As Lovie Smith leads the Fighting Illini into his third training camp as head coach, his off-season moves show where he sees the program:
Any discussion of the 2018 Illini football fortunes must start with the elephant in the room: How does Lovie Smith address the quarterback situation? Last year’s Quarterback situation included a running quarterback coming off major shoulder surgery (Chayce Crouch), a legacy player who started as a walk-on (Jeff George, Jr), and a true freshman who won 3 games as a high school varsity quarterback (Cam Thomas).
Very early, Crouch proved that his poor throwing skills were further diminished by injury, George proved why he was never offered a scholarship out of high school, and Cam Thomas showed great wheels and an erratic arm. The result was an offense that mustered only 19 touchdowns in 12 games. Ugly all around.
So what does Lovie do: he fired offensive coordinator Garrick McGee, sought out a new coordinator to bring in a completely different offensive system in Arizona’s Rod Smith. He then goes out and signs 3 high school quarterbacks and brings in a graduate transfer. Lovie knows that 5 options at quarterback are better than last year’s 3 and that someone has to step up to play competitively in Big Ten games in order for his program to take a step forward.
We all know the tough spot the Illini are in: Can’t win without players, can’t recruit players without winning. Add to that, can’t win without representative quarterback play. With a returning late season starter in Thomas, the graduate transfer AJ Bush, and freshmen Coran Taylor, Matt Robinson, and MJ Rivers, Lovie is recognizing that fixing the QB problem is his most pressing need.
So, how does this break down during training camp? The biggest issue is how to get 5 inexperienced players enough reps in practice to gain proficiency and the trust of the coaching staff and their teammates. Thomas comes in with the edge in Illini game experience, and he got exclusive reps during spring ball in Coach Rod Smith’s quick-hitting spread scheme. All four other quarterbacks have been on campus all summer working out, studying tape of spring ball, of Smith’s Arizona offenses, working the white board, and developing timing with their receivers.
All of that work, whether the Illini coaches would ever admit it or not, has given Rod Smith a starting point to assess his quarterback pecking order. That pecking order will be evident early in camp, but it’s not set in stone. Guys emerge, guys get hurt, and when the pads start popping, some guys rise to the top. Still, how do you get everyone a fair shake and a legitimate look?
I think the answer might be found in the pace of the Illini offense, which Rod Smith wants to be lightning fast getting to the line and running plays. With 5 quarterbacks to get reps for (6 if you count Cam Miller, the only guy to get in the end zone against Ohio State last year), I think we could see two separate offensive units working in opposite directions, with Smith standing in the middle orchestrating everything. One play run going east, the next play starting 10 seconds later going to the west, back and forth, with Rod Smith being the fulcrum, using a scripted system of practice plays to go through everything and get twice the number of reps in a traditional practice setting.
All the practices are filmed from 3 different angles, so this would be a way to get twice as many reps (for the defense, too) and create twice as many teaching opportunities.
Without seeing the quarterbacks in action, I have no idea how to handicap the competition. Cam Thomas has elite quarterback speed and a strong arm. Last year in training camp, many of his throws sailed high, and the same thing happened during games. If the game slows down for him mentally, he could have a breakthrough. His working knowledge of Rod Smith’s offense should be ahead of the others, but he has to make plays.
The last ten days of camp, the pecking order will be pretty easy to see from the hill next to the Campus Rec fields. The top guy will get the most reps, the main backup next, and literally the other 3 will be fighting for scraps. Lovie has always leaned conservative offensively, so expect decision making and ball security to be high on the priority list. Players also know who is leading, making plays, and emerging as the Top Dawg.
As fans, we tend to watch the ball….quarterbacks, receivers, and running backs, but there is a lot more going on that we need to find out:
With all the spotlight on the quarterbacks, smart football people know that games are won up front, and last year’s Illini offensive line was not only young and inexperienced, but it was pretty bad. It didn’t help the offensive line that the quarterback situation was a mess, the best running backs were hurt, and the wide receivers were poor, but on it’s own, the offensive line play was atrocious.
