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Observations from Illinois Football’s Friday Training Camp

Quarterbacks looked good; defense not so much.

I'm not a credentialed reporter. Just a fan in the stands. I did make my way out to practice Friday, and here are some random thoughts from one viewing:

  • The offense won the day today. AJ Bush is going to be a fun quarterback to watch. He's still a bit slow in his delivery, but he's got a good feel in the pocket, and Friday he delivered some really nice passes to his receivers. A long completion to Edwin Carter had some nice loft on it. A really nice TD pass threaded to Sam Mays. A nice pitch and catch TD throw to Dominic Stampley to end practice. Overall, I came away very impressed with Bush's passing ability, but also his demeanor. He runs down the field to celebrate with his teammates after a big play. He works with his receivers if they make a mistake, or if he does. He yuks it up with the defense. He was getting under the skin of the defense, but they couldn't stop him. He sees the opportunity and is seizing it. He'll be a fan favorite. At least until he has a bad game.
  • Matthew Robinson is clearly the second-best quarterback right now. He had some really nice throws today, too. A beautiful deep pass to Carmoni Green for a touchdown. A couple of short passes to crossing receivers over the middle. He's got a real nice touch on his pass. He's still a work in progress, but he has over taken Cam Thomas as the clear backup to Bush
  • Speaking of Thomas, he had a rough day. It wasn't all his fault. There were a lot of drops from receivers today, including Mike Dudek, who had a tough day overall. However, when the drops occurred for Bush, he seemed to brush it off and go out and make a play. With Cam Thomas, the problems seemed to get to him. Maybe he sees the writing on the wall, but he's got to get better at getting the ball to his playmakers. He didn't have it today. He's still got those wheels though, and that alone makes him a valuable contributor in practice. Hopefully he rebounds from today because he's a great athlete.
  • There were some really nice plays made by the running backs. Reggie Corbin looks great split out wide, Dre Brown and freshman Kenyon Sims had some nice runs. Ra’Von Bonner had a nice 55-yard untouched scamper. Epstein looks like a lead back. The first team offense looked really competent. If they improve just a little, this team will be 3 or 4 wins better than last year.
  • Offensive line coach Luke Butkus was not happy today. He was particularly getting after the second string O-line. This will be a problem for Illinois. The first-string offensive line looked solid today. They're so young. If any one of them get hurt, however, this line will suffer. You should probably introduce yourself to some of these freshman. They will be in the two deep. Larry Boyd's suspension is really going to hurt the Illini if anyone goes down. He looked pretty good in drills, as did Vederian Lowe. He's got good footwork and looks noticeably slimmer from last year. This position is a huge work in progress.
  • I really like the looks of this offensive scheme. Rod Smith seems to know how to get the ball to his playmakers in space. It looked like night and day from Garrick McGee's offenses the past couple of years. On one set, they had three running backs on the field, with Jakari Norwood lined up outside, Dre Brown in the backfield and Reggie Corbin in the slot. It looks like a unique and fast paced offense. And Rod Smith does not let his foot off the gas. The players aren't quite there yet, but it should be a much more exciting offense to watch.
  • Of course, if one side succeeds, the other one struggles. The defense had a bad day today. It happens. They missed tackles, missed assignments. They got beat on some deep throws. They looked sloppy. It was one day. I'm not super worried. The defensive secondary still looks like a huge strength, and Bennett Williams got very vocal after a Ron Hardge III pass break up. These guys are putting in the work. But after beating up on the offense for most of the week, the tables were turned this morning.
  • The specialists looked pretty solid. Caleb Griffin has a huge leg. Nailed a long field goal at the end of practice. The kicking game is in good hands.
  • I like Kendrick Green — a lot. He has that tenacity you look for in an offensive lineman. He got into a bit of a scuffle with Jamal Milan and the two needed to be separated. I like to see that from someone who just switched positions. Green's not backing down, and he's already one of our five best offensive linemen. (That's an indictment of Illinois’ depth at the position, as well though.)
  • There was also a scary moment when Jamal Milan fell to the turf on what looked like an injured leg. Not sure exactly what happened, but hopefully he's okay.
  • Overall, the team looks better than last year's team already. How much better? That's debatable, but I can see a scenario where Bush plays well, the O-line stays healthy and keeps him clean. The running back depth and wide receiver corps make plays and the defense continues to get better, and Illinois wins six games. You just have to really squint your eyes.