Illinois has now completed most of its preseason football practices, including all its time at Camp Rantoul. With NCAA limitations in place, there are simply too few practices to mold a team into a cohesive unit so early in the season. And being such a young team, Illinois would benefit from many more practice opportunities.
However, some facts are becoming clear, and some players are showing well enough to earn extra playing time. I do not pretend to be an expert on all aspects of football, so my remarks about the players are my opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the coaching staff. But from watching several practices plus last Saturday's Rantoul scrimmage, I will share my views on how well our players are performing. I will save my more intangible feelings about the potential of the team for next week's column.
Since Illinois first began to emphasize a passing attack, first with Bob Blackman and later with Mike White, John Mackovic, and Ron Turner, the biggest single determinant of success for Illini teams has been the play of the quarterback. Our best teams always have a quarterback who can be relied upon to make plays under pressure. He is someone who can give confidence to his teammates by his mere presence, allowing them to do their jobs while trusting him to come through for them. Without that special leader, our teams always struggle, no matter how much other talent is present on the offense.
Jon Beutjer is now in his sixth year, and he certainly has the aura of a leader. He has at times made plays, but he has been inconsistent at best. He is a streaky, all-or-none player, and he looks great one game and then lousy another. When he is on, our team can look really good. When he is struggling, our team loses some of its focus. And when Beutjer has been sidelined by injury, our team has found him difficult to replace.
Beutjer is tall and can see over the onrushing defensive linemen. He has a strong arm, although he does tend to wind up rather than flip the ball from his ear. He is the most accurate long passer on the squad, and he seems to love making the quick score. If he has now learned to take what the defense gives and not try to force it to covered receivers, as he demonstrated at the Rantoul scrimmage, he will get an opportunity to make all kinds of passes. And if he can complete a few long bombs in our first couple of games, other teams will finally fear the deep pass and give us more room underneath for all our medium and short passes, plus all our running backs. To me, a healthy, confident Jon Beutjer on a roll is the one biggest key to our season.
We do have some other quarterbacks, but there is a big gap between one and two. I am uncertain who would replace Beutjer right now should he go down with injury, and all his replacements lack the experience to run the offense efficiently. Redshirt freshman Brad Bower has been given a chance to play with the second unit in fall drills, and he has begun to develop some confidence and show his skills. But if a freshman must play, Coach Ron Turner will be forced to limit the offense to increase his chances of success. It simply takes a long time to understand all the nuances of how to attack various defensive schemes, and Bower showed some tightness and confusion when called upon in the scrimmage.
Bower is among our taller quarterbacks at 6'-2", and he has the best footwork of the top four on the depth chart. In fact, he appears to be an excellent runner, as evidenced by his first naked bootleg, where he may have scored a long touchdown had he not worn the red shirt which forced him down with just a defender's touch. He shows confidence on his sprint out passes, using his speed to get to either boundary quickly where he can then throw a pass with zip and accuracy. And he is dangerous on scrambles, giving us another dimension for the defense to fear with his speed and running skill.
Bower's arm strength is not the greatest, and this tends to hurt him most on the long passes. But I have a feeling his arm strength will improve once he relaxes and becomes confident in knowing he will maintain or improve his position on the depth chart. Brad may not be our second best quarterback right now, but he has been given a good opportunity to find out. And like Kurt Kittner before him, Turner may continue giving Bower second team reps simply because he has more potential and needs the practice.
Tim Brasic and especially Chris Pazan have both seen game action, but neither has distinguished himself. Brasic combines intelligence with some maneuverability, but he lacks arm strength. Pazan has the arm strength but lacks mobility and height. It is hard to evaluate these two young men in practice, at least to this untrained eye, but they haven't shown that special spark needed to inspire the offense and lead the team down the field. Perhaps I have just seen them during their low cycles, but neither has demonstrated a readiness to start for the Illini at this time. When one of them begins to make plays under duress and gains the confidence of his teammates and coaches, perhaps that man will be ready to step up and be counted.
We also have two freshman quarterbacks, but they haven't had much opportunity to show their skills. There are too few fall practices to give quality time to youngsters when four others are all in need of practice time. Both Billy Garza and Kisan Flakes show some ability. Both are mobile, both are accurate with their passes, and Flakes especially throws hard with a good release. But they will need quality reps in the spring and next fall before we can see whether they can compete for next year's starting job.