But let’s put that youth and inexperience in perspective: Tackles Larry Boyd and Vederian Lowe came in with a LOT of baby fat, and Lowe was injured and basically missed all of camp. Alex Palczewski came in undersized and lacking the necessary strength to hold his own. Three names, all true freshmen. Doug Kramer, an undersized red-shirt freshman, got his first licks. Jake Cerny, another redshirt freshman, got some tick. Only Nick Allegretti, a junior and former US Army All-American, had seen real action and had any level of success.
Now this: the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores. Boyd and Lowe are in better shape, Palcho and Cerny have beefed up. Kramer is still short, but he’s stronger and more experienced than a year ago. Allegretti is back, anchoring the line from either a guard spot or from center.
The Illini offensive line should be better, even if Larry Boyd misses time due to disciplinary reasons. Lots of returning starts, and guys better understanding the speed of the game. This unit should move from 14th in the conference to one that could be in the 9-10 range. The thing that could derail those hopes is injuries.
Last year when I watched three training camp practices, I was shocked at the drop off in talent beyond the top 6 linemen. Shocked. My thought was literally, “how did these guys get Big Ten scholarships?” They were that bad. The fact that they were so much worse than players who comprised the worst offensive line in the Big Ten is even more shocking. Some of those players have matriculated elsewhere. Some of them remain, and hopefully, they have gotten a whole lot stronger over the last 12 months. However, they were so far behind from a strength standpoint, from a footwork standpoint, that I wouldn’t think any of those guys could ever start at any other public university inside the state of Illinois.
So, where does any quality depth come from? Highly recruited redshirt freshman Kendrick Green comes over form defense. 3 new true freshmen, Kievan Myers, Jordan Slaughter, and Ruben Unije come in to take their shot. Of the freshmen, my sense is that only Myers has a real chance to contribute this year. Slaughter is coming off major shoulder surgery and his surgeon didn’t even let him begin rehab for 6 weeks. I can’t see that shoulder being ready to hold up to the physicalities of Big Ten football practice. He may get in a game or two along the way, but I would be shocked if he’s not red-shirted. Unije is a real project. He was a part of a true developmental high school at IMG Academy in Florida, but he is so raw that he played much of the year on the B team, and didn’t see much action on the true powerhouse varsity squad. Unije is a huge young man, has good feet, and should be a real force on the line…..in 2022.
So, Illini fans, watch those offensive linemen drills and see who’s stepping up.
The most talented position group on this team, in my opinion, is the defensive secondary. Two consecutive strong recruiting classes give the Illini real Big Ten caliber athletes on the back end.
My favorite part of last year’s dismal Illini team was the young secondary. Safety Bennett Williams was an ESPN Freshman All-American. Tony Adams and Nate Hobbs showed real flashes of talent. Adams, coming off ACL surgery as a high school senior, was limited in camp and then hurt his shoulder midway through the season. Hobbs basically missed camp due to mono, then went right into the starting lineup. Again, all three of these players were true freshmen. There is real reason to believe that all three of them will be playing professionally once they leave UI. Real talent, with good freshman experience, developing.
Returning starter Stanley Green reruns as a hard hitting, if not personal foul prone safety. Solid Big Ten player.
The Illini need some of the newcomers to step up and be able to play as well as Williams, Hobbs, and Adams did a year ago. Nick Walker comes in as a juco transfer. Sydney Brown, a sprint champion and a heat seeking missile comes in at safety. The uber-athletic Jartavius Martin comes in looking the part of a Big Ten stud DB. Delano Ware and Dylan Wyatt are also coming in with length and aggressiveness. Today’s spread offenses mean 6 and sometimes 7 DBs on the field at any given time. The Illini need to find out which of these newcomers is ready to ball.
The one on one practice battles that these receivers have against a more experienced Wide Receiver group will be very telling. Which leads me to the next thing I would want to see at camp:
Are the freshmen ready?
