2019 Training Camp XV: Saturday's Practice
I tell you what, that whole "watch a movie on the jumbotron" thing they do is a wildly successful event. I left the stadium at around 6:45 (practice ended at 6:00) and I couldn't get out of the parking lot. Just a constant stream of cars coming in for the movie and I couldn't turn left. Same with walking out of stadium. One big long procession of kids and parents carrying blankets.
The football? It was just OK. Nothing great, but the crowd there for the practice got to see a few glimpses of what each quarterback can do (which is why most of them were there, I'd imagine). Feels like I should plus this one.
+ It was just an open practice, not a "scrimmage". I think next Saturday will be more scrimmage-like as they're closing camp and getting closer to the season. But this was just your typical practice.
Which, if you're not familiar, generally consists of walkthrough, stretching, individual (defensive line works out with the defensive line coach and tight ends work out with the tight ends coach), maybe some quick 11 on 11 stuff (more walkthrough than anything), the special teams (or as I like to call it, nap time), followed by a break, followed by 7 on 7 (linemen vs. linemen off to the side, QB's, backs, tight ends, and receivers vs. linebackers, corners and safeties on the field), ending with some 11 on 11 (bump drill - no tackling) on the field. Maybe some field goal work tossed in between two sessions of 11 on 11.
Sometimes (like last night) they'll let the second string and third string tackle. No one is going to tackle Reggie Corbin or Brandon Peters this camp, but if the D needs a little tackling practice, you'll see the 5th and 6th-string running backs out there and then it's full go. So if you've ever watched one of these open practices and wondered "why are they tackling now when two seconds ago it was just two-hand touch?", it's because the first string jogged off and a twisted ankle is less of a concern.
+ Everybody always wants to know how things shook out with the QB's, so... I'd say Matt Robinson won the night. It was Peters with the ones, Robinson with the twos, and Williams with the threes. And the ball moved the best with Matt Robinson under center.
Part of that, obviously, is Peters having to face the first string defense. That will be (that should be) much more difficult. But it should also be noted that Robinson has to run his offense with the second string linemen, and in this scrimmage that included three walkons, so life is much more difficult in the pocket. Our second string defensive line is much stronger than the second string offensive line (especially with 2-3 scholarship offensive linemen sitting out).
But both run with more or less the same set of tailbacks and wide receivers. Well, I should describe that as well. Reggie Corbin is going to get maybe 5 plays in a scrimmage like this (keep him fresh). And Mike Epstein is participating in maybe every other practice (they'll take it extremely easy on his foot). So the tailback getting the majority of the carries for the first string offense is Dre Brown. But Jarkari Norwood and Kenyon Sims are also getting carries with the first string, second string, and third string. And while receivers like Ricky Smalling mostly get first string snaps, all of the receivers basically rotate with all of the strings.
OK now I'm in deep here because I keep needing to explain more. When you hear "the first string offense was against the second string D, it mostly works like this:
- "First string offense" basically means first string QB and first string OL. It's also mostly the RB's, TE's, and WR's higher on the depth chart, but they all rotate liberally between all the strings so they can get their reps (and develop chemistry with the QB's).
- "First string defense" is generally the same defensive linemen, linebackers, and defensive backs. When they call for the twos, it's generally a wholesale change. However, the DL rotates fairly liberally. And you might see a linebacker rotate in with the ones here and there.
- What does that mean? It means you can only really "read" the QB, OL, LB, and DB for "who is running with the ones today?". Everything else is basically a full rotation.
What was I even talking about here? Right, the quarterbacks. I think those fans at the practice taking in their first viewing of the quarterbacks got to see what's been discussed this first week. Williams is dynamic with the ball in his hands, Peters clearly has the best arm, but sometimes the ball moves the best when Matt Robinson is doing both.
+ Caleb Griffin was really solid in the field goal portion, including hitting a 54-yard FG (which he put into the net) on an attempt where they iced him.
Yes, iced him (loved it). They're lining up for a 54 yard field goal, getting ready to snap it, and a "timeout" is called. There's no clock, and this is just a drill, but they wanted to make him think about it (like some opposing coach is going to make him think about it if he's called on to kick a 54-yard field goal at the end of the half/game). So he stood around thinking about it, they lined up again, and he drilled it through the uprights and into the net. Would have been good from 60.
I still think it's a kicking competition, as James McCourt has been solid as well. I don't think we'll know who the kicker will be until the first extra point (or field goal attempt) against Akron. But for this scrimmage, really great stuff from the freshman.
+ The best single play of the scrimmage was a make-something-out-of-nothing play by Brandon Peters. I can't recall the down and distance (I want to say it was third and long?), but he's in the pocket, can't see anything open, the rush is closing in so he does the "circle out and back to the left" move to escape the pressure. And this is a practice scrimmage, so all of the assistant coaches are standing in a semi-circle behind the pocket. Which means that Miles Smith had to run to get out of the way of a scrambling Peters.
One defensive end is chasing Peters towards the sideline as he looks for a receiver. Near that sideline (this is a right-handed QB running towards the left sideline so it's a very awkward), he releases a pass to Josh Imatorbhebhe near the same sideline. It's caught for a 15-yard gain and a first down. That was the loudest cheer of the night from the crowd. Playmaking to extend a drive? Yes please.
And if I may, I think the crowd's excitement was a little bit "hey, this kid isn't just a pocket passer". That's a play that Wes Lunt probably doesn't make. He just didn't have the footwork for the "duck and spin to escape the pocket" followed by a sprint to out-run a defensive end followed by a jump-and-spin pass. It was Peters showing that while he's not a "runner", he does have out-of-the-pocket athleticism.
+ General feel after a week and a day of practice? I just have that feeling that the entire season will come down to, like, two drives in two games. We'll win some games in blowout fashion (say, Akron and Rutgers). We'll lose some games in blowout fashion (don't make me name those). We'll be way too close to some awful opponents (UConn) and surprisingly close to some great opponents (OCTOBER 12, 2019). And then it will be a tie game with five minutes to go against Minnesota and Purdue (or whoever) and the outcome of those last five minutes will determine if this is a bowl season or not.
If it is a bowl season, all of the momentum begins to shift in a solid direction. Nearly everyone returns next season. As of right now there will be 31 seniors. The Illini moved up to 30th this year on Phil Steele's "experience" chart this year and will likely be in the top three next season (I'm guessing #1). With a bowl this year there's all kinds of hype this time next year (and, hopefully, some recruiting hype as well).
No bowl? Don't make me answer that. I don't even want to think about it. With the schedule and the roster (and the performance at camp so far), it's all right there for the taking. Just find a way to win six.
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