I attended the Illinois football open practice aka quasi-Spring Game event of the spring Saturday and came away with a few thoughts. While the practice mainly featured 11-on-11 scrimmaging, there weren't many reps for starting quarterback Wes Lunt, nor starting running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn. After nearly two hours of Illinois football, here are a few thoughts that stuck with me:
It's still surreal that Lovie Smith is the coach for Illinois football
I grew up in the Chicagoland area, and I took more than a few trips to Bourbonnais, IL, for Bears training camp. So seeing Lovie Smith, the same head coach that was at the helm of those Bears teams, decked out in Illini gear and running practice in Champaign was surreal. Fanboy opinions aside, where does he rank among coaches in the Big Ten? I'd argue that he's the best head coach in the Big Ten West. Urban Meyer, Jim Harbaugh, and Mark Dantonio rule the roost in the Big Ten East, but outside of Kirk Ferentz, (a guy Iowa fans wanted to fire before last season but couldn't thanks to the sizeable buyout in his contract) there isn't exactly a glutton of quality coaches in the division. Even with the same players, having an advantage on the sidelines -- instead of facing a disadvantage with Tim Beckman or Bill Cubit -- will pay dividends this fall.
Jeff George Jr. Came to Play
While Lunt was limited to just one series while I was in attendance, (he threw an interception to Darius Mosely after a long run by Vaughn) Jeff George Jr. was the best performer among the reserve quarterbacks. George Jr. wasn't afraid to push the ball vertically, something that the other quarterbacks failed to do, and connected on a pair of touchdowns to end drives. The depth chart among quarterbacks was decently muddled, as Jimmy Fitzgerald, Chayce Crouch, and George Jr. all saw time with reserve skill players, but George was impressive. There was a specific play that burned into my memory where George faced a Cover 1 defense (man coverage on all receivers, with a single high safety in support) and he dropped a beauty of a lob pass to Kendrick Foster, who was split out wide, on a go route. The starting quarterback position for 2017 is wide open, and with Lunt's injury history, there's a legitimate chance that one of these guys could see significant playing time for the Illini. For one practice at least, George Jr. appeared to be that guy.
The Illinois defense will be more multiple than you might think
There was much conversation and debate when Lovie was hired about how his staple Tampa 2 defense would translate to the collegiate game. After watching about two hours of scrimmaging, this Illini defense will be much more than just sitting in the Tampa 2 every down. I watched the Illini bring pressure with just a single high safety, in addition to sitting back and playing Cover 3. The key to any good defense is being multiple and seeing that Lovie wouldn't be obstinate in only playing his Tampa 2 was an encouraging sign to see.
There was a significant crowd on hand for the practice
Even though the Illini won't be having a spring game, there was still a sizable crowd on hand to see the boys in Orange and Blue. After being at the previous four Spring Games under Tim Beckman, this was easily the biggest crowd in recent memory, as the lower bowl on the west side of the stadium was relatively full of Illinois supporters. No, it wasn't 70,000 fans or whatever you might see at an SEC Spring Game on ESPN, but it was a sign that LovieMania held a little bit of staying power with fans who wanted to see this team simply take the field in a practice setting.