Illini football training camp roundup
August 22, 2018
After two weeks of training camp, one major question seems to have been answered: grad transfer AJ Bush has emerged as the standout candidate for quarterback.
Sure, there hasn’t been a ‘Chayce Crouch is our quarterback’ moment, but head coach Lovie Smith seemed to offer something relative to an endorsement after practice on Saturday.
“I like what AJ Bush has been doing throughout,” Smith said. “Seems like the last week or so he’s really kind of taken control a little bit.”
The Virginia Tech transfer has never held a starting job at a Power Five school, but the Illini staff likes what it’s seen from him in camp and believes he can be a good fit in the new offense.
The new Illini offensive coordinator has praised Bush too, and so have his teammates. Rod Smith also said he has put in the work necessary to take on the job well.
“He’s one of those guys who takes it to heart,” Rod said. “He understands what the position entails, it’s not just a come here, show up, go home, go to bed. He’s here putting in extra hours and all the little things that need to be done.”
He even said that one day after camp, he and Bush stayed to review film together until around 1 a.m.
The staff loves Bush’s athleticism, and he has shown a competent arm in his reps during practice, certainly more steady than that of returning sophomore, Cam Thomas. He has also proven to be a better decision-maker than Thomas and youngsters Matt Robinson, M.J. Rivers and Coran Taylor.
Some on the Illinois staff see Bush’s confidence and energy he brings as something that is rubbing off on other players, within the quarterback’s room and on the team as a whole. Rod wants to see that effect continue, especially as he continues to push his offense to reach the potential he thinks it has.
“He’s helping our football team become better,” Rod said. “He’s helping our quarterback room become better. What we’ve got to do as a quarterback group is continue to keep getting better, keep making better decisions, eliminate the turnovers, and continue, like I said, to reach a certain standard in our room that is expected.”
Rivers’ best week
Freshman quarterback M.J. Rivers admitted that the transition to the collegiate level has been a big one, but he’s settled in since the beginning of camp. Rivers has shown an ability to make good throws and reads at times. Though like his fellow freshmen Robinson and Taylor, he has made some ill-advised decisions.
Overall though, the Illinois staff is pleased with how he has adjusted and how he has applied its early teachings. Lovie noted how the openness of the position has forced each quarterback to raise their level of play. Each rep is a chance to impress the coaches, or disappoint them.
“M.J. Rivers has really kind of picked it up in the last couple days a little bit,” Lovie said. “Competition brings that out in you. All of the guys have gotten an opportunity to play.”
Rod conceded that his young quarterback struggled at the beginning of camp.
“(Rivers) started off very slow and you could just tell it was all new for him,” Rod said. “Trying to learn the system, trying to adjust to college speed. We’ve tried to simplify some things, not give them as much on their plate so they could get good at something. I’ve seen M.J. take some steps forward this week. He’s had his best week of practice. He made some good throws tonight as well. He just continues to get better.”
Peoria-native Coran Taylor has also looked more comfortable in his time under center late in camp. He had his best series yet at the end of practice on Saturday as he drove the offense down for a score, connecting smoothly with multiple receivers for solid yardage.
Rod said he and all the quarterbacks have a ways to go before being game-ready, but he’s happy with how each is progressing under his tutelage so far.
Standout freshmen likely to see time early on in the season
Illinois is not afraid to play freshmen.
Lovie went to his guys early, often and all the time in 2017, and though Illinois doesn’t have as big a need on paper for them this year, the staff feels like a number of recruits brought in are ready to fit into the system and contribute immediately.
Smith acknowledged Illinois’ depth “isn’t eventually what it will be,” and several camp standouts seem set to see time right away.
Delano Ware has seen a lot of meaningful reps at safety, and under-the-radar recruit Sydney Brown is well-liked at nickelback. The Illini look to play a lot of nickel sets in 2018. Jartavius Martin has made multiple picks and has broken up a number of pass plays in camp. He could work into the corner rotation behind the likes of Nate Hobbs, Cameron Watkins and Tony Adams.
“They have the traits at the defensive back position that we’re looking for,” said defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson. “Guys that can cover, they’re athletic, they can run. They haven’t let us down. They’ve shown up and shown those abilities. They’re really poised on the field and in coverage. They’re getting more and more polished as we go along here.”
Freshmen defensive backs Ron Hardge, Kerby Joseph, Nick Walker and Dylan Wyatt have each shown potential in their reps, though Walker and Wyatt have each been banged up for a lot of camps. Walker went down after a scary hit early in camp and has been limited in action since his return, while Wyatt has been nursing a knee injury.
On the offensive side, receiver Edwin Carter has shown spurts of impressive speed and an ability to beat Illini corners to get open. Fellow freshman receiver Carlos Sandy, though smaller, has shown similar signs of promise throughout camp.
“A lot of those guys are going to get to play,” Nickerson said.
