It was a great two days in Rantoul, and I can confidently say we are a better football team. I have answers to all the questions I had in my pre-Rantoul post.
Oh my gosh receivers. I think this group might be better than last year. Seriously just wait until you see them they are legit; they are certainly more athletic, which I didn't expect at all. They are almost all ready to contribute THIS year. I talked to WR coach Mike Bellamy and he is super excited about this group. Here's why:
Mikey Dudek will be in the slot for us. One thing about him: his hands are like glue. Throw it anyway around him and he'll catch it. He finds a soft spot in the zone and we throw it to him and he catches it. He can go get it over bigger defenders and still catch it. He will contribute immediately in the fall.
Justin Hardee was better than I expected. We haven't been hearing much about him because he's been overshadowed by the new guys. During Thursday's practice he was catching everything with his body which was a bad thing. Today, I thought he looked better and he caught mostly everything. He is still having some problems with drops, but I think he will be the number 2 receiver on the outside. He has definitely gotten better.
He will be the statistical leader of the receivers. He is a big guy and strong. Geronimo will be the number 1 receiver, also on the outside. He has nice hands, and is an overall good player. He didn't make any spectacular plays, but was consistent the whole time. He was dealing from a nagging injury, but was healthy the last two days.
Martize is really the emotional leader of the receivers. He is the oldest player and most vocal in the group. He was mostly lined up in the slot. He didn't really get a lot of targets, but made catches when he was targeted.
MALIKKK! Malik Turner could possibly be the best receiver in this entire group. He is a steal for the Illini. We got him even though Ohio State and Oregon tried to come after him late. He has a big frame and catches everything. He can get to balls that nobody else can and has NFL Potenital. I'll just let these sum it up for you:
Guy in the corner was Juice Williams, he was there all day. One more thing: Lunt to Malik ALL DAY. And yes he caught both of those in bounds.
Get to know the number 88. I had no idea who he really was going in and now I know. He made plays all day, and Lunt (high school teammate) loves throwing to him. He made some tough grabs too. The thing with him is he's actually really good and will be in the rotation this year. He caught a ton of post routes and that's something I see him doing.
Another name I did not expect coming in to camp. Marchie put on a show. He was catching tons of balls, and will also be in the rotation. Marchie's specialty is also finding soft spots in zones. He can also catch some outs and slants. He really impressed me.
TSD. He is probably the least developed and farthest away of any of the receivers listed. One major upside for him is he is our guy that will run vertically. His specialty was catching deep flies from Lunt, but he also made a few nice grabs on slants today. Here the Lunt to TSD connection yesterday: TSD.
And here we thought we weren't deep or good at receiver. They were great today at morning practice and could be very good during the season.
The linebackers really impressed me. The Earnest Thomas-TJ Neal-Mason Monheim group is really good and can cover the pass and the run. Yesterday Earnest made a great play and tipped a ball away. Today Monheim made a nice interception. And overall I think TJ Neal did a really good job stuffing the run. Earnest Thomas' move to STAR looks like it could be great for us, and he might breakout. We've seen Mason Monheim the last two seasons do well, but he will be even better this season.
It's over. They might wait until the end of Rantoul to announce it, but Wes Lunt will be the starting QB for the Illini. He ran with the ones the entire time in both practices and is ahead of both Bailey and O'Toole. Bailey has looked much better the last two days and has pulled back ahead of O'Toole.
This one might not be as important to the team, but in person the helmets look awesome. They are a cool sort of orange chrome color. Nike has never used it before and it looked very good on us. If you look at yesterday's gallery, you can see an up-close picture of the helmet, with a plastic sticker on the front so it doesn't get ruined in camp.
- Kenny Nelson is super tall and can consistently beat O-Linemen. I look for him to have a big year. Austin Teistma played well too.
- Jihad Ward is on another level. When the D-Linemen were doing a drill where they pushed up the sleds he made the darn thing shake! He still needs some technique work, but he is one of those players that could come in and have a monster sack then go back out. He might not be able to put it all together immediately, but he definitely will. He's also super nice--I talked to him after practice.
- The coaches are now trying Jake Howe, the D-Lineman, at fullback. You know Cubit.
- The O-Line looks solid in 4/5 pieces. If they can figure out a right tackle, right now it's Flavin, we will be okay.
- A cool thing to see was the group of Paul James, Kenny Nelson, Abe Cajuste, and Kenny Knight doing extra work after practice by themselves. This is really good for them and shows how much dedication they have.
I noticed a leader on each side of the field in the last two days. Here they are:
Offense: Teddy Karras, Junior OL
Teddy was giving tips and advice to all the younger offensive lineman on both days. He was both a vocal leader and he also leads by example.
Defense: Earnest Thomas III, Senior STAR
Earnest Thomas was always motivating the young players on the defense. For instance today when the twos were on somebody would make a play and he would yell their number and congratulate them.
Overall, I think we are a better football team capable of winning 6,7, or even 8 games. The wide receivers surprised, the QB is locked down, and the defense is much improved. There's reason to be bright for the upcoming season and you can yell one word to pump you up for it: MALIKKKK