Training Camp 2018 IV - Saturday Practice Thoughts

Aug 04, 2018

So much to talk about here. I keep some notes in my phone but I always keep notes in my head so I feel like this might be two posts - all of the thoughts in my head tonight and all of the notes in my phone tomorrow. I seriously could write about this stuff for days.

First off, I think we have to say that quarterback AJ Bush is the story of camp so far. He was last night, he was this morning. The biggest reason: his confidence. Swagger. Coaches love leaders on the field - guys who inspire their teammates like Baker Mayfield - and he has that part of the Baker Mayfield equation. I mean, he might not have any other part, but he has that part. At one point he ran down the field 30 yards to congratulate Ricky Smalling on a great catch. The coaches probably wanted him to be looking for the signal for the next play but he took off like a rocket to celebrate with Ricky (quarterbacks were rotating nearly every play at that point, so really, it was fine).

Which had me thinking down these lines today. There's a new offense and a new quarterback. The question is if that new quarterback is a fit for the new offense. If I made a list of the top five things a quarterback needs to do to run Rod Smith's offense, I'd say they would be:

  1. Be a plus runner. Like, a plus-plus runner. Requires an elite running QB.
  2. Make the quick throws. Quick. If the pass gets there in 1.41 seconds the play will be successful. If it takes 1.78 seconds the play will not work. QUICK.
  3. Make all the right reads. Especially knowing when to hand off and when to pull it.
  4. Be able to throw on the run.
  5. Think fast. Read the defense quickly. Get the team set at the line of scrimmage quickly. Think on your feet.

OK, number 5 is probably more like number 2. But you get the idea.

I think the reason Bush has looked so good over the first two days - and remember, there are no pads yet (NCAA rule), so this is more or less flag football with a pass rush (but the pass rusher can't tackle you) - is that he seems to be comfortable when Rod Smith is standing behind him throwing a lot of things his way. The other QB's, especially the freshmen, can sometimes get flustered (who wouldn't in their second day?). Bush just has this confidence about him.

Now, before you get too excited, the funky throwing motion is still there. There were a few really bad throws. He's a lefty, so there's that whole "right tackle has the blind side" weirdness. If this was a competition between 2013 Nathan Scheelhaase and 2018 AJ Bush right now, I'd be swooning over Scheelhaase and saying how Bush just isn't there.

But... it's a very encouraging start. Really, the best case scenario for this team is if the fifth-year senior QB is ready to be The Guy for this season. It allows the true sophomore and the three true freshmen to come along much more slowly (and, with the new four game redshirt rule, perhaps all redshirt). It gives some stability for one season prior to a real battle between a third year guy, three second year guys, and a hotshot freshman next summer. It would be a great thing for the program.

So I feel much more hopeful than last year after watching two days of camp. I think that during the first Saturday practice last year I wrote that it was the worst practice I had ever seen. If I recall correctly, Crouch, George Jr, and Thomas threw nine interceptions during the long scrimmage portion at the end. There was an extended period of 11 on 11 today (again, in shorts), but I think I only saw one pick. And it was the kind of pick you love to see at training camp - a defensive lineman reached up and got a hand on a pass over the middle, it deflected high in the air and straight to a defensive back. That's not a bad decision - simply a great play by the DL.

Note: I went over to do a radio thing with Loren Tate and Steve Kelly so I missed about 20 minutes of scrimmage time. It's very possible that AJ Bush threw nine interceptions during the time I wasn't watching. If so, I look pretty silly right now.

I'm home now (no practice tomorrow), so by the time I get back to camp on Wednesday, they'll be in pads and I'll get a much better idea about AJ Bush (and all the quarterbacks). But for now, after two days, advantage Bush.

+ Let's do a quick run through the first string. Just going off the first two days of practice (read: THIS WILL CHANGE), if the first game was tomorrow, I think we'd see...

