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Ricky Smalling: Best Illini receiver since A. J. Jenkins

Freshman wideout proves that he is a force to be reckoned with.

Rutgers v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

If this freshman class for Illinois football proved anything, it's that the foundation class for Lovie Smith has enormous upside.

No player embodies that notion more than freshman wide receiver Ricky Smalling. He proved time and time again as the season progressed that he will be a force to be reckoned with.

As the seasons melded into Big Ten play, it was pretty obvious that Smalling was Illinois best receiver. The numbers demonstrated that, as he led the Illini in receptions (31), receiving yards (501), and finished second on the team in all purpose yards.

The stats don't tell the whole story, however. Smalling, at 6'1", 205 pounds, is one of the more physically imposing players on the team. This really showed when he competed on jump balls thrown his direction by Illinois myriad quarterbacks. He just has a knack for winning contested battles against cornerbacks on fade routes or back shoulder throws and more often than not he comes down with the football.

He's also highly adept at getting in and out of breaks and beating his man to a spot where the ball will be thrown. He's not the fastest receiver, but he gets such a head start on his route that it's difficult for corners to press him at the line or track him when given a bubble. He really looks like a nightmare out there for opposing defenders.

If Illinois is going to break their Big Ten losing streak, they're going to have to rely on players like Ricky Smalling to turn the tide. Luckily, that seems like a pretty positive proposition at this point.