Matt Daniels: Spring Game primer

Matt Daniels: Spring Game primer

The kickoff is set for 2:06 p.m. today. Fans can stop by Memorial Stadium as early as 9 a.m. for a spring merchandise sale featuring Illinois items at a discounted price sold in the Great East Hall. Here’s five other tidbits to know before today’s scrimmage:

1 Parking is free, albeit limited because of the ongoing State Farm Center renovations. Admission is free as well. Fans are asked to enter through Gates 17, 19 and 21 as only the East Side of Memorial Stadium will be open. The game will feature normal scoring rules and normal clock rules for the first three quarters before a running clock is used in the fourth quarter until the final two minutes. Quarterbacks Wes Lunt, Reilly O’Toole and Aaron Bailey won’t have to worry about getting hit because they are off limits — along with Chayce Crouch and Man Berg if they get any snaps. All drives after a score will start at the 27-yard line, all punts will be fair-caught and all field goals kicked will do so with no rush. The main reason? So no one gets hurt.    

2. Along with tight ends Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse, two other likely starters won’t play in the Spring Game. Left guard Michael Heitz is out at least six weeks with a broken left thumb. He suffered the injury last Friday night during the Illinois scrimmage at Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin.
“They felt they needed to go in there and have surgery with it and put it in a cast,” Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. “We just wanted to get it done now.”
Dawuane Smoot is the favorite to start at LEO. But an elbow injury he suffered March 21 is still lingering.
“Of course I’d like D.J. to play as much as he can,” Beckman said. “He’s put on good weight and has had a good spring. We’re not going to risk anything with the elbow or him having a permanent injury.”

3. It’s Alex Golesh against Mike Ward. The two assistants on Beckman’s staff are going for bragging rights today. Golesh will serve as head coach of the Blue team, with Ward the head coach of the Orange team.
“I’ve got to beat Mike Ward,” Golesh said. “That’s all that matters. We’ve got to light the scoreboard on fire.”
Joining Golesh on the Blue coaching staff are honorary coaches Rashard Mendenhall, Dino Pollock, Tim Simpson and Juice Williams, along with assistants Tim Banks, Al Seamonson, Mike Bellamy and Tim Salem. Ward will have the services of honorary coaches Dana Howard, Eric Rouse and Martez Wilson, along with assistants Greg Colby, Bill Cubit and A.J. Ricker. Graduate assistants Anthony Antonacci and Kolby Jackson also will help out the Orange team.  

4. Paul James is playing in his first Spring Game. The highly touted defensive end from Miami in the Class of 2013 had academic issues that caused him to miss last season. He’s back, and with a new number. James, on the Blue team, switched to No. 72 a few weeks ago after originally donning No. 6. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion he would return after missing last season.
“His recruiting went back open,” Beckman said. “I know he got contacted by some SEC teams, and he decided to stay at home and believed in Illinois.”  

5. The on-air talent of Brian Barnhart, Kurt Kittner and Steve Kelly will provide live radio coverage of the Spring Game on WDWS 1400-AM. The station will carry the entire Spring Game, starting with pregame coverage at 1:45 p.m. Once the Spring Game ends, WDWS will hand it off to Dave Loane and Brian Moline across the street at Illinois Field, where coverage of the baseball game between Illinois and Michigan — slated for a 3 p.m. first pitch — will be joined in progress.

5 players to watch

Wes Lunt (No. 12)

Position: Quarterback

Team: Blue

Reason to watch: The last time the Rochester product played in front of a crowd at Memorial Stadium, he did all right. OK, that’s an understatement. Lunt completed 31 of 39 passes for 506 yards and three TDs to help his high school win a Class 4A state title in 2011. Doubt offensive coordinator Bill Cubit will want Lunt throwing the ball 39 times today, but every pass he makes will be closely watched by fans, media, coaches and teammates.     

Stand up and cheer when ... Lunt throws a beautiful deep ball across the middle to one of his wideouts. Or zips in a quick slant. Or hits a tight end — even if it’s not Jon Davis or Matt LaCosse — on a seam route. Lunt has the capabilities to make all the throws necessary in Cubit’s pass-happy offense.   

He’s saying: “I didn’t expect (the offense) to be so complex when I got here. I was used to high school and Oklahoma State. I love it because it’s all on the quarterback. Every quarterback wants to have the ball in his hands to make the play and make the right checks. I’ve learned as much football in the past year as I’ve ever learned in my entire life.”

T.J. Neal (No. 52)

Position: Linebacker

Team: Blue

Reason to watch: The redshirt sophomore from Pennsylvania wears the number of his favorite linebacker. No, his playmaking skills aren’t at the level of Ray Lewis — and who knows if he ever will get there — but Neal has impressed all spring. If the season started today, he’d line up next to Mason Monheim at one of the inside linebacker spots for the Illini.