Running back will be one of the strengths of this team. Three sophomores will all get playing time, and all should get good yardage at times. EB Halsey is quick, elusive, smart and durable. He is outstanding catching passes out of the backfield. And he is one of the best leaders to attend Illinois in some time. Pierre Thomas is a hard, slashing runner with churning legs that never quit. He is improving as a receiver. And Marcus Mason is also an excellent receiver while having some of Halsey's moves and some of Thomas' drive. If we can give them some holes, these three should complement our passing attack well. And raw freshman Walter Mendenhall cannot be discounted either. If he plays, it may be mostly on special teams, but he appears to have the size, speed and pass-catching skills to be an excellent running back in our offense. He missed the scrimmage with a minor injury.
Fullback also appears to be a team strength. Jason Davis is really looking quick and strong this fall, and he appears ready to play the role of previous Turner era fullbacks like Jameel Cook and Carey Davis in our offense. He might even improve on their performances. But don't discount Brian Grzelakowski and Brock Bolen, although Grzelakowski suffered a sprained ankle early in the scrimmage and may miss some practice time. They are both rookies, so jitters and inexperience may limit them early, but they are both hard runners and good receivers. And Bolen is especially promising as a blocker. If we can keep these three healthy, the Illini will definitely put more pressure on opposing defenses with their versatility.
Receiver should be a position of strength for us. At least, we have a large number of candidates for playing time, and receivers coach Robert Jackson said his potential top four have more athleticism than the four he recently sent to the NFL. Ade Adeyemo and Lonnie Hurst both gained much experience last year, and they are looking more confident and quicker this year. But they and steady possession receiver Mark Kornfeld, the man with glue for hands, are getting a great deal of competition from a group of maturing upperclassmen and athletic newcomers.
Kendrick Jones may finally be reaching his great potential. Perhaps the most athletic receiver on the team, Jones is finally starting to run the correct routes and make the catches necessary to give his coaches and teammates confidence in him. And if Kendrick is doing all these things, he can be a playmaker for us. He dropped a long bomb as he hit the ground to begin the scrimmage, but he made a super quick move to get separation on the play. And he later made two outstanding catches, one diving stab for a touchdown and another where he kept his balance after a tackle attempt and gained extra yardage.
Franklin Payne isn't as flashy or as athletic as Jones, but he is starting to gain confidence and make plays as well. Payne spent some time with the first string in the scrimmage, a testimony to the trust the coaches are starting to have in him. And he ran a reverse, a good play for an ex-halfback. These five upperclassmen are joined by some exciting youngsters in competing for playing time.
I don't want to sound overly optimistic about these newcomers because they still must mature and evolve within the offense. But I love their athleticism. Redshirt freshman DaJuan Warren is a converted quarterback who seems to have found his true position as a receiver. He is possibly the most fluid athlete on the team, and he has excellent speed. He also has great hands and catches a wide variety of passes. He has a bright future, and so does rookie Bryant Creamer.
Like Warren, Creamer is around 6'-2" and is strong, athletic and talented. He may play this year just because he is too good to sit, but his best days will be in the next three to four years. Both these athletes are behind the upperclassmen due to their lack of experience, but they are improving rapidly. Redshirt freshman Spencer Jensen and freshmen Andre Young and Alex Stroud all have potential for the future as well, although there may be too much competition for them to break in this year. Young is our tallest receiver, and Stroud catches everything in sight.
Illinois has had difficulty in recent years developing the tight end position, and this year may be no exception. There is some potential, but a recruiting upgrade is still needed there, in my opinion. Senior Anthony McClellan is probably the best blocker, and tall but slender Melvin Bryant the best pass catcher among the upperclassmen. But neither has as yet shown the kind of strength and athleticism necessary to force Coach Turner to involve them more in the passing attack.
Converted defender Zach Gray brings some strength and athleticism to tight end, but he is new to the position and inconsistent catching passes up to now. True freshman J. D. Kraemer appears to have much potential for the future as he is a good pass receiver and runner (Missouri hurdles star), and his 6'-5" frame has potential for much strength and weight gain. Kraemer may have to play, but at 220 pounds, he may not be ready for the rigors of blocking Big 10 defensive linemen.