Lovie Smith inherited a collection of talent that, sadly, would not have fared well in the the FCS playoffs. He’s got his second recruiting class in place, and they will be counted on more for depth than last year’s freshmen. But, at any given time, those guys might be on the field and need to make a play in the second half to win a game against Maryland, Purdue, Minnesota, or Nebraska. Training camp reps will show us who is ready. Here are a few match ups I will be looking to learn from:
Freshman TE Daniel Barker vs Redshirt Sophomore LB Jake Hansen. Barker looks smooth and athletic. He should be a good test for Hansen, who Lovie and Defensive Coordinator Hardy Nickerson love, but is coming off ACL surgery. Starting TE Lou Dorsey will be a nightmare matchup for any linebacker in the country. Barker is a better barometer for the healing Hansen.
Freshmen Linebackers Khalan Tolson and Jacob Hollins in space versus Illini RBs Mike Epstein and Reggie Corbin. So much of the modern college game is played in space with offensive coordinators spreading defenses horizontally and vertically, creating one-on-one match ups. When healthy, Epstein and Corbin are Big Ten caliber backs with adequate quickness. If Tolson and Hollins can chase those guys effectively and make some plays in space, the Illini will have some very important defensive depth pieces and special teams contributors. Tolson, in particular, is incredibly fluid and has freakishly long arms. I think he could be a WLB who chases a lot of guys down from behind, comes hard off the edge, and I will predict that he blocks at least one kick this season.
Freshman S Sydney Brown vs Sr Mikey Dudek and Freshman CB Jartavius Martin vs Ricky Smalling. Both freshmen just seem to be exactly who you would recruit to cover each of those veterans. Dudek, the cagey veteran, the Julian Edelman pesky slot guy vs Sidney Brown, a player who on film explodes across the field and arrives with bad intentions. Smalling had a solid freshman season for the Illini and has a physicality for an outside receiver. To combat that, a defender must be long, athletic and tough. Training camp will tell us if Brown and Martin are ready to compete against that level of Big Ten talent. My guess is they will hold their own.
Freshmen tackles Verdis Brown and Calvin Avery against Senior Nick Allegretti and Sophomore Alex Palczewski. The freshmen were the centerpieces of this recruiting class, both playing in the prestigious Under Armour High School All-American game. Allegretti is the closest thing that this young Illini team has to a grizzled veteran. He’s smart, tough, experienced, and will play well in the conference this season, like he did a year ago. Palczewski survived last year on the line because he has very good mobility and exceptional hand skills. He’s packed on some good weight and should take a big step on the Illini offensive line. If Brown and Avery can compete against those two guys, maybe, just maybe, the Illini will be able to stop the run someday….and soon.
Offense or Defense ahead of the curve?
This will be really interesting to see which side of the ball is showing the most growth. I would suspect the defense will be ahead of the offense because of the continuity of the defensive staff and the embryonic quarterbacking situation. An offense only progresses as fast as the quarterbacks who lead it. This will really be amplified early in camp because Rod Smith insists not only on speed to the line, but on making very quick reads once the ball is snapped. Defense relies on alignment and responsibility, then reacts.
During last year’s camp, the defense was so far ahead of the offense, and that held true during the season. Illinois played solid defense against Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa. I expect that unit to be solidly better this year than last year, so Rod Smith has to be able to move the ball with zygote quarterbacks against a league average Big Ten defense. If he can have some practice success, I think we’ll be pretty excited after the first two ball games.
How to practice hard and get ready vs safeguarding health….
Finally, Lovie knows he needs to win at least 4 ball games to move the chains. As fans, we hope that 6 or 7 wins are possible. That only happens with health. To prepare teams to play Big Ten football, you have to practice with a certain amount of physicality. This Illinois football team is thin, so any injuries are significant. After a couple more recruiting classes are in place, depth will be in place to cover injuries which are just a part of the game. But let’s hope that Lovie can get the team to Soldier Field for the game against South Florida in week 3 with everything in tact. This team will need some good luck to find it’s way to a bowl, none more important than physical health.