The first Fighting Illini training camp practice is in the books and, by all accounts, it went pretty well! There were no injuries, and plenty of fans turned out to see their first glimpse of Lovie Smith wearing a new shade of Orange and Blue. But it won't be all fun-and-games for the coaching staff in the weeks to come.
There are several important position battles that need to be figured out ahead of the team's opener against Murray State, and these reps are invaluable tools that help determine winners. So here are four big competitions to keep an eye as we approach Week 1 kickoff.
Candidates: R-SO Chayce Crouch, R-FR Jimmy Fitzgerald, R-FR Jeff George Jr.
Wes Lunt will be Illinois’ starting quarterback. But what happens if he misses another extended period of time with an injury? There are three options, but only one has seen playing time at the collegiate level.
That lone individual with prior experience is Chayce Crouch. While being used sparingly in 10 games last season, Crouch compiled 160 yards on 15-34 passing with 2 TDs and 1 INT. The redshirt-sophomore was primarily used in short-yardage situations under Bill Cubit due to his ability to run the ball. That alternative look comes with a cost, though, as Crouch has the worst arm out of the entire group.
Redshirt-freshman Jimmy Fitzgerald offers a more all-around package under center. Granted, we have yet to see the Champaign native in an actual game, but he’s shown a solid arm and playmaking ability in a limited number of public reps.
Finally there’s Jeff George Jr., who was pretty incredible during Illinois’ open practice this Spring. George’s arm is an absolute cannon, and that asset alone may vault him into the starting conversation come 2017. The problem in the small sample size we’ve seen, though? Consistency. We know George can make the plays — he just needs to do so on a more regular basis.
Ultimately, this may be the toughest battle to predict because we have no idea what Illinois’ offense will look like under Lovie Smith and Garrick McGee. So for now I think Crouch is the safest bet due to that prior experience and versatility. Having said that, it wouldn’t be surprising to see this competition extend into the regular season, with all three players seeing the field during garbage-time against Murray State.
Starting Offensive Guard
Candidates: R-FR Gabe Megginson, SR Connor Brennan, R-JR Zach Heath
The Fighting Illini have another interesting question on the offensive line. Should they give the starting nod to the talented, inexperienced freshman? Or the dependable, low ceiling upperclassman?
Redshirt-freshman Gabe Megginson, a four-star recruit out of high school, has the potential to become a dominant Big Ten lineman, but he’s still working on his strength and fundamentals. Senior Connor Brennan fits the bill of the scrappy, consistent veteran, and he’ll be pushing for playing time in his final season. Additionally, Zach Heath may have a chance at the starting spot if both Megginson and Brennan fail to impress during practice.
Megginson looks like the favorite to win this job and, until someone starts reporting otherwise, I’ll agree with that sentiment as well.
Backup Running Back
Candidates: R-FR Reggie Corbin, R-JR Kendrick Foster
Sophomore Ke’Shawn Vaughn is going to get carries. Like, a lot of carries. He’s the only proven back on the roster, and he’ll be one of the main features of Garrick McGee’s offense. Behind him? A whole bunch of uncertainty due to another ACL injury to redshirt-freshman Dre Brown.
Redshirt-junior Kendrick Foster is the only other back that received carries last year, and he almost transferred! But he’s returning for another round with the Orange and Blue, and he’ll be hunting for a bigger role during training camp. Foster doesn’t have top-end speed, but he’s a reliable carrier that isn’t afraid to run between the tackles. His competition? Redshirt-freshman Reggie Corbin. The Washington D.C. native returns to action after missing the 2015 season with a torn labrum, and he has the ability to make plays on the outside.
It’s worth nothing, though, that Illinois doesn’t really need someone to become a dynamic playmaking machine here — they already hope to have that in Vaughn. No, the staff needs a player who can handle 5-10 carries each game, pass block on situational downs, and take care of the football. That description seems to favor Foster, so we’ll see if he does indeed get a majority of the No. 2 carries over the next few weeks.
Starting (No. 2) Cornerback
Candidates: JR Ahmari Hayes, SR Darius Mosley, R-FR Cameron Watkins
Illinois' defense is shaping up to be the defining characteristic of this team (shocking under Lovie Smith, I know), but there's one big hole in the secondary that needs to be filled. Who starts opposite of Jaylen Dunlap at cornerback?
One candidate is Ahmari Hayes, who joined the program this offseason as a JUCO transfer from California. Although Hayes has the size and length to make an immediate impact in the Big Ten, no one -- including the new staff -- has actually seen him in action. Darius Mosley, on the other hand, is the most experienced defensive back on the team. While the senior struggled in 2015, his 36 career games give him a leg up to start. I also wouldn't be too surprised if speedy redshirt-freshman Cameron Watkins wins the job provided he has a good camp.
I think this spot on the field may be a rotating door, depending on the coverages that Lovie Smith and Hardy Nickerson call. Each option has advantages, and the staff will surely do their best to utilize those skills in the proper situations. Still, I think Hayes will see a majority of the reps to begin the year.