QB: AJ Bush
RB1: Mike Epstein
RB2: Reggie Corbin
TE: Louis Dorsey
WR: Mikey Dudek
WR: Ricky Smalling
LT: Vederian Lowe
LG: Kendrick Green
C: Doug Kramer
RG: Nick Allegretti
RT: Alex Palczewski

DE: Bobby Roundtree
DT: Jamal Milan
DT: Tymir Oliver
DE: Owen Carney
LB: DelShawn Phillips
LB: Jake Hansen
Nickel: Kerby Joseph
CB: Nate Hobbs
CB: Cam Watkins
SS: Stanley Green
FS: Bennett Williams

Kerby Joseph is just a guess, but he's been getting a lot of time with the ones as the nickel. Tony Adams, who I thought would be a nickel, has been with the cornerbacks, so it's wide open for a guy like Kerby Joseph (or maybe James Knight) to grab the nickel spot and run with it.

Also, with App State transfer Shaedon Meadors out for the year (summer injury), no idea who the third receiver would be right now. So I took the easy way out and listed two tailbacks plus two receivers.

Again, it's early. If I do this again next Saturday night I'll probably have a different list.

+ Before I forget, I wrote something last night that was incorrect. Jimmy Marchese and Drew Murtaugh WERE at practice. So they were NOT suspended. Repeating, not suspended last night. I looked for them with the linebackers during a breakout session and didn't see either. But apparently they were with the nickels working on some stuff. So... my bad. Apologies. Not suspended last night.

+ I watched a lot of the defensive line early in practice. Especially the defensive tackles. Put me down for "unit poised for the most success in the future". When there are no seniors, it's never "ready". But you can see the pieces there.

Just take the defensive tackles. Jamal Milan and Tymir Oliver are have a solid two years of experience (Milan three, really, since he got a medical redshirt for 2015). Kenyon Jackson the same. Calvin Avery and Verdis Brown are both four-star recruits (and are both massive human beings). Lere Oladipo picked Illinois over Penn State and Michigan State and is just a redshirt freshman. So you can see the guys for now (this year and next year), and you can also see the guys for the future. That's what you want at every position.

(We don't have that at every position.)

Defensive end is a little further behind. Mostly because these are the players lined up at DE during position drills: sophomore, sophomore, sophomore, sophomore, sophomore, sophomore, freshman, freshman. You can see the players for the future. You can't really see the players for now.

That's probably a little unfair. Bobby Roundtree, Jamal Woods, and Owen Carney all seem to have Big Ten bodies now. Isaiah Gay is getting close. But there's not a single junior or senior there, and that spells trouble. It would spell trouble at Alabama, it would spell trouble at Akron, it spells trouble in Champaign.

+ I feel that all of the "AJ Bush AJ Bush AJ Bush" above is a little bit unfair to Cam Thomas. He's clearly #2 on my list at this point. And with just a few good practices, he could jump back to #1. Perhaps the best thing about Bush playing so well is that Thomas has daily competition. He didn't have any in the spring (like, none).

If I had to rank the five quarterbacks at this point I'd go with this:

  1. AJ Bush
  2. Cam Thomas
  3. (this space intentionally left blank)
  4. Matt Robinson
  5. Coran Taylor
  6. MJ Rivers

Robinson over Taylor is probably just a two-day thing. And I might love Rivers the most on Wednesday. But I try to combine my thoughts on what this offense looks like with my thoughts on what these guys can do, and Robinson's footspeed (kid is FAST) gives him the slight edge on the other freshmen in this offense.

Best case scenario: Thomas has a great Monday and Tuesday and by the time I get back to camp he has pushed AJ Bush to get better.

+ Thanks for the kind words on my SUBSCRIPTIONS plea in Friday night's post. I've decided to add a little blurb about it at the bottom of some posts during camp. I know that people will be running out of reads, so I'm going to give them the option of how to read all the posts before they run out. Here's the standard blurb I'm going to add:

Thanks for reading. We work on a subscription basis here, and if you're reading all the training camp posts, you're going to run out of August free reads soon. So before you get to that sixth post that you can't access, please consider a subscription to IlliniBoard. $24 for a year, $3 for a month. Thanks for your support. Subscription information available here.


ktal on August 05 @ 08:32 PM CDT

Weird. I look at the 1st string you've listed, and I think, "That O could score some points. And that D could be disruptive." Am I wrong? Because my first impression is that this is going to be fun to watch.

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