Day 2 at Camp Rantoul provided a nice glimpse of the future of Illini football. Everything you've heard about this talented new class of freshmen is true: they are bigger, faster and more confident than any class of football recruits anyone can recall, unless you're Loren Tate.
Sitting from the bleachers on what turned out to be a beautiful summer day–one I am sure the players very much enjoyed–these are the plays and players that caught my attention:
Isiah "Juice" Williams: The reports of his arm strength are accurate. The kid has a cannon for a right arm and is built more like what you'd expect to see in a linebacker than a quarterback. If he were just a few inches taller he'd be the next Duante Culpepper.
Eddie McGee: This young QB from D.C. is an intriguing prospect. Like any other freshman QB, he needs to refine his footwork and he also needs to put on some weight. He's a tall kid who could use about an extra 20 pounds, if not more. Like Williams, he is very agile and made for the kind of offense now being employed at Illinois. He has a very good arm as well. He doesn't possess Juice's "Howitzer," but the kid can sling it. Illini fans are excited about Williams, naturally, but keep an eye on McGee. A redshirt season seems likely, but no one should be surprised if sometime down the road Eddie McGee is your starting QB.
Jeff Cumberland: Again, everything we have heard about Jeff is true: he is a big kid who can really run. He also showed very good hands today. He will be a major match-up problem for defensive coordinators. Having Cumberland running over the middle of the field should really help open up the offense and give the receivers and backs more breathing room. Given Illinois' lack of depth at the position–combined with Cumberland's ability–there's no foreseeable scenario where this kid doesn't start and contribute heavily at tight end in every game during his time at Illinois. He's by far the best prospect at TE Illinois has had since...?
Chris James & Marques Wilkins: Both show great promise, but given Illinois' depth at WR I think it will be very hard for either to make a big impact this year. They did show good quickness, hands and route-running skills. If this were last year, both these guys would see the field a lot. The Illini receiving corps is in very good shape if guys like James and Wilkins are battling to even get on the field. I did not get the chance to watch Joe Morgan.
Randall Hunt & Ryan Palmer: These are two very impressive young offensive linemen. Both have great size and strength and both accounted for themselves very well in drills against the Illini defensive linemen. I know what you are thinking: "My grandma would look good against the Illinois defensive front." No, that is not true anymore. But I'll get to that later. While both young linemen looked good today, I was particularly impressed by Palmer. This huge kid from Ohio was a steal. The Buckeyes' O-line must be stacked for the next few years if they can pass on a guy like Palmer. I will be surprised if Palmer isn't starting one day, and very soon.
Vontae Davis: The brother of the NFL's highest-paid TE has great size for the CB position. However, today Vontae didn't really stand out. I was hoping to see him knock receivers off their routes with his great size and strength, but it didn't really happen. I think that has more to do with him getting accustomed to the speed and complexity of the college game than it does anything he lacks in skill or smarts. All Davis needs is time. He will be a key part of a revamped Illini defense.
Brandon Jordan: Big Brandon was causing havoc in drills against the Illini line. He is a very big guy and incredibly strong, but he can really move. Wow. No one from the D-line seemed to shed blockers and get penetration as well as Jordan. At one point he literally threw sophomore Dan Motuliak to the ground on his way to sacking an invisible QB. This caused a wild cheer to break out among the other D-linemen watching. It was definitely one of the more enjoyable moments of the day, and probably the most impressive. Jordan was the biggest surprise of the day for me. Definitely remember his name.
Clay Nurse: Like Jordan, I will admit I wasn't really expecting to come back from Rantoul thinking of Clay Nurse. But I liked what I saw from this young DE. He was much bigger than I expected, and looks a whole lot bigger than his listed 235 lbs. He wears #97 and, although it's a little too early to say he'll be the next Simeon Rice, he showed a very good burst off the line and was able to get good penetration against the Illini line. Another name to watch.
- The wide receivers look phenomenal. And boy are they plenty. Today's bright spots were Derrick McPhearson, DaJuan Warren and Jody Ellis. McPhearson looks like the guy we were all excited about going into last season. He looks completely healthy and ready to go. He is the clear #1 at this point in my eyes. WR coach Dino Dawson praised Derrick several times for running precise routes and exploding up the field after the catch. If you read any of my Rantoul reports last year, you may recall I am a fan of Warren. The guy is a big target and has great hands. No one works harder than him. He runs crisp routes and runs them hard. Just get the ball near him and he will find a way to gather it. Ellis showed again why the coaches switched him over to receiver last season after starting out as a DB. Like McPhearson and Warren, he runs great routes, has great hands and accelerates up the field immediately after the catch.
- We all love Juice. He's a dynamic personality and he posts on the football forum. He's got a bionic arm and can scramble for yards on the ground. He's got tools Tim Brasic doesn't have, or at least the same tools, only better. But what Brasic has over Juice is experience and it shows. Juice will learn the offense and improve his mechanics and footwork. Ultimately, whether Juice starts or not depends on Brasic. If Tim steps up to the challenge and takes command of this team, Juice will have a hard time unseating Brasic. If he doesn't show improvement from last year, Brasic will find himself watching from the sidelines as Juice takes over the reins. This battle at the QB spot–if there indeed is one–should only get more interesting as time goes on, especially if Brasic struggles and/or the Illini aren't winning games. The discussion could go on all year and we could have revolving quarterbacks. Or we may see one of these guys grab holf of that #1 spot and keep it all year. Who knows at this point?
- Akim Millington is a beast. He's ready. Believe that.
- How can you not love DT Josh Norris? The guy is all heart. If he had the size to match his heart he'd be in the NFL next year. Springfield should be very proud of this kid.
- I got to sit next to and chat with DE Will Davis' mother for about 5 minutes. She came all the way from Maryland just for practice and she does the same for each game. She was a very nice lady and you could tell she was really full of pride watching Will out on the field.
- Offensive Coordinator Mike Locksley is nuts. If you're not sure who he is and you plan on making a trip to Rantoul, just listen and look for the guy yelling the loudest. He's not lacking for passion, to be sure. He demands excellence from his guys and that is never a bad thing. With a year under his belt and better tools to work with, his offense looks much more fluid this year. The passing game in particular looks very sharp.