Illinois football comfortable early on in spring practice


Austin Yattoni

Jeff George Jr. participates in spring practice in 2016.

By Stephen Cohn, Staff writer

Sophomore quarterback Jeff George Jr. sat back in the pocket and pump faked to his right. George whipped the ball to freshman wide receiver Carmoni Green, but sophomore linebacker Justice Williams jumped the route, intercepted off the ball and returned it for a touchdown.

Defensive back Stanley Green ran to Williams in the end zone, and the pair celebrated.

Williams’ play would have a Memorial Stadium crowd going wild in October. Instead, his pick-six happened during Illinois first spring practice in 2017 on Tuesday.

His play – and the ensuing celebration

with Green – nonetheless, highlights a new, energetic brand of Illinois football.

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    “I saw a lot of effort and I saw a lot of fun,” junior quarterback Chayce Crouch said. “Guys were flying around. We were looking forward to spring ball to start, and when we hit the field, everybody was loose.”

    The Illini did not begin spring ball in 2016 until April 1 due to the delayed hiring of head coach Lovie Smith and his staff. Director of Athletics Josh Whitman fired head coach Bill Cubit on March 5.

    Senior running back Kendrick Foster said there is a sense of comfort with starting spring practice ahead of schedule.

    “Starting early alone allows people to recover their bodies because we’re done early,” Foster said. “We have five more weeks until we start back up (after spring ball).”

    Illinois currently has 99 players on its spring roster. Senior James Crawford and many of his teammates look to use individualized coaching in spring ball to improve their skills and technique.

    “I’m looking (this spring) to get better each and every day,” Crawford said.

    Former head coach Tim Beckman recruited Crawford to be a linebacker and play the STAR position on defense. Smith and defensive line coach Mike Phair began transitioning the undersized 6-foot-2, 220-pound Crawford to the defensive line last season.

    Crawford took snaps on the first day of spring ball with the first-team defense.

    “It was very comfortable (playing on the defensive line),” Crawford said. “I’m more into the playbook as a defensive lineman and working on technique, so I’m getting better.”

    George was also getting reps with the first-team. Crouch is recovering from a shoulder injury and is limited in spring practice.

    Smith reiterated in a press conference last week that Crouch is the team’s current starter. Crouch took reps in non-contact drills Tuesday.

    “Right now, Chayce’s role is a little bit different,” Smith said. (He’s a) leader. He’s just taking mental reps right now, but that can do a lot, imagining what it’s like to be out there.”

    Even Smith himself is more comfortable in his second season with the Illini, no matter what is happening on the field a few practices into spring ball.

    “I didn’t know all of our players (last year),” Smith said. “We’re a lot farther along.”

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