The Fighting Illini began their final week of spring practice as they prepare for their annual intrasquad scrimmage this Saturday in Memorial Stadium. With a scrimmage scheduled Wednesday as well, there was more instruction than hitting.
The biggest new development was the presence of basketball player C. J. Jackson in a football uniform. Coaches Locksley and Zook kept teasing him about how nice it would be to see him out for football, so Jackson finally decided to try it on for size. A highly rated defensive end/tight end out of Buena Vista, Georgia, C. J. was recruited for football by a number of big time schools, including Coach Zook while he was still at Florida.
It remains to be seen whether Jackson will stick with football or continue as a basketball player. Not only must he show aptitude and motivation for the sport, he must also exchange his basketball scholarship for a football one. NCAA rules require anyone out for football to be on a football scholarship and not a scholarship from some other sport. This will undoubtedly be a difficult decision for the young man.
First impressions are that he is already one of the tallest 2-3 players on the field. He has some mobility, although it was obvious he does not yet have his football legs and seemed a little unfamiliar running in his football uniform. We saw him make one good catch in limited action. C. J. Jackson looks great in his uniform, so we believe he has potential should he make the switch to football.
New recruits Daniel Dufrene and Mark Jackson are already on campus working jobs in preparations for summer workouts. And they work out on their own to stay in top shape. Both look to be excellent athletes from what we can tell.
Sirod Williams and Joe Morgan were both nursing ankle sprains and were working out on the side with the Strength & Conditioning staff. Injured at last Saturday's St. Rita scrimmage, both Williams and Morgan are healing faster than feared. It remains to be seen whether they can play this Saturday, but they should be fully recovered in the near future.
To these eyes, the offensive linemen seem improved over the last couple of weeks. They must go one-on-one against defensive linemen every day in practice, and some of the defenders have found weaknesses they could exploit in previous sessions. But today, the o-linemen were able to make quick, balanced adjustments. Their improved stability and alertness slowed the d-linemen down on almost every effort. Of course, perhaps tomorrow the d-line will dominate.
We have been evaluating the receivers throughout the spring, and now is a good time to discuss their progress. Receivers have complex roles to play in the offense, so it isn't easy for newcomers to grasp everything their first couple of years on campus. As important as catching the ball is, that is one of the last things a receiver must do on every play.
We often see receivers looking at yard lines so they will know exactly when to make their cuts. But if they are looking at the ground, they cannot always look up in time to see the passed ball clearly. This is a common reason why young receivers drop balls. Each play requires a precision guaranteeing each receiver will be where the quarterback expects them to be, and at the right time. If a receiver is thinking about it, he is unable to make his cuts at the right moment.
Another important aspect of receiver play is blocking. Receivers must be able to block fast defensive backs and burly linebackers in the open field. This is an extremely difficult job, and those who do it best see the most time on the field. This is one reason colleges look for tall, strong receivers as they can pack the best punch on blocks. Of course, size and strength can also help when needing to free oneself from the bump-and-run tactics of 200 pound cornerbacks and 220 pound safeties.
These are reasons why Rejus Benn was an important recruit for the UI. He still has a ways to go in learning the system and relaxing enough to play at his top speed. But he has all the intangibles needed to be a well-rounded receiver. He is big and strong, and even Illinois' talented cornerbacks cannot always limit his mobility. Benn is also fast and aggressive running the ball after the catch. His great straight arm against Kevin Mitchell in the St. Rita scrimmage was just an example of what's ahead.
Rejus still makes mistakes, and he is not yet up to full speed. But by fall, he should be far enough along to get significant playing time. As a slot receiver, he can also be utilized on option pitches and reverses, making him a dangerous threat to any defense. With time, we expect Rejus Benn will become a go-to receiver, which should make every other receiver's job easier as each can relax and play his own role.
Kyle Hudson is now a junior, and he is the quickest receiver in and out of his cuts. He was looking really confident and quick last fall at Camp Rantoul before suffering a hamstring pull, and that injury set him back considerably. He never seemed to regain the spark he showed as a freshman. But if Kyle can stay healthy, he can be a great asset because of his speed and jumping ability. Kyle is still slender and can be slowed by top cornerbacks who get their bodies into him. But he can get separation with his quickness.
Senior DaJuan Warren is the Illini's most experienced receiver. He is not a burner, but he is one of the tallest Illini receivers and knows the offense as well as anyone. Formerly a slot receiver, DaJuan has been seeing time this spring as an outside receiver. His size helps with blocking, and quarterbacks trust him to run proper routes.
Frank Lenti is also a senior, and he continues to play a valuable role as a receiver in addition to being a holder on kick placements. He is also one of the Illini's taller receivers and is a competent blocker. He and Warren are not flashy, but they can both be counted on to make the routine plays.
Chris James and Joe Morgan are true freshmen, but they are playing more relaxed after getting valuable playing time last fall. James has good hands and seems especially good at getting open for short yardage plays. He is also a good runner after the catch or on option pitches. Morgan is one of the taller receivers and is also one of the fastest. He will likely be the one getting open 20 yards downfield when longer plays are needed. Joe looks much faster this spring, now that he has some confidence.
Will Judson, Marques Wilkins and Dere Hicks are all getting opportunities, and each brings something to the table. The diminutive Judson is seeing the ball much better and now catches nearly everything thrown to him. He is the quickest receiver and may be the fastest player on the team. Only his small stature limits his potential.
Wilkins is improved over last spring, but he is still a freshman so has time to continue that process. We still see him struggling to make his routes precise, and he sometimes loses sight of the ball as a result. The coaches have been giving him every opportunity to show what he can do, which has undoubtedly improved his confidence. But he will need to continue this process to get significant playing time.
Hicks has excellent athletic ability. This is his second spring because he was a midyear addition this past season. And just like last spring, when he was learning cornerback play, Hicks is slowed by a lack of knowledge of the offense. He is catching on little by little, and as he does he shows more. Dere has quickness, speed and good hands. Only his slender frame limits his effectiveness. He did well as a backup cornerback last fall, so we know he will help out somewhere. It will be interesting to see how much Dere Hicks improves once the coaches decide where to play him.
Greg McClendon is the tallest wide receiver, and we usually like what we see of him. Unfortunately, he has not been able to practice much, both last fall and this spring, likely due to injury problems. He may not be as fast as some, but he is a good runner after the catch since he played running back in high school. And we have seen him make some good downfield blocks. But he will need to get healthy and practice consistently to become an option for the fall.
Jacob Willis played well for the Illini last fall, but he has not made an appearance this spring due to some academic issues. We are unsure what his status might be for the fall. There are also three walkons working out at receiver, but it is unlikely any of them will get significant playing time this fall.
Coach Zook mixed things up today by reversing the jersey colors of his offensive and defensive units. Whatever the reason, it served as a change of pace from the usual routine. Changes like this can keep the players upbeat and fresh as they work through the drudgery of frequent practices.