CHAMPAIGN — If they can help it, Kendall Smith and Ricky Smalling try to avoid talking football when they get home.
The two are juniors on the Illinois football team and were head coach Lovie Smith's first two commitments to join the program. They're both Chicago-area products and have lived together since they arrived in Champaign. But spending so much time around the football facility draws on the desire to relax when they get home and talk about anything else.
As freshmen, they were both receivers for the Illini. Smith played in all 12 games in his first year, primarily on special teams, and Smalling turned in a 501-yard, two-touchdown season. As sophomores, Smith moved to the defensive secondary and played in 10 games with 10 tackles and Smalling was the clear-cut top wideout on the team.
Just before spring practices started last month, the two were at home when Smith broke the news to Smalling that he was coming back to the receiver group to add depth and help bolster the position. So far, things are trending in the right direction for Smith.
“It’s a new offense so I’m kind of having my growing pains," Smith said. "Overall it’s good. I’m getting back in the flow of things and I’m starting to understand things better."
Smith was a 3-star recruit coming out of Bolingbrook High School and was the No. 100-ranked receiver in the nation by Rivals, No. 118 by ESPN and No. 138 by 247Sports. He was the No. 9 recruit in Illinois by ESPN, No. 15 by Rivals and No. 19 by 247Sports.
He's confident that he will be a key asset for the group, which is looking to be more consistent this season.
“I think I bring a physicality," he said. "Being on defense, you’ve got to be physical, so I think me learning that and bringing it to the offensive side of the ball will help. I think I can make a big impact."
He was good as a freshman, but he feels better now. He's grown into his 6-foot-1, 200-pound frame, and gives the Illini height on the outside and the strength he's built up after two years in a college weights program. In the first couple days of spring practice, he created separation from defenders and started to feel like his old self.
“He’s playing better at receiver now than he did early in his first year here," receivers coach Andrew Hayes-Stoker said. "He’s stronger; he’s more aggressive. He just seems a little more confident. He’s long, he’s a big kid and he’s strong, too. That’s something that we don’t have out there. We don’t have a lot of big guys. He’s a big guy who can play with power."
Smalling notices, too. He says Smith has come a long way since they were bright-eyed freshmen in Champaign.
"It’s just the little things," Smalling said. "It’s not like he was bad freshman year. I don’t know ... it’s like he developed more into a better athlete."
Smith was admittedly more nervous about his switch to defense last season than he was about returning to offense and learning a new playbook. When he was a freshman receiver, Garrick McGee was the offensive coordinator for Illinois. For his part, Smith thinks he fits in better under offensive coordinator Rod Smith, even though he's had to learn a new playbook.
He and Smalling still talk little football when they're at home. Smalling has a full year in Rod Smith's system and knows the intricacies of the offense much better than Kendall does at this point. But if he has a question outside of the football facility, of course Smalling will answer.
Count Rod Smith as someone who likes the early returns on the move.
“It’s been a good transition for him," Rod Smith said. "I think he’s definitely going to be able to help us and provide some depth there and give us some good, quality play when he gets in. He’s still learning the position and learning the offense, but I think he’s done some good things so far."