A big key for the Illini offense will be the offensive line. How well these young men perform will go far to determine how successful we will be running our diversified pass/run offense. Personally, I think they can be one of our strengths, but some question that statement given last year's problems. Maturity and experience are vital in the offensive line, and we have more of that this year.
Last year, offensive guards Brian Koch and Matt Maddox were in their first year as starters, and Bucky Babcock was new to the right tackle position. Now, they and three-year starter Duke Preston at center form four fifths of an experienced line. J. J. Simmons is the heir apparent to Sean Bubin at the important left tackle position, and he has some athleticism to go with his 6'-6", 290 pound frame. He has looked pretty good to me, but then again we have no dominant pass rushers to test his ability. If J. J. can hold his own and these five players mesh into a cohesive unit, the offensive line can be an asset for us, in my opinion.
And there is no scarcity of talent among the reserves; they are all just inexperienced and need to keep developing their bodies. Promising redshirt freshmen Jim LaBonte, Martin O'Donnell, Ben Amundsen, Kevin Gage and James Ryan, from left tackle to right tackle respectively, may be our starting line some year. But right now, none are so dominant that they can supplant their more experienced upperclassmen. Jordan Kruger is actually ahead of Gage right now, and Kyle Schnettgoeke is ahead of Amundsen, so we do have some depth. Hopefully, it is quality depth.
Jason Reda appears to be the winner of the place kicking contest, at least for shorter kicks, over Steve Weatherford. Reda is a freshman, but he has a strong, accurate leg. Weatherford is a great athlete who competes in the decathalon for the track team. He is getting more consistent at hitting booming punts and should be a real asset for us in obtaining field position. Backup punter Matt Minnes is quite capable as well, although right now he is serving mostly as our holder on placements.
Morris Virgil, Marcus Mason, Kelvin Hayden and Pierre Thomas are all being tried as kick returners, with the first two receiving the kicks at the Rantoul scrimmage. Punt returner candidates include EB Halsey, Travis Williams, Mark Kornfeld and Spencer Jensen. Recruited rookie Kyle Knezetic is in a battle with walkon Tyler Keely for the long snapper spot.
Defense is a big question mark again this year, although there are some promising youngsters to offer reason for future optimism. Dominant defensive stars are hard to recruit, and we haven't had much success doing so. The key for us will be whether the team concepts preached by new defensive coordinator Mike Mallory can compensate for the lack of superstars. Regardless, they may be more rested this year if our offense can sustain drives, and this will help considerably.
Defensive line has some upperclassman experience and some promising newcomers. Defensive tackle Mike Maloney is a fifth year senior who is finally getting a chance to start. He has some quickness and has redefined his body from his high school years. Ryan Matha has finally recovered completely from his knee surgery of two years ago. It is hoped he will be able to reach his potential. But neither is projected as an All-Big 10 performer. They have some promising youngsters to support them, but they are hindered by a lack of experience.
Two names who may eventually be big-time players for us are Chris Norwell and the massive Charles Myles. Norwell is a converted tight end who is now up to 6'-6", 280 pounds and is an excellent athlete. Myles is at least as tall while weighing around 330 as we speak. Charles sat out last year due to academics, so he was not able to maintain peak condition. Since the summer, he has worked hard at losing weight, gaining strength and endurance, and he is beginning to show his athleticism.
With continued work and maturity, both Norwell and Myles can become outstanding defensive tackles. But it may be asking too much to expect them to dominate this year. Bryan Truttling and Adam Wilk are both much improved as well, although again, they are not so dominant they can supplant the starters.
Defensive end is possibly our weakest position. Mike O'Brien is our only quality player with experience. As a 6th-year senior, Mike has the maturity, athleticism and nasty disposition to be a star. But he is still only 245 pound due to his tall, slender frame, and he is still gaining strength from last fall's knee surgery. When healthy, Mike can be an excellent pass rusher, although his lack of weight might still hurt him when teams run right at him. We need a healthy O'Brien to play many minutes this year, but that is asking a lot given the severity of his previous injury and the lengthy recovery period required.
Scott Moss is an upperclassman at the other end position, and he is technically proficient. But he is neither extremely large nor exceptionally fast, and he has not yet shown consistent success either against the run or pass. He has some ability, but he will be facing many quality offensive lines. Backups James Stevenson and Arthur Boyd have some quickness, but they are lacking the size and experience we need so desperately at the position. In fact, walkon Josh Norris, a short but feisty 5'-11, 250 pounder out of Springfield was O'Brien's replacement at the scrimmage due to his quickness. Obviously, it would help if we had more athleticism at the position.
