On Tuesday August 14th, the Illinois fighting Illini Football team held another open practice during their training camp period, while getting ready for the upcoming season. There was a lot to watch for, as is typical with so many fresh faces when a new season begins, but these training period really allow us to look at exactly who could take a leap and become a household name this season.
Lovie and Co. had another good day with their young, talented squad, and the team didn’t disappoint the fans and media members in attendance, as Illinois showed off what could be the best top-to-bottom roster it has had in recent years.
Here’s some of the key things I noticed at today’s camp, for those of you that missed my breakdowns on Twitter.
M.J. Rivers had his best day thus far, after being rewarded with second team reps for today’s practice. He showed off his high arm strength that many Illini fans have pointed out recently from his high school highlights. Rivers comes into a quarterback race at Illinois that remains wide-open, and he certainly made his case today, completing on several deep balls and also on quick slant routes to all manners of receivers during both QB/WR Drills, and full-team offense/defense drills.
If Rivers can continue to build and get comfortable in Rod Smith’s offense, he certainly has the talent and ability to make himself a top-tier choice for the Illinois offense behind apparent QB1 A.J. Bush.
Rivers, however, has a lot of competition for the QB position, and will have to fight with, and likely surpass, the player who is the focus of the next thing I saw.
Matt Robinson, now an Illini fan favorite, continued Tuesday to showcase his abilities and make his case. From the start, Robinson really caught my eye. In QB/Receiver drills, Robinson showed off his accurate arm, completing both deep-ball passes on streak routes to speedy receivers like Mike Dudek, to corner routes from TE Luis Dorsey.
Robinson has really impressed Illini fans as of late with his ability to throw the ball, but Robinson also showed his running ability, on one play in a later drill, evading the sack from a defensive lineman, and scrambling for a fifteen-yard gain, and could easily have had more. Robinson, to me, looks like the clear-cut QB2 for this team that showcases one of the deepest Illini QB rooms in recent years.
I was impressed with Robinson today, even though Bush and Rivers got most of the time with first string units. He’s shown out through camp and will look to continue fighting for the primary backup spot, or even the starting spot, should Bush suffer a setback.
The Defensive Line showed out, and took the day from Offensive Line. The Defensive Line was matched up once again against the Offensive Line in today’s practice, and they certainly didn’t disappoint. The defensive line (in real-time drills) often got into the line of scrimmage and frustrated the offensive unit, taking sacks and tackles-for-loss at a high rate. The young defensive line is certainly a bright spot going forward, especially with the addition of one of my favorite freshmen, Calvin Avery.
The Illini Special Team’s Unit continues to impress me. As someone who loves watching special team’s work, the Illini have a great, talented group of kickers (and returners) this year. Blake Hayes continues his development, as his foot power is unparalleled to any that I’ve seen don an Illini uniform in some time. Placekickers like and Caleb Griffin continue to impress with their consistency in the position, and Coach Ligashesky’s unit will hope to thrive behind a new offense under Rod Smith and the newly-implemented offense.
Also, it’s worth noting the Special Teams performance, especially Blake Hayes, even “wowed” a certain legendary News Gazette writer who covers Illinois sports.
The team’s depth of quality the best it’s been in some time. It’s been a while since I’ve been to an Illini practice or early-season training camp where I could visibly not keep my eyes on one specific player, due to the large amount of talent on the field.
This year’s recruiting class brought in not only a solid stable of skill players, but with it the Illini also added depth and young talent at most of the positions. From linebackers to offensive linemen, the team is stacked with young, untapped potential.
The team looks fresh and ready to go for the upcoming season, and the sheer intensity players like Bennet Williams, Mike Dudek, and A.J. Bush (amongst many others) have shown throughout the early-season training camp practices points to a much-acknowledged fact: very few positions are set in stone.
Overall, Lovie’s team this year features a lot of positional battles, which bodes well for an Illini team that has for so long lacked the depth of talent that this year’s roster appears to have. With an already-booming Class of 2019 coming in next year, the staff will look to build this year, and have a seasoned core of sophomores and juniors to add to the special incoming class.