Stand up and cheer when ... Neal sticks a ball carrier with a solid tackle. And finishes the tackle. It was a sorry sight at times last year when various defensive players went to attempt a tackle in space and failed to do just that. Neal showed his potential at various points last year in a backup role. Now he should factor even more prominently into the defense.

They’re saying ... “We’ve still got a young football team that hasn’t been involved in a lot of football games, but T.J. has been speaking more (to the team) because he has had a great spring ball. T.J. has really stepped up his game.” — Illinois coach Tim Beckman

Justin Hardee (No. 19)

Position: Wide receiver

Team: Blue

Reason to watch: He’s the veteran of the wide receiving corps. Scout’s honor. Hardee is entering his third season wearing an Illinois uniform, and it’s his second Spring Game. He had seven catches for a team-high 108 yards last spring. Those numbers didn’t exactly translate last season, but he’s a likely starter entering this season.  

Stand up and cheer when ... Hardee uses his 6-foot-1, 195-pound frame and athletic ability to become a focal point for Lunt or Reilly O’Toole, the two Blue quarterbacks who should receive most of the snaps. With Steve Hull, Miles Osei, Spencer Harris and Ryan Lankford gone, the experience torch is now passed to Hardee.

He’s saying ... “I just took something different from all of those guys. Steve was a playmaker. Miles had toughness. Spencer was a leader, and Ryan gave relentless effort sprinting off the ball. I feel like I learned a lot from those guys. That helps me out as a person because I’ve still got a great relationship with those guys. It just builds my confidence up to know I was playing behind those guys and competing with them. Now I’m ready to take over.”

Mikey Dudek (No. 18)

Position: Wide receiver

Team: Orange

Reason to watch: He’s small, but he’s fast. He should still be in high school, but he’s making a name for himself. And embracing the Wes Welker comparisons that are sure to pop up. “They compare him to Wes Welker because Wes Welker is a white wide receiver,” receivers coach Mike Bellamy said. “Mikey is a kid that’s got an opportunity to be good.”     

Stand up and cheer when ... Dudek sprints past a defensive back, plants his foot, executes a well-run post pattern and comes up with a catch. Dudek isn’t just a receiver who can add yards after the catch on a short throw. Regardless of the route, it should be fun to see Aaron Bailey connect a few times with the Neuqua Valley product.

He’s saying ... “You come out here and you want to do really well, so you’re just running full speed every play. You’re sort of like a chicken with its head cut off the first time. Coach Bellamy kept telling me to slow down, and that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been starting to read the defenses when I’m out there, and that’s something that I never really learned in high school. That was a big change for me, but I’m just trying to get better and better.”

Tyler White (No. 87)

Position: Tight end

Team: Blue

Reason to watch ... White is a solid bet to start in 2015 given how the current roster is now. Injuries to Matt LaCosse (ankle) and Jon Davis (elbow) won’t allow those two likely starters at tight end this season to play today. This is an opportunity for White to keep progressing and make the coaching staff have even more faith in him moving forward.

Stand up and cheer when ... he catches a pass or two. The Plainwell, Mich., native didn’t catch many passes in high school and didn’t catch one at all last season, when he was used more on special teams. He has the size you want out of a tight end (6-5, 245) and hasn’t had the chance to display his athleticism on offense yet at Illinois. Here’s his chance.

They’re saying ... “For a kid that’s never really truly played tight end, this spring has been awesome for him. I don’t want to say it’s a blessing that Matt and Jon haven’t really gone, but it really is for that kid. A year from now, he’s got to play. I was hard on him in the fall, and I’m really hard on him now because that was really the first tight end that I signed here. He wasn’t highly recruited, and I kind of felt like I found him. He looks the part but just needs to develop some confidence.” — Illinois tight ends coach Alex Golesh

Here’s some perspective from other media types who will cover today’s game:

Brian Barnhart,
broadcaster for WDWS

Like everyone else, I am interested to see Wes Lunt in action. He created quite a buzz when he transferred to Illinois from Oklahoma State, and I think fans will like what they see. I will also be watching the receivers. The Illini were fortunate to have Steve Hull change to receiver last year and pile up nearly 1,000 yards. Martize Barr is back for his second year, and I think newcomers Mike Dudek and Geronimo Allison have a chance to make an impact next fall. Bill Cubit will be looking for someone to step up in that area. I also will be checking out the personnel moves made on defense to try to increase overall team speed. The LEO and STAR positions are key spots, and I like some of the changes made this spring by Tim Beckman and Tim Banks to tighten up the defensive side of the ball.

Jamal Collier,
writer for Gatehouse Media

Saturday will mark the first chance most Illini fans will get to see transfer quarterback Wes Lunt up-close and in person, and I expect him to be impressive. Lunt will be able to showcase arm strength and precision on throws Illinois fans have not seen their quarterback make in a long time. His performance could make people forget that they have never even heard of the receiver on the other end of those passes or that he is picking apart a likely overmatched defense. Lunt’s teammates were convinced enough by him to select him No. 1 overall during the draft for this game — and his team already had Reilly O’Toole as one of its captains. Yes, officially the race for the Illinois starting quarterback job is a three-man chase between Lunt, O’Toole and the athletic Aaron Bailey. But barring an injury or major shift at Camp Rantoul, Lunt seems almost certain to be taking the first snap against Youngstown State on Aug. 30. And Saturday should serve as a platform for all to see his full talent on display.

