Notes and news from Illinois football’s first spring practices

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Notes and news from Illinois football’s first spring practices

Illinois' football headcoach Lovie Smith observes Illini players running drills during the first spring practice Friday.

Illinois' football headcoach Lovie Smith observes Illini players running drills during the first spring practice Friday.

Karolina Marczewski

Illinois' football headcoach Lovie Smith observes Illini players running drills during the first spring practice Friday.

Karolina Marczewski

Karolina Marczewski

Illinois' football headcoach Lovie Smith observes Illini players running drills during the first spring practice Friday.

By Peter Bailey-Wells, Staff writer

Lovie Smith began his time as Illinois football’s head coach Friday with a little bit of nostalgia. To the team’s practice music playlist, he added some old-school R&B, which mixed with the players’ choices of rap and hip-hop.

His control of the music was representative of how he ran practice — he made his presence felt, but wasn’t overbearing. After the practice, players and assistant coaches commented on the upbeat tempo and agreed that the first few practices are all about feeling out the dozens of new relationships these Illini are forming.

So, with that in mind, here are a few of my observations — broken down by position — from the first weekend of Illini practice.

Receivers and tight ends

Mike Dudek’s return is right under Lovie’s arrival on everyone’s list of 2016 Illini stories, and boy did he look good to start the spring. The sophomore scampered all over the field Friday night without a brace on his knee and without hesitation.

By the end of the 2015 season, he was sprinting up the tunnel to the locker room after games, and he flashed some serious speed in Friday’s return to the turf. In a kickoff contain drill with two defenders approaching him, he shimmied, stuck his foot in the ground and cut to the sideline all in one motion.

He wasn’t touched, despite the defenders clawing at him from a few feet away. That’s exciting if you’re an Illini fan.

Senior Justin Hardee, the other receiver who missed last season because of an injury, also looked strong in his first action back with the team. He scored the longest touchdown of the day in the team period, racing past a cornerback with ease and snagging a Wes Lunt bomb.

Andrew Davis was running as the team’s top tight end for much of the day, because last year’s top guy, Tyler White, is still recovering from a torn ACL. Davis appeared to have put on weight since last year, his first since transferring from junior college. Increased durability for the tight ends, many of whom were injured last season, would be a major plus.

Something to note: The top four receivers appear to be some combination of Dudek, Hardee, junior Malik Turner and senior D.J. Taylor, but don’t be surprised if Desmond Cain makes himself known when the fall rolls around.

The sophomore might be the fastest player on the team, and fast guys have a way of making their way onto the field. If his hands and brain run at the same speed as his feet, he’ll be in for a good year.

Running backs

Ke’Shawn Vaughn bulked up this winter. If the sophomore is to be the Big Ten lead back most people think he can be, he’s going to have to be durable, and added muscle is a good start to that. He cramped up on a run toward the end of the cold practice, which turned out to be nothing noteworthy, but gave everyone in attendance a good scare for a few seconds.

Redshirt freshman Dre Brown also looked good in his return to the field, running mostly as the 1B option to Vaughn’s 1A.

Quarterbacks

Not a lot to note here. Wes Lunt can still throw the football really well. But if this team is to make a bowl game, he’s going to have to be a strong leader as well as a guy with a good arm. Early-enrollee Eli Peters looked a little cold in his Champaign debut, but the Florida native seemed to fit right in with the group.

Offensive line

The fall may hold the on-field arrival of Tim Beckman’s top recruit, Gabe Megginson, who redshirted 2015. The first line during team drills was, from left to right, Austin Schmidt, Megginson, Joe Spencer, Nick Allegretti and Christian DiLauro.

Schmidt, Spencer and DiLauro started part or all of last season, and Allegretti saw action in a bunch of different roles, so Megginson can solidify this unit’s strength. The unit continues to look more and more like a real Big Ten group, but must improve on last season’s poor run blocking.

Defensive line

This is the team’s top unit. Even with the graduation of Jihad Ward, the d-line will be very strong come fall. They have at minimum seven guys that should contribute, and the top four — Chunky Clements, Rob Bain, Carroll Phillips and Dawaune Smoot, are all strong enough to start on most Big Ten teams.

Linebackers

The lack of a certain bearded man from Ohio is odd, because Mason Monehim was a mainstay in the starting lineup. Still, college careers are four years long, and he’s off to become a dentist.

Senior Mike Svetina is wearing No. 40 now, which is a switch from his old 34. He, sophomore Tre Watson and senior James Crawford ran with the first group Friday, but no one stood out.

The arrival of Gimel President from Auburn may help, but he won’t get here until August, when top recruit Dele’ Harding will also show up. Until then, it’ll be interesting to see how this group develops.

Defensive backs

These guys provided some of the most interesting moments in practice Friday. New position coach Paul Williams was very much in charge of a unit that lost a lot of its leaders to graduation.

Senior Taylor Barton is the only real returning starter, and some young guys are going to have to step up to fill V’Angelo Bentley, Eaton Spence and Clayton Fejedelem’s shoes.

Julian Hylton had the defensive highlight of the practice, snagging a pick-six during team period. Jaylen Dunlap grabbed Bentley’s No. 2 and seems set up for one of the top spots, with the other likely going to Darius Mosely.

Otherwise, this looked like a learning group, sometimes flashing athleticism and other times looking out of position. Their development will be key to the team’s defensive success.

Another quick note: Caleb Day may be the x-factor here. The super-athletic corner/safety/kickoff man might play in the slot, on the outside or in the back.

Special teams

Not much to note here. The competition to replace Taylor Zalewski will likely be short and sweet, and if he doesn’t mess it up, senior David Reisner should have the job. Senior Ryan Frain should be the starting punter.

Coaches

I like the energy of Bob Ligashesky, the team’s tight ends coach and special teams coordinator. He was up and down the field with a fire in his belly, barking out instructions during the special teams periods. He’s not afraid to yell at anyone and with Lovie’s quiet demeanor, I’m glad they have someone willing to turn it up to 11.

The other assistant that stood out to me right off the bat was Hardy Nickerson. First off, that man smiles all the time. His choppers stand out from across the field. He’s having fun all the time, which one should, because football is, fundamentally, fun.

But he also totally knows what he’s doing. He and linebackers coach Tim McGarigle spent the team period racing after their defenders, demanding everyone touch the ball carrier before the play ended.

So there you have it, new music, new numbers and a few new faces. The Lovie Smith era has begun, to the sounds of Wild Cherry and Dr. Dre.

Peter is a junior in Media.

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@pbaileywells