FCS Jackrabbits a chance for Illini to test depth

With the first team off the field and visions of Appalachian State and James Madison safely put to rest Saturday, freshmen backs Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson will assume the limelight. Get ready, because here comes an audible yawn.

As exciting as the talented duo’s ascendency is, there are few things more sure than a steady stream of production from “5-6 In the Mix” against the FCS Jackrabbits — and the rest of the schedule for that matter.

Instead, consider the following:

Only one second-unit offensive lineman saw playing time Saturday against Arkansas State, and that player was junior guard Tyler Sands. For a starting five that was glitchy at times against an all-senior Arkansas State defensive line, the unit’s depth is only becoming more critical. The unit’s preseason hype has officially taken a shopping cart dent to its passenger-side door and will need a solid performance from the second line to prove that it can stand the test of a 12- or 13-game slate.

Should the unit sustain an injury, offensive line coach Joe Gilbert will likely call on Sands to fill that void, much like Jack Cornell did last year after Hugh Thornton strained his neck against Northern Illinois.

Sands is the longest-tenured member of the second unit despite having just one start and three appearances under his belt. The Pennsylvania native was a heavily recruited commodity in his high school career, receiving offers from high-majors like Boston College, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Georgia Tech, and Pittsburgh, among others.

Clearly the ability is there for the 6-5 guard, but his game impact remains to be seen. Seeing him square off against South Dakota State’s defensive line will be much more important than it sounds, as every drop of game action will count in preparing him to be the unit’s first line of defense in case of emergency. With a strong performance Saturday he can solidify that role as a dependable sixth man.

The rest of the unit is keyed by redshirt freshman Alex Hill, who like Sands has some ability as a three-star recruit. The 6-3, 325-pounder had previously committed to Duke and New Mexico in his high school career and received a host of Conference USA and Sun Belt offers as well. As the second-highest rated recruit on the unit, look for him to get some time spelling Cornell.

Simon Cvijanovic, also a redshirt freshman, lost the preseason battle with Michael Heitz for the starting strong-side tackle job vacated by the injured Corey Lewis. He and Jake Feldmeyer, who backs up center Graham Pocic, are the remaining returners.

True freshman Scott McDowell is another three-star who will see plenty of playing time in the future, but the backup at strong-side tackle will likely be held off the field until it becomes a necessity — in order to preserve his non-medical redshirt.

Valdon Cooper, a true freshman from Elberton, Ga., figures to get some time at cornerback after appearing in last Saturday’s win. Cooper lacks the size of the older first unit but is an absolute blur who has reportedly been clocked at 4.4 in the 40-yard dash.

Cooper drew one rave review in particular, from team captain and unofficial mentor Tavon Wilson.

“Our freshman, Valdon Cooper, is going to be a really good player,” Wilson said. “He knows all the positions just like I do, so I feel like in the future he’s going to be able to step in and play anywhere.”

Depth at two of the team’s more dubious position groups will be on trial Saturday, where more than a glimpse of the future is on the line.

Gordon Voit is a senior in LAS. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @GordonVoit.