Lovie era begins with Spring Ball

By Joey Figuerora

tweet: #Illini position battles and new coaching hires highlight spring ball.It’s been a head-spinning few months for the Illinois football program, and it’s finally time to strap on some helmets and hit the field. Spring practices officially kick off this Friday at Memorial Stadium and will continue through April 26.

Athletic director Josh Whitman and new head coach Lovie Smith have been the subjects of the majority of headlines for their off-the-field work, which came together Tuesday when Smith officially introduced his hand-picked staff.

Now with all the correct pieces in place, Smith and his eclectic group of coaches are ready to see their inherited roster in action.

Smith’s plan is to hold practices every Friday, Saturday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Since Illinois’ spring practice schedule was pushed back due to the hiring process, there will be no Orange and Blue scrimmage event. Instead, practice will be open to the public April 16.

Smith expressed his excitement to finally step on the field to see the players he has to work with and he expects the Illini to bring the same type of enthusiasm.

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“For our players, it’s a new start,” Smith said. “Guys want to prove exactly who they are (for) new eyes that don’t have any biases.”

There are plenty of question marks across the Illinois roster, and strong spring practices could be the first step to eventual solutions.

On the defensive side, the Illini will be without big-time playmakers Jihad Ward, Mason Monheim, T.J. Neal, V’Angelo Bentley and Clayton Fejedelem and will need new faces to step up. Neal transferred to Auburn.

The Illinois secondary will be without the long-time cornerback duo of Bentley and Eaton Spence, which breeds one of the more interesting position battles heading into spring practice. The starting spots will likely belong to junior Jaylen Dunlap and senior Caleb Day, but senior Darius Mosely and recent JUCO commit Ahmari Hayes will have plenty of reps to prove themselves in April.

Day should also receive ample opportunities to replace Bentley as the primary kick returner.

Senior Taylor Barton will return for one more stint in the Illini secondary, while freshman Patrick Nelson and junior Darwin Kelly will fight it out for the strong safety spot.

The linebacker crew will perhaps be the most inexperienced and unclear position on the roster heading into the fall. Monheim and Neal combined for 207 tackles last season, and it’s uncertain who will provide that type of production this season. Junior James Crawford, sophomore Tre Watson and senior Mike Svetina are the likely frontrunners to form this year’s linebacking trio, but there are plenty of untested options, including top-25 linebacker commit Dele’ Harding who won’t join the team until fall.

“We have quite a few guys that haven’t had a lot of experience but are good football players,” defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson said. “I’m excited about getting on the field and really getting to know the players and getting to see them work.”

For the third-straight season, there won’t be any quarterback controversy in Illinois — senior playcaller Wes Lunt is set for his final season. Lunt’s backupis sophomore Chayce Crouch’s spot to lose. His challengers will be Champaign product Jimmy Fitzgerald and Jeff George, the son of the former NFL gunslinger of the same name.

As far as the weapons surrounding Lunt, Illinois loses 102 combined receptions and 1,870 total yards from future pros Josh Ferguson and Geronimo Allison. There will be plenty of reinforcements though.

Sophomore running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn will be unleashed as the full-time starter after an impressive freshman season. Either Dre Brown or Reggie Corbin will emerge from spring practices as the incumbent freshman second-string back.

Tight end will likely be a glaring hole once again. Senior Tyler White is a strong blocker and is the frontrunner to start but will miss much of spring ball as he recovers from a torn ACL. JUCO newcomer Andrew Davis has plenty of potential and will battle freshman Caleb Reams to be the primary receiving tight end.

Wide receivers Desmond Cain and Malik Turner combined for 1,002 receiving yards last season and will contend for an expanded role in Allison’s absence. Senior Justin Hardee will also challenge for more playing time after missing all of last season with a foot injury.

Also returning from injury is Mikey Dudek who is finally set to follow up his electric freshman campaign. Friday will be the all-American’s first time back on the field since tearing his ACL in 2015.

Offensive coordinator Garrick McGee has seen Dudek in limited stints and said Lunt’s favorite target looks to be 100 percent.

“We’ll take care of him and make sure that we don’t wear him down,” McGee said. “I know that his attitude is great since I’ve been here and I expect him to really be charged up to get on the field.”

With an almost entirely new coaching staff and the potential for a slew of new on-the-field contributors, there will be plenty of learning happening at Memorial Stadium this April.

“We’re going to be coaching hard and we have a lot of catching up to do in a very short period of time,” McGee said. “The first thing is just to show up with a great attitude every day.”

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