CHAMPAIGN – The transparent two-week Illini football training camp ended Saturday at Memorial Stadium, giving us a few answers but leaving us with a number of unanswered questions exactly two weeks before the season begins.
Now the team shifts to closed-door sessions as they zero in on that first opponent, Kent State, and as they create a depth chart that they may or may not share with the rest of the world.
Here are the five most important things we learned watching Lovie Smith’s third football team shuffle around on the grass practice fields east of Memorial Stadium:
1. A.J. Bush will be the starting quarterback.
The fifth-year grad transfer was relatively consistent and impressive as he quickly moved past the other four scholarship QBs and took charge of the camp’s most interesting and vital position battle.
Lovie wouldn’t get pinned down on his QB depth chart after the end of a scrimmage on Saturday, but he all but said the 22-year-old left-hander is his man.
“He came in and has quickly taken control of the team,” the head coach said. “It seems like he has really taken over this last week.”
Busch showed himself to be the best combination of passer, runner, decision-maker and leader. He has waited four years in three other college programs for this chance and he sounds sincerely ready to get all he can from this final opportunity. More important, his coaches sound ready to give him the keys to this offense.
The best race might be to see who is No. 2 on the depth chart. Freshman M.J. Rivers had a terrific week and may have moved even with – or ahead of – sophomore Cam Thomas.
2. The most intriguing non-player in the spotlight has been first-year offensive coordinator Rod Smith. The media loves coaches who talk to us so we’re admittedly head-over-heels for Smith, whose candor and West Virginia drawl is captivating.
Beyond that, however, is a sense that Illinois finally has a coach whose hurry-up offensive scheme might actually give opposing defenses trouble.
That said, we’ve never seen him call plays when the game is on the line. He’ll be doing that from the press box and that’s when we’ll find out if he can inject some spark into an offense that lacked imagination during the past two seasons.
3. This is still the youngest team in America with the highest percentage of underclassmen (76.5 percent) and the fewest seniors (8).
That said, Lovie Smith was correct on the opening day of training camp when he scanned the field and said, “We look like more of a football team.”
That means more athletes who appear ready to compete in the Big Ten Conference. It means more depth on both sides of the ball. And it means Lovie has thankfully moved beyond 2017 when he started four true freshmen and a redshirt freshman on the offensive line.
True, those freshmen are still just sophomores, but they will not line up Sept. 1 against Kent State knowing they’ve never played a minute of college football.
More depth and more experience is needed, but Illinois dives into 2018 knowing it’s better equipped to face the challenges that await.
4. There are actual positions of strength.
One of those is running back, where Rod Smith can pick from a pool of five, all of whom are slightly different. Between Mike Epstein, Ra’Von Bonner, Reggie Corbin, Dre Brown and Jakari Norwood, he has an assortment of skills to choose from. It will be up to Rod Smith to find ways to get big-play potential from Corbin and Norwood because while we all want to see what he does in the passing game, Illinois’ ability to move the chains on the ground will be critical.
Wide receiver should also be a strong position. Mike Dudek looks healthy and ready to have an impact in his final season. Ricky Smalling will try to build on a very promising freshman season. Junior college transfer and Champaign native Dominic Stampley was an exciting training camp surprise. And converted linebacker Justice Williams caught the eye of pro scouts who liked his size (6-3, 215) and athleticism.
Depth comes from the likes of Carmoni Green, Sam Mays, Trenard Davis, Carlos Sandy and Edwin Carter.
5. The NCAA’s new redshirt rule will give the Illini a chance to explore depth at many positions.
The rule allows teams to play freshmen in up to four games without compromising a full season of eligibility. Think about that. If that rule was in place last year, quarterback Cam Thomas, who played in just four games last season, would be listed as a redshirt freshman with four years of eligibility. Instead, he’s a sophomore with three years to go.
How Lovie Smith utilizes this opportunity remains to be seen. But he can expose more players to college football early, then decide if he views them worthy of playing beyond four games. If not, they’ll be redshirt freshmen next season who at least have had a taste of what college football feels like.
Wideouts like Carlos Sandy and Edwin Carter will benefit from this rule change. So could defensive backs like Sydney Brown and Jartavius Martin.
It’s doubtful this rule will mean as much for powerhouses like Ohio State or Alabama, where freshmen are already expected to contribute. But at Illinois, where development is still an important concept, the new redshirt rule could be a bonus.