HoJo Watkins and Jake Cerny all need more time in the weight room and a lot more reps. Watkins moves well for his size, but I don't see him as a factor this season.
- The star of the day may have been defensive end James Crawford. He got after the quarterback and had several sacks. He's a pure speed rush guy, but he's really good at it. He's up to 220 pounds (up from 205 in the fall) and wants to get to 240. He probably won't play much on run downs, but he's kind of a natural as a speed rusher. He has a great first step and can get around or under offensive tackles. The Illini are pleasantly surprised with him. Owen Carney, like Green, is raw talent right now. Good length, size and burst, but he just needs to learn how to use his hands more. After missing the last two years with injuries, Sean Adesanya is finally healthy and back on the field. He needs a lot of work on technique, but he is really, really strong and a solid athlete. The Illini need him to step up. Henry McGrew is just a solid run stuffer. That'll get him on the field a lot. I didn't get much of a look at the defensive tackles today.
- Delshawn Phillips has missed most of the spring with an injury. Tre Watson is at MIKE linebacker, and Jake Hansen has a big opportunity at WILL linebacker -- of which he's taken full advantage. Good athlete, good instincts and a sound tackler. The staff really likes him. Julian Jones is the guy at SAM linebacker right now. He reminds me a bit of Caleb Day. Undeniably a good athlete. But is he a good football player? He's still just a junior, but this is a big spring for him.
- Jaylen Dunlap might be the best defensive player on this team. Just a great frame, good athleticism and very physical. Cam Watkins is the second best cornerback, but Frank Sumpter seems to have solidified himself as the third cornerback, usually with Watkins or Dunlap moving into the nickel spot. Ahmari Hayes is the fourth guy right now. I like Evan Jones as an athlete, but admittedly, he's a 'tweener. Stanley Green remains sidelined with injury. Pat Nelson had a really good day though and should be the starting strong safety the next two years. Just lays the hammer. Julian Hylton and Harvey Clayton got a lot of work at free safety today. Hylton is one of the team's best athletes, but Green outplayed him last year. Not a bad depth option, though.