Illini Scoops, Ryan Evan, was one among many Illinois media members who attended the Illinois football scrimmage on Saturday. The turnout was what one would expect for a preseason event of the Illinois football program. There was an ample amount of fans showing their support for their team despite Memorial Stadium looking rather empty. This event signaled the end of open portion of training camp which consequently means that the football season is right around the corner.
It is quite apparent that the players weren’t playing tackle football, so a good chunk of the statistics might be skewed one way or another. Given that, we believe that we have 5 takeaways from the scrimmage that will stand true once the season comes around.
1.) We know who the starting QB will be.
The Illinois QB competition has been under a microscope for the entire offseason after last years abysmal season, that the QB’s largely contributed to. The Illini added three freshman QBs in Coran Taylor, MJ Rivers, and Matt Robinson. All have their strengths however only Matt Robinson really gave a real run at the starting job. Then the Illini have sophomore QB Cam Thomas, who was considered the favorite to land the starting QB gig at the beginning of training camp.
The man that we believe out preformed them all and will land the starting gig is grad-transfer AJ Bush. He is the most mature QB out of the rest of them, in terms of his physical tools. To go along with that, his speed when carrying the football, his strong accurate arm, and overall smart decision making, leads us to believe that he is the best fit for to be a big time leader for the offense this year.
2.) Freshman will be B1G, once again
All Illini fans know that Head Coach Lovie Smith played and started the most freshman of an FBS program last year. It came with a lot of growing pains, but those players gained a lot of experience. Well, the starting QB might not be an incoming freshman but that doesn’t mean the 2018 class won’t get a chance to put their mark on this season.
True freshman Jartavius Martin, Ron Hardge, Sydney Brown, Calvin Avery, Edwin Carter, Verdis Brown, Khalan Tolson and Jakari Norwood are all likely to see decent playing time given the way they preformed during camp. Remember, sophomore DB Bennett Williams got some playing time as a freshman last year, and he turned that into an ESPN Freshman All-American nomination. I wouldn’t put it past any of them to have a special season either. Illinois will add a couple Redshirt freshman Impact players as well, Kendrick Green and Lere Oladipo are poised for major contributions
3.) OC Rod Smith’s new offense is all about trickery and formations
The staple of Lovie Smith teams on the offensive side of the ball is the running game. When he had success with the Chicago Bears, he had Matt Forte and a formidable run game. Unfortunately, the run game was plagued by injuries to Mike Epstein, Reggie Corbin, and others. Last year, Illinois’ offense was ranked around the 150’s, which was close to the bottom of all offenses in the FBS. Since then, Garrick McGee was fired and in comes Rod Smith from an Arizona offense that averaged 41.31 PPG and totaled 4260 rushing yards as opposed to Illinois who averaged 15.42 PPG and totaled 1267 rushing yards. Adding to this, Rod Smith likes his offense to play quickly as opposed to using the play clock to it’s entirety. This means you should expect to see a majority of no huddle offense this year. To say that the offense might be in for a drastic change, clearly is an understatement.
As this offense is predicated on providing confusion, trickery, and movement, we noticed that there were a multitude of formations and sets that were used by the offense. There were some traditional formations such as the Pistol , however there were unconventional formations as well. For example, Aj Bush would line up with empty sets of 4 or 5 wide. This allows him to have many options to make a play with his arm, but also allows him to keep the defense honest with his feet. Another unconventional set that will surely improve the run game is a 2 RB set. This would really make the opposing defense do their homework as the the offense could elect to pass, run, or maybe throw an option keeper play for a specific individual. All in all I can’t wait to see what this offense is capable of this year.
4.) Depth is a strength for the Illini in the majority of the positions.
Along with having a young team last year, the injury bug plagued Illinois and lead to inconsistencies in players performances. That should be minimized this season with the number of talented individuals this years roster possesses. For example, just look at the DBs. The most likely starting secondary would be Cameron Watkins, Nate Hobbs, Tony Adams, Bennett Williams, and Stanley Green. After that, the secondary is three deep at the four corner and safety positions. Thus an injury to any of these positions doesn’t seem that problematic.
There is a concern at linebacker however, as this position is very limited. Currently the projected starting linebackers are Del’shawn Phillips and Jake Hansen (coming off an ACL injury). An injury to this pairing would force a freshman to come into action and could prove to be a problem.
5.) Mikey Dudek and Ricky Smalling are the WR combo we’ve been waiting for
Speaking of “Mikey Flash”, he’s back and ready to make some noise this season. If Illini fans recall, the RS Senior Dudek, had a phenomenal freshman season at Illinois recording 76 receptions, 1036 yards, and 6 TDs. This helped Dudek garner national attention on the way to being named a Freshman All-American. Since then, Dudek has had a rough career at Illinois, that has been defined by injuries. 2 summers ago, he tore his ACL during a practice drill. He went through the 8-12 months process of building himself back up only to be broken again the following summer. He tore his ACL in the opposite leg and had to repeat the process all over again. He made his comeback last season but was never fully 100%. Now, he is looking to contribute greatly to this years offense and will be a focal part of the offense according to coaches Rod Smith and Lovie Smith.
Then, there is the athletic freak of nature that is sophomore Ricky Smalling. He was the gem of the 2017 class and lived up to that bill despite the QB play. His freshman season stats were 31 receptions, 510 yards, and 2 TDs. He also gained national attention by making some truly amazing catches that were even featured on ESPN SportsCenter Top 10. Along with this, Ricky Smalling has become, one of potential starting QB, AJ Bush’s favorite targets in the offseason, as evidenced by his connections with him in practice as well as the scrimmage.
These two WR’s potentially could be one of the top 3 duos in the entire B1G Ten Conference. If the QB play is improved and these playmakers can receive enough targets, expect them to put up monster statistics.