2019 Training Camp VI - Opening Weekend, Postscript
We interrupt your regularly scheduled Robert programming to bring you this message from Nathan. Through a series of circumstances, I was able to attend the weekend practices in Champaign and wanted to write about what I saw.
It's been a while since my last dispatch, and the past few months have been interesting for me, professionally.
I've changed jobs twice in the last five months, first to a different job within the same industry and later to a completely new field. (Both times of my own volition, just so we're clear.)
The experience opened my eyes to the idea of comfort. Staying in the same industry, just moving from one newspaper to another, barely moved the needle with regards to my own comfort. I was doing virtually the same thing, just driving to a different office.
The change in careers was something completely different. For the first time in close to a decade I didn't know what I was supposed to be doing. (I still don't, if we're being completely honest. It's a work in progress.) In the weeks since, I've been forced to retrain my brain, relearning how to write less clinically. Objectivity is now the enemy, where once it was the gold standard.
In many ways that's what I observed at camp over the past few days. There are the guys who have done it before, who are comfortable, and there are the guys who are still trying to retrain their brains while their heads are spinning.
Defensive linemen drills offered a good example. The linemen, both ends and tackles, were working on engaging blockers, then ripping and getting upfield. The veterans had few issues with the drill, but one of the freshmen (his name redacted to protect the innocent) went the wrong way in the drill, going right when the drill called for him to go left. Lovie Smith was nearby and chided the freshman for the mistake.
Of course, a few months ago that same freshman was the big man on his high school campus. And now he's as green as the practice field grass, trying to remember where to put his hands and to chop his feet and to stay low and to, oh yeah, go left.
Watching the quarterbacks, I was struck with how comfortable Brandon Peters looked. It wasn't that Isaiah Williams looked uncomfortable, although I'm sure he's swimming in the first few days of camp. But Peters just looked different.
Maybe after a month the freshmen will have settled in and gotten their bearings and there won't be such a clear divide between Williams and Peters. After watching a few days of practice, though, I like how confident the Michigan transfer seemed to be running an offense.
-It also helps that he's got the best arm of an Illini quarterback since Wes Lunt. On a play during 11-on-11 Sunday, Peters rolled to his right and fired a ball to the running back -- maybe Kenyon Sims or Jakari Norwood, I can't remember -- that toed the line between a great throw and a dangerous one. It went through the hands of the back and fell incomplete, but the throw itself -- a dart, while he was on the move and with two defenders in the area of the receiver -- made me take notice. The ball just looks different coming out of his hand as compared to any of the other quarterbacks in camp.
-The perils of practicing against yourself is that the best moments are also the worst ones. For every Jake Hansen interception there was an ill-advised throw from Williams, etc.
There are tradeoffs to be had, though. Not every play is created equal. Such was the case when, on the first play of 11-on-11 Sunday, Matt Robinson threw a pass that Tony Adams dove in front of for an interception. Robinson is getting every opportunity Peters and Williams are to win the QB job, and so it's #NotIdeal that the guy who might be the starting quarterback in the season opener against Akron is throwing interceptions on the first play, but I'm much more encouraged by Adams jumping a route and picking off a throw than I am discouraged by Robinson throwing a pick. So I counted that play as a net positive.
-Probably the biggest mover for me early in camp was Nick Walker. He was on the second string defense, with Nate Hobbs and Quan Martin locked in as the starting corners, and he proved that he deserved the distinction with a few good plays over the course of the two days. That group is already strong with Hobbs and Martin at the top and Marquez Beason in tow, and the presence of Walker -- and perhaps Adams, too, if Stanley Green's return to practice on Monday means he'll be suited up for the Akron game -- makes the unit even deeper and stronger.
-Not to harp on this too much, but again, getting to see all these guys in pads next to each other really illustrates the difference between the freshmen and the non-freshmen. Tarique Barnes lining up next to Khalan Tolson is a ringing endorsement for the virtues of a year in a Big Ten weight room.
-I make it to one game every year, but the ritual is heavy on drinking and grilling and doesn't leave a lot of time for sightseeing. So getting to spend an afternoon on campus without anywhere to be was really a delight. I sat in the Illini Union and wrote part of this column, I drove by my old apartment on South Locust, I had a beer at Murphy's. It was great.
It was also a depressing reminder that nothing stays the same. Champaign and the campus continue to grow as new, exciting developments and businesses pop up, but they're taking the place of some of the relics that exist in my memory of my time at the school. C.O. Daniel's is closed. So is Kam's, at least this version of Kam's. Illini Inn, with all its character, was razed and rebuilt as just another Champaign bar. Clybourne. White Horse. Even Firehaus, which was new when I was on campus, is gone.
Did I want to go to Geovanti's to sing karaoke by myself on Saturday? No, of course not. But I wish I had the option.
-Daniel Barker had a few long pass plays in Saturday's scrimmage, which is promising for an offense that will have to wait a year for Luke Ford to become eligible. (Luke Ford is medaling in the Underwear Olympics, btw. That's what a 5-star recruit looks like.) Barker was also among the loudest players, perhaps because he was having a good day. It was good to see the sophomore showing out and having fun.
-This isn't a controversial #take, but Trevon Sidney will lead the team in receptions. That's the slot receiver's job in this offense, but also, he will quickly become a favorite target of whoever is behind center this year. He's open, and if it's close to him he usually makes the grab.
-Standing with Robert at the top of a hill overlooking the practice field, he noted that just across the road, a few feet from the guys who will run onto the field at Memorial Stadium in a few weeks, was a farm. We watched as a horse rolled around on the grass, trying to get some relief from a bothersome horsefly.
I'm not sure what the metaphor is -- "Illini football: to become a thoroughbred, you've gotta run with the horses"? -- but it was a uniquely Illinois juxtaposition. God bless Champaign-Urbana.