There is some promise for the future at defensive end, but it may not be realized this year. Xavier Fulton and Derek Walker are true freshmen who are athletic and look like defensive ends. Fulton is also in great shape as he frequently leads the linemen in the practice-ending wind sprints. But inexperienced freshmen defensive ends are usually seen as raw meat to opponent offensive lines, so it may take some time before Fulton and Walker begin to demonstrate their promise. Jay Ramshaw is back on the team, and he may eventually help at defensive end as well, although he also lacks experience. I can someday envision a quality defensive line of Walker, Myles, Norwell and Fulton, but that may be 1-2 years down the road.
I am not certain we have any outstanding linebackers either, but we do have more quickness and athleticism than in the past. Defensive coordinator Mike Mallory and coach Tommy Thigpen are both former linebacker stars, so if we are not good it will not be from lack of trying.
Mike Gawelek is finally getting a chance to start in the middle, and he has worked hard for this opportunity. He is showing necessary leadership and should give us some quality minutes, and his backup Joe Mele looks promising as well. Mele is only a redshirt freshman, but he has a nose for the ball. Rookie Sam Carson is third string in the middle, but I personally hope he can preserve his four years of eligibility. I think he would benefit from a year in the weight room and the extra maturity a year would bring.
Senior Matt Sinclair is our highest rated linebacker, and he is healthy this year and back at his more normal outside linebacker post. Matt has athletic skills, but I rarely see him make plays. I know he can, and I hope he will, but his past performance has been inconsistent at best. He is backed by redshirt freshman J. Leman, and J is an emotional player who has quickness and impressive enthusiasm. He may someday be an inspirational leader on the team, and his exciteability may make him a fan favorite.
On the weak side, the short but quick Josh Tischer has experience and began the fall as a starter, but he has missed significant practice time due to a hamstring injury. He may have lost his starting job to redshirt freshman Anthony Thornhill. Anthony is also not real massive, but he has excellent speed for the position. And true freshman Remond Willis has even greater speed and is being groomed for playing time this year. Russ Weil is another freshman who has shown good speed and might help us sooner rather than later at one of the outside linebacker positions. As is true of most of the team, youngsters play a big role with the linebacker corps, and how quickly they mature will help determine our potential for success this year.
I like our defensive backs this year, at least the starters. Cornerback Kelvin Hayden was moved from offense for his senior year, and he is still learning the position. But he is one of our best athletes and seems to learn quickly. He and the other cornerback Alan Ball, a true sophomore with speed, will fight defenders all the way down the field, and they have the attitude you need to compete at the position against all the prima donna wide receivers they will face. If they stay healthy, and if we can put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, I envision these two getting some interceptions and breaking up some passes.
James Cooper and the diminutive Sharriff Abdullah have some skills as backups, but they are still unproven. Cooper especially has improved since spring, and I believe he can help us. Freshmen Charles Bailey, a star hurdler who will also participate in track at Illinois, and Anthony Brodnax have also been given some practice at the cornerback positions, along with letterman Taman Jordan. So we have more depth than the last two years. It is just inexperienced depth.
Travis Williams is in his third year as a starting free safety He is one of our best players and an excellent athlete. He is backed by letterman Kyle Kleckner and frosh Jody Ellis. His strong safety running mate will be converted running back Morris Virgil, and Morris is one of the fastest players on the team. He has much to learn, and he is not highly trained as a tackler, but Virgil can often make up for mistakes with excellent closing speed. And if he can't do the job, aggressive redshirt freshman Kevin Mitchell and true freshman Justin Harrison just might. They both have excellent potential and will get playing time.
The above is a description of the players I expect to get the most playing time this year. As is shown, we have a large number of redshirt freshmen and true freshmen in positions where they may be called upon in key situations. This could be troublesome in the short term, but it might be a temporary problem if they are quick learners. At least, they are more athletic than some of our previous teams, and we have no glaring holes at any position.
But other than the commonly assumed fact that we will have a good offense but possibly not so good defense, I have not yet commented on our potential for the upcoming season. I will try to do that in next week's column.
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