CHAMPAIGN — Patience has been key for Jakari Norwood since arriving in Champaign last year.
In everything he's done for the Illini, he's had to have patience; patience to sit behind a strong group of running backs headlined by Reggie Corbin and Mike Epstein. Throw Ra'Von Bonner and Dre Brown in there and touches were few and far between for Norwood as a true freshman last year.
He sat back, learned and took a redshirt year. He also had to learn to be patient with his breakaway speed — figure out when to turn it on and when to rein it in.
Norwood found the perfect balance in Saturday's spring game at Memorial Stadium, capping his day with a 52-yard touchdown run on which he was untouched.
“It feels good," Norwood said. "I got to open up and show people my speed and show people what we could do out of the backfield."
Offensive coordinator Rod Smith took notice of Norwood. He lined the 5-foot-10, 185-pound freshman up in a variety of places. Speed kills and the Illini can't have too much of it.
“He’s got legitimate speed," Rod Smith said. "He’s got big-play ability. Anytime he gets a crease or he gets into the lane like that, he’s going to have a chance to do big things with it."
Caleb Griffin standing out
The spot lands right around the 46-yard line. It's one of redshirt freshman Caleb Griffin's favorite places on the field at Memorial Stadium.
Precisely, it's a spot on the giant Block I that sits midfield and is within an outline of the state of Illinois. Before every game, Griffin stands in the spot where Danville, his hometown, is and looks towards its direction.
Playing near home matters for Griffin, who has his foot firmly planted in the kicker competition to replace graduated Chase McLaughlin.
On Saturday, Griffin connected on field goals of 29 and 47 yards. He's got plenty of power in his leg.
“It felt really good, getting out there for the first time," Griffin said. "It’s meaningful to have my family in the stands, my friends in the stands and just being able to execute."
Griffin is competing with junior James McCourt for the starting job. Both have had their fair share of makes so far this spring in what Griffin called a good three weeks for himself. He connected on a 54-yarder to close practice last Saturday.
“He’s a confident guy,' head coach Lovie Smith said. "There’s a reason why we brought him in. He had opportunities to go elsewhere. He’s a local guy who wanted to help his flagship university win games. He’s a good athlete. He can do it all. He’s been kicking that way throughout the spring and he’ll help us win a lot of games."
Kendall Smith has strong day
Kendall Smith came to the Illini as a receiver and moved to defense as a sophomore last season before returning to offense this spring.
He stood out on Saturday. Smith primarily played with the second team in the spot of the offense that's usually occupied by Ricky Smalling — his roommate. Smith had a couple nice grabs and caught the eye of Lovie Smith.
“He hasn’t had those type of plays in the spring so far, but today we noticed him," Lovie Smith said. "You want to make the coaching staff take notice and we took notice of what he did today."
Kendall Smith felt right back at home on offense in a game-like setting.
“It didn’t feel like having to learn how to play the game again," Smith said.
QB competition still raging
It wasn't exactly a banner day for the quarterbacks on Saturday. Some of that had to do with the success of the defense and the way the game was formatted, which didn't allow the offense to get in rhythm.
There's plenty left that Rod Smith wants to work on before the season-opener against Akron, but that's to be expected.
“I thought the offense was pretty good," quarterback Matt Robinson said. "It’s hard to really tell when they’re just tagging, but I thought we moved the ball pretty well. Obviously we’ve got to clean up some simple mistakes. Other than that I thought it went pretty smooth."
Lovie Smith knows the importance of having more quarterbacks in spring practices this season. There was just one scholarship QB in practice last year: Cam Thomas, who has since left the program.
“I thought it was good," Lovie Smith said. "You’ve got to protect the football. We’re talking about DBs, corners getting interceptions, that’s not good. You’ve got to protect the football, but we feel good about our quarterbacks. It’s competition. We’re giving them all an opportunity in different situations, but they had their moments."
Do they have a leg up on the incoming freshmen, particular 4-star Isaiah Williams, who was on campus Saturday?
“These practices are important," Lovie Smith said. "You have to say that they have the advantage. They’re in the lead position, but the cream always comes to the top and if a young player comes in, we’re going to give them opportunities. We all know who we’re talking about. He’s going to get a chance to play when he gets on campus and we’ll see how it goes."
Calvin Avery hurt
On Norwood's big touchdown run, sophomore defensive lineman Calvin Avery was injured. He was helped off the field with what appeared to be a left leg injury. Lovie Smith didn't have an update on Avery's status immediately following practice.