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The paywall is up so I need to get some CLICKBAIT out there, right? "Top eight restaurants in Savoy, YOU WON'T BELIEVE #6."
Training camp started today, and media aren't allowed, so here's nine things I would have been watching. You know, if I was allowed to do my favorite thing on earth. Which I'm not.
1. de fen sive line
The defensive line took a step forward last year. Wole Betiku led the team in sacks, Ayo Shogbonyo came out of nowhere to grab the starting spot at weakside end, Jamal Milan was (in my opinion) close to being the defensive MVP, and Tymir Oliver was solid as a fourth-year starter.
Now they're all gone. Betiku declared for the draft (undrafted free agent picked up by the Giants but didn't make the team), Shogbonyo decided to graduate after four years and move on with life (life without football), foregoing his redshirt senior year, and Milan + Oliver graduated (as did backup DT Kenyon Jackson). So on a team that returns nearly everything, the defensive line returns no starters.
It does, however, return experience. In fact, there are three players (Owen Carney, Isaiah Gay, and Jamal Woods) who have started at least eight games in the past. It's just that, either through injury or other reasons, they were all passed on the depth chart by the guys listed above.
Now it's all them. If FCS transfer Roderick Perry can be a solid Big Ten player, he can replace Milan. Jamal Woods is probably ready to be Tymir Oliver. And both Carney and Gay need to step forward as fourth-year players (like Shogbonyo did) and grab those starting spots. I would have probably spent the first two days only watching the defensive line.
2. Top three tailbacks
Rushing yards last season:
Reggie Corbin - 733 yards
Dre Brown - 604 yards
Ra'Von Bonner - 232 yards
Jakari Norwood was next on the list with 95 yards.
Corbin and Brown graduated while Bonner decided to opt out due to Covid. So who are the top three tailbacks this season? It's wiiiide open.
If healthy, Mike Epstein is #1. But after Epstein there's no clear guy in the 2 or 3 spot. Norwood? Chase Brown? Reggie Love? Kenyon Sims? Nick Fedanzo? Wiiiiide open.
3. Right Guard Battle
Nick Allegretti graduated in 2018 and was replace last year by fifth-year transfer Richie Petitbon. Petitbon graduated and he was replaced by Wofford grad transfer Blake Jeresaty. But now Jeresaty has had shoulder surgery and will miss the 2020 season. So who is the right guard?
When asked about it, Lovie said two names: Verdis Brown and Jordyn Slaughter. Both were part of the 2018 recruiting class and have had two years adding weight and strength. So one of them should be ready to be a starter in year three.
But if neither is ready? Then it gets a little head-scratchy. Who would be next in line? Evan Kirts? Josh Plohr? One of the true freshmen? Lots of unknowns in the 2019 and 2020 OL recruiting classes. So someone from the 2018 class needs to grab the spot and not let go.
4. Four Stars
There were five consensus four-star recruits in the 2018 and 2019 classes:
Calvin Avery (2018)
Verdis Brown (2018)
Marquez Beason (2019)
Isaiah Williams (2019)
Shammond Cooper (2019)
The single best thing that could happen for the 2020 season? Both Brown and Avery being ready to make a third-year leap. Avery could so very much help the depleted defensive line. And Brown could be the glue to connect the offensive line together.
But don't count out the 2019 four-stars. With Tony Adams at safety, Marquez Beason is in a battle with Devon Witherspoon for the starting spot opposite Nate Hobbs. And we need a fourth linebacker behind Hansen, Eifler, and Tolson - it really needs to be Shammond Cooper. Quarterback? Well, the quarterback spot is held down by Brandon Peters, but I wouldn't mind a package every game for Isaiah Williams.
Bottom line: it's time for these five four-stars to step forward.
5. Sorry to mention the defensive line again but how are the second-year players doing?
A lot of my defensive line fears could be solved by the second-year players stepping forward and being ready. That's a tall task for defensive linemen - receivers and cornerbacks are often ready to play early; defensive linemen not so much - but if Keith Randolph, Seth Coleman, and Moses Okpala could be contributors, my biggest team fear (replacing four starters on the defensive line) would be less of a concern.
Randolph showed flashes last year that he'd be a guy ready sooner rather than later. When Wole Betiku went down with an injury, Randolph played in four games (he played a lot of snaps in the game at Michigan State, for example), but once Betiku came back, Randolph sat to preserve his redshirt. This year, he really needs to be Owen Carney's backup at strongside end.
And it would be great if Coleman or Okpala were ready early. Both need strength, strength, and more strength, but if they're close, it would be so helpful to put them out there in the rotation. Man, I would have watched days of defensive line if camp was open.
6. Who Returns Kicks?
Dre Brown returned kickoffs (he graduated). Walkon Jordan Holmes returned punts (he was injured in the Michigan State game and is now no longer with the team). So both returner spots are open.
Lovie said "Kyron Cumby" and "punt returns" in the same sentence today during the Zoom press conference and I nearly passed out (he's the perfect kind of athlete for punt returns), but it's hard to count on a redshirt freshman to be the main punt returner. Perhaps Nate Hobbs returns to punt returns? Trevon Sidney? He returned some punts before getting injured. Marquez Beason?
Kickoff return is also wide open with the returner from the last two years (Dre Brown) having graduated. Maybe it's another running back (Jakari Norwood? Kenyon Sims?). Maybe it's one of the wide receivers (Carlos Sandy? James Frenchie?). Maybe this is where they get Reggie Love on the field.
That's a wide open camp battle. I would have been watching.
7. At what point would I have fainted?
I always over-react to something at training camp. Always. I once claimed that Chandler Whitmer "might have the best arm since Juice". So I would have been out there looking for the "he's finally ready" player, getting ready to scream things like "Brian Hightower is currently HAPPENING" and then faint. I always do it.
What would it have been? I'm guessing the tight ends. I'd see Daniel Barker ready to make the leap, Luke Ford looking like our best jumbo athlete, and Daniel Imatorbhebhe looking like he did as a freshman at USC and I'd faint. The thoughts of three TE sets with defenses not knowing what to do would surely have sent me to the ground.
8. Who is the super sleeper?
There's always an out-of-nowhere player. Let's call it the STEVEHULL award where he's a safety for three years, gets switched to offense, and then suddenly looks like the best wide receiver in the Big Ten. You're not even considering the guy going into training camp and then he's going to be a huge part of the team.
I'll throw out four names:
RB Jakari Norwood
WR Dalevon Campbell
DT Deon Pate
DE Marc Mondesir
If two of those four guys could be "whoa, where did he come from?" this year, I would have left camp a happy man.
9. Apologies - one more defensive line question: are we screwed?
I know this is the thing I would have been fretting over. If the defensive line falls apart, then all the king's Hansens and all the king's Hobbs won't be able to put the defense back together again. If the DL is done, we're done.
So I really do think I would have spent hours and hours studying the defensive line. There's a coaching change too, remember. Gone is Austin Clark who coached the entire defensive line. He's been replaced by two DL coaches - Jimmy Lindsey coaches the defensive ends and Al Davis coaches the defensive tackles. So when you total it up, four new starters and two new coaches.
And those six guys will go a long way in determining what kind of season we'll have. IF Carney and Gay can live up to what we hoped they'd be after their true freshman seasons and IF Randolph, Coleman, and Okpala are ready to contribute and IF we get a sleeper like Mondesir come out of nowhere and IF Deon Pate can make a fourth-year leap then maybe I don't have anything to worry about.
But if not...