It’s fitting that the Illinois Football Spring Game takes place on April 20, aka 420.
The date is fitting because I am high on my irrational optimism and giddiness about watching.
Illinois is coming off an unexpected 8-5 campaign. Blowout wins over Wisconsin and Northwestern almost make it easy to forget gutting losses to both Big Ten teams from Michigan.
But that was all last season. Complacency doesn’t seem to be in this coaching staff’s vocabulary.
And it can’t be.
So much has changed.
- Ryan Walters left Illinois for Purdue.
- Ryan Walters took Kevin Kane and Cory Patterson with him to West Lafayette.
- Antonio Fenelus arrived to coach defensive backs, and his nickname is Coach YoYo.
- Charlie Bullen, who looks like a detective from the Law & Order franchise, is in Champaign coaching outside linebackers.
- Thad Ward is back. However, he did not bring Littyville with him.
But among the things that stayed the same are Aaron Henry’s focus on adding feisty defensive backs, a talented wide receiver room, and a smashmouth style of play that Illinois has the talent to enforce violently.
So what/whom am I irrationally excited about for the Spring Game? Here are five reasons.
Anderson was one of my favorite recent Illinois signings. He came to Illinois from powerhouse program Joliet Catholic. Perhaps he’ll achieve the same success my other favorite JCA running back achieved. That would be a guy named Mike Alstott. You might have heard of him.
Anderson is an imposing figure standing over 6-foot-3 and weighing in at better than 240 pounds. But he’s not just a big bruiser. The kid has tremendous hands. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him line up as an h-back in some packages from Coach Lunney.
The departure of Naivyan Cargill leaves a potential for an h-back/tight end to compete for snaps. With his chops as a runner and receiver, Anderson projects well to steal the show on Thursday night.
Josh Kreutz: First Team Center
Coach Bret Bielema has made no bones about the fact that the Illini are aggressively scouring the Transfer Portal. Offensive line help is a primary area of focus based on Illinois’ recent offer history. So this might impede my long-term dream of watching Olin Kreutz’s son starting at center for the Illini.
I remember watching Olin back in the day. He wan’t the biggest or strongest guy, but he was nasty. He was physical. He was fearless.
(I met him after the Illinois vs. Wisconsin game last year in Madison. He was one of the only strangers I had ever met and immediately called “Sir.” He commands that level of respect.)
His son, Josh, endures some of the same criticisms. His size and arm length are questions.
But the violence, intelligence, and intensity with which he plays the game have never been at issue. And it is perhaps for these reasons that Kreutz will not be C1 when the Illini take on Toledo in Champaign on Sept. 2.
But this is a column about the Spring Game. And there is an excellent chance Kreutz will take the field with the first-team offensive line.
As much as I want to see peace, unity, and teamwork during camp, a part of me wants to see how Kreut stands up to the Law Firm.
I doubt he gives an inch or hesitates one second if challenged physically.
I am excited to see the level of ferocity in those conflicts. Even if the coaches tell the players to keep it cool, I can’t imagine Keith Randolph, Johnny Newton, or Josh Kreutz going half-speed in the trenches.
During last year’s Spring Game, Tommy DeVito left no doubt. The Syracuse grad transfer looked efficient, polished, and ready to lead Illinois to greater things.
He then proceeded to exceed all expectations. He had the best Illinois QB season in a decade, and he’ll forever be remembered for being one of the most important factors in Coach B’s second-year turnaround.
Luke Altmyer has far less experience than DeVito brought. I am not expecting him to set the world on fire early the way DeVito did. But I am excited about his potential as a dual-threat problem solver.
By the fall, he’ll have a full assortment of weapons with the arrivals of Collin Dixon and Malik Elzy, two polished, gifted prep prospects.
On Thursday, I’m simply looking for efficiency from the most indispensable player on the roster. I am optimistic about his ability to help the roster that won eight games last season perform similarly in spite of some intraconference improvements in the Big Ten West.
What kind of chemistry does he have with Josh Kreutz? What kind of timing has he worked out with Isaiah Williams? What wrinkles has Coach Lunney implemented to make the best use of Altmyer’s skill set? These are questions that will start to answer themselves during the Spring Game.
The Illini could have three defensive backs selected in this year’s NFL Draft. Devon Witherspoon is almost a certain first-round pick. Sydney Brown and Quan Martin both have day-two draft potential. Even Kendall Smith could be a priority free agent invite and make a roster as a special teams ace with long-term ballhawk potential.
While that will be a boon to recruiting and a huge feather in the cap of future head coach Aaron Henry, it means there are spots to fill in the elite Illini secondary.
But I’m not afraid at all. In fact, this may be the most exciting set of position battles on the entire roster. What do we know so far?
We know that Taz Nicholson has been an effective player for multiple seasons. He stands to win one of the boundary corner jobs.
We know Matthew Bailey, though injured, made major contributions as a true freshman. Once he’s healthy, he’s expected to take one of the starting safety jobs.
According to Joey Wagner of 247Sports, Xavier Scott looks dialed into the starting nickel spot.
So that leaves the competition for one of the boundary corner roles and one safety role.
I’m looking forward to seeing Louisville transfer Nicario Harper running with the ones. He was an odds-on favorite to start when he committed to the Illini. Now is his chance to see if he has the kind of hitting ability in the box that moves Bailey permanently to free safety.
I know Tyler Strain has a good shot at winning the other corner job. His speed alone is ridiculous, and any time he touches the ball he has a chance to house one. But JuCo transfer Kaleb Patterson and highly-ranked recruit Elijah Mc-Cantos will likely have a chance to make their case to start.
Either way, Coach YoYo has a deep, talented group from which to choose. I can’t wait to see who makes big plays, especially against the first-team offense.
It’s a football game.
No matter the circumstances, this is a great time to scratch the football itch. Between the machinations of the transfer portal and rampant message board speculation, Illinois revenue sports are in need of something fun to celebrate.
Rewarding the kids who have worked hard all spring seems perfectly cued up. Letting the freshman get their feet wet will be a fun trip and a certain inspiration for future misguided optimism columns.
But for now, regardless of what the forecast says, let’s all have some fun on 4/20.
(Responsibly, of course. And within the bounds of all of your state and local laws.)