1. The great outdoors. The loud music emanating from an Illini practice happened outside Monday morning. Illinois took to the Memorial Stadium turf after its first three practices were conducted inside the Irwin Indoor Practice Facility. Temperatures were still in the low 40s when Illinois went through its paces Monday, but Illinois coach Tim Beckman was glad to finally get away from the controlled environment at Irwin.
“Being inside has been great, and the tempo has been great,” Beckman said. “We turn up the heat and let it get hot like it’s August in there, but the biggest thing is you don’t get to catch balls. We know how important it is to catch punts and catch kickoffs, so that’s what you utilize when you’re outside.”
Monday’s practice also presented different challenges for the three Illinois quarterbacks vying for the starting job — Wes Lunt, Aaron Bailey and Reilly O’Toole — and the kickers, including Taylor Zalewski.
“Our quarterbacks hadn’t had to throw in the wind like this,” Beckman said. “That’s Midwest football.”
2. LEO options. If you see LEO listed as the position next to an Illinois football player and don’t know what that means, you are not alone. One of the players vying for the starting defensive end/linebacker hybrid role was a bit confused when it first was mentioned to him during the recruiting process. Dawuane Smoot, who is competing with DeJazz Woods during spring ball for the spot held last season by Houston Bates, had to have outside linebackers coach Al Seamonson go through the finer points of the position.
“He just said we’re more athletic and have to drop out into the flat,” Smoot said, “but (also) rush the passer at all times.”
Smoot, a sophomore, and Woods, a senior, appear to have the inside track at the position. Beckman said Monday that Paul James — who has missed most of spring ball because of a team rules violation — likely will play at defensive end. Incoming junior college transfer Carroll Phillips is another option at the LEO when he arrives this summer, but Smoot and Woods are getting the most reps with the starters this spring.
“Some days he has a better pass rush than I do, and some days I have a better pass rush than he does,” Woods said. “We push each other that way. We watch film every day, so we know what we’ve got to work on as a unit and between us with this competition.”
Woods (6-foot-3, 255) and Smoot (6-3, 250) are nearly identical in size, but Smoot’s strength has impressed thus far in spring ball.
“Smoot is a very strong and powerful guy,” Woods said. “He also is good on the slant steps and inside moves. He’s a tough football player.”
Smoot, who played a reserve role last year as a true freshman, said not redshirting in 2013 benefited him. Having Woods share his experience is an added benefit.
“He brings great leadership,” Smoot said. “He’s basically giving me everything I need to be out on the field playing. He’s always right in my ear every single day telling me what I’ve got to do.”
3. Young pups. Geronimo Allison and Mike Dudek are most likely still learning their way around campus. Learning their way around the Illinois offense is still an ongoing process for the two early enrollees at the wideout position from the Class of 2014.
Allison has worn a green jersey — indicating he is limited with no full contact — throughout spring ball so far because of a minor arm injury.
But wide receivers coach Mike Bellamy likes what the two newcomers have shown in the first week of practice. The position was hit hard by graduation.
“I think G-Mo has shown us why we recruited him,” Bellamy said of the junior college transfer from Iowa Western Community College, who had 69 catches for 872 yards and eight touchdowns last fall. “He’s put us in a position where we can throw him in with the ones. He’s picked up the offense well. He knows the hand signals. He knows everything. Now we can put him in the offense and make things go.”
The same holds true for Dudek. Bellamy said the 18-year-old from Naperville — who graduated from Neuqua Valley High School early after hauling in 69 receptions for 1,384 yards and 19 touchdowns last fall — could see the field in 2014.
“I see him contributing on special teams as well as on offense,” Bellamy said. “He’ll get some plays, and it won’t be just mop-up duty. He’s going to be in the mix of our rotation. If he would have came in May, he would have had more of
a challenge, but being here now has helped him tremendously.”