A look at the STARs
Illinois football beat writer Matt Daniels gives the inside scoop on how position battles are faring for the Illini during preseason camp. Today’s glance hones in on the STARs:
Who has left?
Daniel Quintana and Jeremey Whitlow. Quintana, a former walk-on, did not play in two seasons with the Illini. Whitlow has moved back to wide receiver after contributing mainly on special teams last season and not at the hybrid linebacker/defensive back position.
Who has returned?
Eric Finney, Zeph Grimes, James Crawford and Conner Schmidt. Finney was slated to grab hold of the starting spot at this position prior to the 2013 season. A knee injury put a halt to those plans. Grimes has alternated between this position and weakside linebacker, but he has received most of his reps at STAR this month. Crawford redshirted last season, and Schmidt is a walk-on who likely won’t see the field much.
Earnest Thomas and Nelson Lugo. Thomas is the undisputed vocal leader of the defense. He made 101 tackles last season at strong safety, but Tim Beckman moved him to this spot once spring practices started. He has the big-hit ability and athleticism the coaching staff wants out of this position. He will still have some pass coverage to worry about, but not nearly as much as he did last season. Lugo is a walk-on who redshirted last season as a defensive back.
Who will start against Youngstown State?
Thomas. In an effort to increase speed at several positions, Thomas will be counted on to produce in significant fashion this season. He could fill the gap left by Jonathan Brown as the most dependable defensive starter on the Illini this fall. By moving him from strong safety, it limits his ability to get burned repeatedly by wideouts and enhances his chances of causing takeaways, an area Illinois certainly lacked in last year.
What they’re saying
“I enjoy it. It’s giving me the chance to have the best of both worlds out there. I’m having fun with it.” — Thomas