Training Camp 2019 II - Friday Practice Thoughts
We had a decent offense last year and a horrific defense. The success of this team will depend on the improvement on the defensive side of the ball. So naturally, at the first practice of the fall, I... watched the offense the whole time. Why? Because that was my number one concern during the spring game. Defense appeared to be improving. Offense was in trouble.
That was maybe 83% quarterback related. The spring game ground to a halt because the passing game ground to a halt. And when the passing game grinds to a halt, there's no running game to speak of. And that's when I cover my eyes.
So to get that taste out of my mouth, I watched only the offense today. I already wrote about the quarterbacks, so now let's talk about the other things I watched. Which was basically the wide receivers.
OK, I watched more than that. When you're watching 11 on 11 stuff, you're "watching" the whole team. If you see Quan Martin jump a route and grab an interception then you "watched" the defense. I've now reached the point where I don't know why I'm talking about what I'm going to talk about. I'll just start writing. Time for plus signs.
+ Obviously, when you spend a lot of time watching the quarterbacks you watch the wide receivers as well (why am I doing this again? just start typing!). My "if the depth chart was decided based on this one practice only, who are the top eight receivers?" power rankings:
- Trevon Sidney (JR - transfer)
- Ricky Smalling (JR)
- Casey Washington (FR)
- Dominic Stampley (JR)
- Jordan Holmes (SO - walkon)
- Trenard Davis (SR)
- Donny Navarro (SO - walkon
- Caleb Reams (SR)
Remember, that's based on one practice. So please take the following as overreactions.
- Casey Washington might seriously be the real deal. This was absolutely The Casey Washington Practice. When I gave Washington only 1.5 Tom Cruises he found the article and put me on blast on Twitter and it appears that he will, in fact, prove me wrong. Of all of the freshmen (keep in mind I didn't watch much defense), Washington stood out the most. He violently snatches the ball out of the air. Yes, I've fallen for true freshmen wideouts before (see: Thieman, Dom) and there's a long road between snatching the ball out of the air in 7-on-7 drills and playing wide receiver in the Big Ten, but after one day, put me down for "I missed on Casey Washington's film".
- Trevon Sidney looked great. Great body control in the air. I just don't understand how some guys can be running down the field and then they jump, do a 180, and catch the ball with two hands while falling backwards maintaining their momentum. Do you have any idea how dumb I'd look if I tried that? Anyway, Sidney can do it, and I'm hoping that means he'll be our leading receiver.
- I'm not sure what to say about Ricky Smalling other than "I want more". I want a guy who will refuse to let anyone else catch more passes this season. I want the guy who made the juggling catch on his back against Northwestern. I want him to be the best player on the field any time he's on the field. And he's just not there yet.
- As high as I was on Trevon Sidney, I was equally low on Josh Imatorbhebhe. Big and strong, no doubt (to the point where I'd consider bulking him up and making him a tight end?), but I just didn't see a wide receiver yet. A guy that big and that fast can develop into a great blocker, and if you can be the best blocking wide receiver, you're going to play a lot. Hopefully Imatorbhebhe is that guy, but I didn't see Wide Receiver Guy today.
- Kyron Cumby was at wide receiver all day. That doesn't mean he won't be at running back all day tomorrow. But for today, he was a wide receiver. Quick as advertised, but also maybe smaller than advertised? If that's possible.
- Still think those two walkons might play a lot (Jordan Holmes and Donny Navarro). But the better scenario (for any team) is the the scholarship guys wake up and push their way past them.
+ Speaking of Cumby, I did take note of the punt returners. The five guys working out at punt return during special teams drills:
Notably absent from that list: Marquez Beason. During the same punt return drill, he was the gunner on the punt coverage team. I thought they might use punt returns as a way to get the ball into his hands, but at least for today, even his special teams role was defense-related (use that speed to go tackle the punt returner).
+ I need to do two LLUOI posts now. One for Devon Witherspoon (who wasn't there today - there's a whole admissions process he has to go through so I maybe should write that LLUOI based on film and not cheat by watching him in person) and the other one for Chase Brown. Sidney Brown's twin brother has transferred from Western Michigan to Illinois.
And when I say twin, I mean TWIN. Who were the last identical twins on the Illini? The Schau brothers maybe? Sydney and Chase Brown look exactly alike, right down to the long hair up in a knot on top of their heads. Identical identical twins.
So maybe that's what I'll do after I finish writing this - a quick Chase Brown LLUOI post. I did get to see him in action today.
+ Perhaps the most interesting thing from today is that I overheard Rod Smith being interviewed and he bristled a little bit at the idea that a Brandon Peters cannot run this offense. That wasn't the question, but Rod's response was more or less "we recruited him because he can run my offense".
And that seems to be the biggest question around camp. The only QB with experience (MJ Rivers) left the program. The coaching staff chased Tommy Stevens from Penn State but he chose Mississippi State. The staff chased Matt Fink from USC but that fizzled and he stayed at USC. Finally, the staff landed on a "pro-style" QB transferring from Michigan.
He's the only QB with "experience". There's a hotshot freshman, but he's a true freshmen (remember Juice at Rutgers? or Kittner's entire freshman season?). So if there's going to be stability it either comes from one of the redshirt freshmen or the Michigan transfer. If Rod is saying "this QB can run my offense" about that transfer, I'm encouraged. Yes, he'd likely say that for any transfer, but he was seriously bristling at Brandon Peters being seen as precipitating any kind of scheme alteration. So... take that for what you will.
+ It was a fairly ragged practice overall. Some players were missing because a few had summer school finals this morning. This was the first practice for the freshmen, the first practice for the transfers, the first fall camp for many of the new coaches. I think you'd expect a sloppy practice with a situation like that.
And since I watched mostly offense (and not really much line play either - I was totally focused on the ball), and since so many offensive players were new... yeah, it's going to be a sloppy one.
Tomorrow I'll probably focus on mostly defense. Need to get my eyes on Randolph, Coleman, Beason, Okpala, and Cooper. And then hopefully find a Casey Washington on defense.