Fire-tested sophomores move into bigger roles
If Illinois is going to improve in 2018, it will likely need to do so on the backs of Lovie’s first recruiting class, who received plenty of playing time last season as Illinois sputtered to a 2-10 record.
Disrupters Bobby Roundtree and Isaiah Gay seem set to be leaders on the defensive line, though Gay hasn’t been with the first team during camp as a result of his suspension from spring practice.
Roundtree has NFL eyes on him now, and Lovie thinks he’s only continued to improve his game after a full offseason in the Illinois program. He said it’s hard to not count the sophomore as one of his favorites and that there’s “just nothing to dislike about him.”
Elsewhere on the D-line, second-years Owen Carney Jr. and Lere Oladipo have made major strides through the offseason and camp. Carney’s build is much more in line with what the Illini want to do defensively, and Oladipo has looked impressive in one-on-one’s. He seems to be in contention for a starting job at defensive tackle next to Tymir Oliver, but will likely see a lot of time regardless of whether or not he wins the job.
Two of the expected secondary leaders, Bennett Williams and Hobbs, have not seen much time with the first unit. Williams was in pads Saturday but didn’t participate in drills. Hobbs wasn’t with the first-string guys either during his reps.
The staff tends to keep suspensions and injury details locked up, so it might be a while before it becomes clear what is going on with the pair, but Illinois will have to rely on inexperienced players at those spots if either is set to miss significant time.
Notes on the running back and wide receiver positions
Illinois has some depth at running back this year, as leading rusher Mike Epstein is back and healthy, along with Reggie Corbin and the more powerful pair of Dre Brown and Ra’Von Bonner.
While Epstein is the most explosive of the bunch, and the most proven, Rod has used a variety of backs in the past and has said he’s comfortable using any of the four guys mentioned above.
“I’m excited about our whole running back group,” Rod said. “We have four guys who I think we feel comfortable with, that I think we can win with.”
Last season, Garrick McGee turned to Bonner on short yardage situations. Brown has yet to be at full strength during a regular season, as he has undergone two season-ending knee injuries, but has been used a lot as a kick returner in camp.
Bonner’s size helps him get some leverage in the trenches, something Rod thinks he can use well.
“He’s a bigger back that has some strength to him; he makes some decisive cuts,” Rod said. “He’s going to maybe bring us some overall type package deal. He’s one of our better blockers, he’s got size that he can fit up against linebackers and not be a matchup problem.”
Brown brings a similar style of running, though he hasn’t really had a chance to demonstrate his full potential during a regular season yet.
“Dre is kind of like Ra’Von, where he’s a bigger guy, stronger,” Rod said. “He’s probably faster than Ra’Von, but he’s got the all-around skill set. He can block, he can run, catch. He’s got some good elusiveness to him. Just a steady back, and he’s had a very good camp.”
Wide receiver has been a position Illinois hasn’t had strong production at in some time, and while part of that may be due to not having a quarterback who can deliver the ball, 2018 will test the quality of this unit.
Behind starlet Ricky Smalling and battle-tested Mike Dudek, the Illini receivers are relative unknowns. Smalling has had a number of eye-popping catches in camp, while Dudek has been steady.
After that, Sam Mays and Justice Williams have gotten a lot of first-team reps. Each has had his struggle with drops, but both have also come up with some nice catches. With the unit scaling on the shorter side, each receiver brings critical size at 6 feet 3 inches tall. The size gives AJ Bush a lot of help when it comes to connecting on jump balls downfield.
Sophomore Carmoni Green has had a lot of meaningful reps and should see some time on the field too.
Fans weigh in as camp closes to public
Saturday was Illinois’ fan appreciation day, so the scrimmage at Memorial Stadium was open to the public and there were autograph sessions after.
Tim Griffin, freshman kicker Caleb Griffin’s uncle, spoke on the effect of having two Danville natives in the program. He said about 45 Danville residents have locked down season tickets in the horseshoe for the next five years to watch their hometown kids play in orange and blue.
“There’s a huge (interest) because of (Caleb Griffin) and Julian Pearl being here,” Griffin said. “There’s a huge influx and game day walk-up. I’m not kidding you when I say that 200 to 400 people, just because those two are on the team, are going to be here.”
Though many students are still yet to arrive on campus, some were in attendance on Saturday, and they liked what they saw from the Illini. They also enjoyed being able to interact with players most people only see on television.
“You see that they really are student athletes and they’re really working their butts off all year,” said Nick Hafner, sophomore in LAS. “It really puts a new perspective on knowing them as people. It makes you want to root for them even more rather than just seeing them on TV.”
Expectations are tempered though, especially with Illinois being one of the youngest teams in the country; over 70 percent of the players on the roster are freshmen or sophomores.
“The vast majority of the team is freshmen and sophomores, so I think people can expect quite a few mistakes from those guys,” said Tyler Grober, a Peoria native. “But I definitely think it will pay off in a few years, they’ll be able to start making bowl games once again.”