Matt Loveless,
sports director for WAND- TV

It’s going to be an exciting day for fans who have yet to see a few newcomers on this Illinois team. Wide receivers Geronimo Allison and Mikey Dudek have impressed all spring, highlighted by some flash at last Friday night’s public scrimmage in Springfield. I’m throwing sophomore QB Wes Lunt on the “newcomer” list as well. He appears to have made good use of his sit-out year and would be my odds-on favorite to win the starting job in 2014. We’re sure to get an equal dose of the three QBs involved in the current competition (Lunt, Aaron Bailey, Reilly O’Toole), but keep a close eye when Lunt’s out there. The offense was more efficient last season but has potential for some star power next season, which it hasn’t had for a few years. I’ve reminded those who asked me about the QB battle this spring of one important fact: The Illini weren’t just a quarterback away from Big Ten title contention in 2013. A defense that gave up 35 points a game last season is now a year older, and while still relatively young, won’t be able to use that as an excuse any more. We’ll be tracking the growth of a secondary whose roles are still being defined and a defensive line that will have some fresh faces. Can defensive coordinator Tim Banks put it all together? This may be the most important question if the Illini are truly making plans for a bowl trip in 2014.

Fletcher Page,
writer for

I look at spring football as it’s own season, so I’m not letting the four wins of last season, nor the premature mapping of a bowl route for 2014, seep into my perspective. Illinois can’t lose, so I’m keeping it optimistic. Here’s what I’ll be keeping tabs on:

— Wes Lunt taking the quarterback position from a “nice guy you love to pull for” look to a “money in his near future, pro in the making” you’d hate to root against.

— Juice Williams, Dana Howard, Martez Wilson, Mike Bellamy, Greg Colby, Eric Rouse and possibly Rashard Mendenhall — former players from different eras back on campus. The group represents recognizable faces of past success, tangible evidence fans can reminisce over and recruits can draw incentive from.

— Mason Monheim’s family members decked out in those matching No. 43 jerseys, seated in their customary corner seats near the field. They frequently make the drive from Ohio and remind us that despite talk of unions, pay for play and other NCAA-student-athlete debates, this can still be a family business. Can’t miss the bunch — Monheim is the name clearly displayed on their backs.

Jeremy Werner, radio talent for ESPN C-U, columnist for

I’m supposed to say Wes Lunt, right? Well, I’ve seen enough. He’s the guy — and he’s for real. Beyond depth, I have few questions about the offense. Beyond youth, I have plenty of questions about the defense. What I haven’t seen is a defensive disrupter. Has sophomore LEO Dawuane Smoot matured enough in his first spring ball to emerge as the pass rusher Illinois so sorely needs? Is junior Kenny Nelson’s strong spring for real? There is talent at linebacker and cornerback, but the biggest concern is on the back end. Starting safety Zane Petty was a walk-on at Colorado State. And he stole the job from Taylor Barton, who is practicing with the first string, last season. Can former walk-on Clayton Fejedelem make a final push for a starting spot? The coaches like his physicality. The offense will get most of the attention. But the season probably depends on the defense. I want to see if there are any playmakers on that side of the ball.

Tim Beckman will hand out some awards today. Most likely near midfield at Memorial Stadium after the Spring Game. If he wanted some input from beat writer Matt Daniels (unfortunately, he won’t), here’s who Daniels would recommend:

Offensive MVP: Wes Lunt
Defensive MVP: Mason Monheim
Most Improved Offensive Player: Justin Hardee
Most Improved Defensive Player: Dawuane Smoot
Best Newcomer: Mikey Dudek

Illinois assistants Mike Bellamy and Greg Colby won’t be the only former Illini inside Memorial Stadium this afternoon. Here’s five others to keep an eye on:

Dana Howard School’s career leader in tackles and 1994 Butkus winner finds out in May if he is selected for the College Football Hall of Fame. Don’t bet against him.

Rashard Mendenhall Now retired from the NFL, he helped Ron Zook’s third Illinois team earn a spot in the 2008 Rose Bowl. Had one of the best seasons ever for an Illini running back.

Tim Simpson East Peoria product started four years in the late 1980s and early 1990s, earning All-America honors in 1991.

Juice Williams His commitment to Illinois considered the linchpin to a recruiting run that would carry the school to the 2008 Rose Bowl. Fifty years from now, Illini fans will talk about his performance against No. 1 Ohio State in 2007.

Martez Wilson Linebacker surprised many recruiting experts when he went to the microphone at Chicago Simeon and announced his plans to sign with Illinois. Despite some setbacks, he became a valuable contributor to Zook’s program.

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