Fighting Illini football moved training camp inside Memorial Stadium on Friday and, man, was it a beautiful night. The temperature was perfect, there was a decent fan turnout on the West side, and Illinois even got a huge commitment from Missouri offensive lineman Larry Boyd!
The actual football wasn’t too bad, either. I didn’t watch the Spring game (always have very little interest in that) so this practice marked my first time watching the team under Lovie Smith — which is still rather surreal, it’s gotta be said. My biggest takeaway was that the defensive line will indeed be Illinois’ strongest position group. I entered the gates expecting as much, and they more than delivered during their two hours in between the lines.
Dawuane Smoot was the most impressive player on the field. The senior defensive end is most known for his pass rushing ability, but I think he’s very underrated against the run. One 11-on-11 (no live tackling) play especially stuck out. On a simple handoff from Wes Lunt to Keshawn Vaughn, Smoot exploded into the backfield with an inside move and nearly got a hand on the ball carrier before the exchange took place. It’s hard to comprehend how someone with Smoot’s physical build can be so quick — I guess that’s why he’s being mentioned as a possible First Round pick.
Carroll Phillips and Rob Bain were doing well in 1-on-1 drills, as was just about everyone on the defensive side (more on that in a moment). Gimel President was even back on the field and playing well after suffering an injury on Monday. I was looking forward to seeing a few reps from redshirt-freshman Jamal Milan, but he unfortunately didn’t suit up in pads due to what looked like a minor foot injury. At least, I thought I saw him wearing some sort of boot/brace.
For as great as the defensive line looked, though, their offensive counterparts struggled equally as much. The starters played fine for the most part, but the second unit was having a tough night. This seems to be a reoccurring theme out of Champaign. Adam Solomon, for instance, stepped in for Christian DiLauro (he got shaken up a bit) and was getting blown up by Smoot on just about every play. Gabe Megginson was also displaying some growing pains; the redshirt-freshman showed flashes of his high ceiling, but Bain really took advantage of him in a best-of-three matchup.
Still, Illinois should be fine in this area granted their first-stringers can stay healthy. It could be an adventure during Big Ten play if two or more of them miss extended time.
- I admittedly didn’t spend too much time watching offensive drills, but Wes Lunt looked great as usual in the bits I did see. The senior was spreading the ball around with regularity, and he completed two fantastic downfield passes to Justin Hardee and Zach Grant. The former was actually called an incompletion by the ref, but he obviously knows nothing.
- I suppose this was inevitable with Lovie Smith at the helm, but Illinois spent quite a bit of practice time on special teams. While Smith was off to the side chatting with recruits, Bob Ligashesky was really working hard with the kickoff unit.
- Illinois might have a good walk-on kicker? Chase McLaughlin hit three field goals (25, 35, 45) at the beginning of practice to best David Reisner.
- Kendrick Foster looked like Illinois’ second-best running back last night. I think it’s great that he ended up staying in Champaign because he’ll likely be getting regular reps this season.
- Mikey Dudek was wandering around the field. We miss you, Mike.
In other news — I’m back on campus now! I’m hoping to make it out to more practices this week so you can probably expect more Twitter updates from the main TCR account. Make sure to hit that follow button below.