CHAMPAIGN — The grass fields at the Campus Rec Fields are prepped and the Illinois football team is set to begin training camp at 10 a.m. on Friday.
After finishing 4-8 last season, Illinois head coach Lovie Smith enters his fourth season as head coach and has since taken over as the team's defensive coordinator. Smith and his players are optimistic about an improved record this season.
"As I talk about recruiting and just the state of our program right now, this time of year, everybody is going to have a great year, and there will be a team that will come from nowhere that will have an outstanding year," Smith said at Big Ten Media Days last month. "We plan on that being us. But the last part of our overhaul of our program is have a better product on the football field, and across the board, we feel like we're in the best position to do that."
Here are some things to watch throughout training camp.
Quarterbacks ... again
Once again, there will be a quarterback battle in Champaign. The only player on the current roster who has taken an in-game snap as a quarterback for the Illini is Matt Robinson, who threw six passes last season.
In other words, it's a wide-open battle between graduate transfer Brandon Peters, four-star freshman Isaiah Williams from St. Louis, Robinson and redshirt freshman Coran Taylor from Peoria, though Peters and Williams feel like front-runners.
All eyes will be on the quarterbacks from Friday until Smith and Co. name a starter — presumably before the season opener on Aug. 31.
Peters was was 58-of-110 during his time at Michigan, throwing for 680 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions. Of course, no one has seen Williams in a college offense, but he had a prolific career at Trinity Catholic in St. Louis.
Depth emerging at receiver
Two weeks ago, wide receiver Edwin Carter posted on Twitter that he had been medically cleared. It's a remarkably quick return after a gruesome leg injury during Week 2 of last season against Western Illinois. In that game he had a pair of touchdown grabs and looked like, as a freshman, he was on the brink of making a splash before his season was cut short.
It remains to be seen how quickly the Illini will move him along, but it was an important step in the right direction for a group that needs playmakers. The Illini also got a pair of graduate transfers from USC in Josh Imatorbhebhe and Trevon Sidney to add to the mix. Those three, in addition to Ricky Smalling, Trenard Davis, Dominic Stampley and freshman Kyron Cumby, whose skillset could see him line up in multiple spots, bring depth that's been missing for years.
On paper, it looks like the Illini have a deep receiver group, but they'll garner plenty of interest during training camp.
Who steps up in place of Roundtree?
Before suffering a severe spinal injury in May, defensive end Bobby Roundtree was on the cusp of a breakout season. Without him, who steps up?
There are options, especially with USC graduate transfer Oluwole Betiku Jr., who looks imposing at 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, and was rated highly coming out of high school. Juniors Isaiah Gay and Owen Carney Jr. are also strong candidates. How the Illini use Jamal Woods and Lere Oladipo along the defensive line will also be intriguing.
Will one of the freshman, Keith Randolph Jr., Seth Coleman or Moses Okpala make an early splash? The options certainly are there.
Eyes on the freshmen
There's been plenty of hype around this freshman class, and Williams has drawn much of attention. But there are pieces that can help Illinois both now and in the long term. Marquez Beason can have an impact on the Illini right now if the season began tomorrow.
He comes to Champaign as a four-star prospect and Smith has been steadfast that Beason will be a defensive back, joining a strong group in Nate Hobbs and Quan Martin at cornerback. They're complemented by Tony Adams, Sydney Brown and Stanley Green at safety.
Watching Beason, the aforementioned freshman defensive lineman, Cumby, receiver Casey Washington and the rest of the freshmen will give us a look at who can make an impact and when they can make that impact.
How will the defense look?
Illinois clearly needs to take a step defensively, and those results won't be clear until the first game. Smith's fingerprints have been all over the defensive side of the ball since he was hired, but he's the primary voice on defense now after assuming the role of defensive coordinator.
“It makes a huge difference," Hobbs said. "Obviously, Lovie Smith is one of the great defensive minds, even though we didn’t have a good season last year on the defensive side. He puts players in the best position to make plays. He knows our strengths and what we’re good at. He’s going to call those clutch plays at clutch moments to put us in the best position."
How will things be conducted with Smith as the coordinator for a full season and in training camp. This is a less tangible thing to observe, but how will things sound, look and feel with Smith as the defense's primary voice?