Whitman, Lovie and players mark milestone moment

Whitman, Lovie and players mark milestone moment

CHAMPAIGN — The symbolism was front and center late Monday morning at the Memorial Stadium practice fields. The final steel beam of Illinois' Football Performance Center was set in place after the Illini's third training camp practice in their build up to the 2018 season.

But not before every player, coach and staff member wrote their signature on the beam of a facility that's set to open up before the 2019 season.

"When we talk about building legacies, we want you guys to have a chance to sign this piece," Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman said, addressing the players. "It's going to go up in that building, and it will be there forever. It's a great way to memorialize (Monday) and what this building will mean for decades and decades — generations of the Illinois football program. This building is going to help change this football program. As we watched this come out of the ground with the steel, as these coaches have a chance to take recruits to the building and show them what they're home is going to be, it makes an unbelievable difference."

Whitman and Illinois coach Lovie Smith were the first to sign the steel beam. Smith called it a "big day for Illinois football."

"It's easy to see this is a big step right here," Smith said. "To me, where we're at right now — year three going in — better product on the field and upgraded facilities. Things are playing out the way we envisioned.

"We talk a lot about steps around here — taking a big step this year with our program. That's a big step putting that last beam up. It's a reality when you start seeing the outline of what the building eventually will be."

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Illinois' third practice ground to a halt late in its two-hour run at the Campus Recreation Fields after sophomore cornerback Nick Walker was injured.

The junior college transfer took a hard fall after going up with wide receiver Mikey Dudek for a jump ball pass.

Walker, whose helmet popped off at impact, was ultimately carted off the field.

"Whenever you get carted off there is concern, but he could move everything and didn't have any issues from the eye test," Smith said. "We'll take every precaution with Nick."

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Walker is one player Smith said had something to catch the coaching staff's attention each of the first three practices of training camp. Smith has spent a good amount of time working with the Illini secondary.

"You can really judge the DBs a little bit," Smith said. "Linemen, you can't tell a lot the first couple days, but you can a lot with the DBS — the skill guys. They all have talent, size, speed (and) ball skills. A lot of them need to play and will play for us this year."

Along with Walker, Illinois added nine other defensive backs this offseason and flipped sophomore Kendall Smith from wide receiver to safety. Freshmen Ron Hardge III (off a tipped pass) and Delano Ware (jumped a route) recorded consecutive interceptions during full-team workouts Monday morning.

"We needed to upgrade the talent level at the DB position," Lovie Smith said. "Simple as that. That was intentional to do that."

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Running back Reggie Corbin was quick to credit the Illini defense for a strong performance in the third practice of training camp.

"They had a heck of a day," Corbin said. "They bounced back from (Saturday). I think we got after them a little bit. One side can't win every day. If that was the case, it would be bad. It's good we're both competing. We've just got to compete, and that's what we do well. We've been doing that all summer, and it's pouring over into this."

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Corbin, of course, is high on the Illinois offense, too. The redshirt junior from Washington, D.C., received plenty of reps this spring with Mike Epstein held out as a precaution after his season-ending injury in 2017.

First-year Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith is using his running backs in multiple ways. It's something they all enjoy.

"Different ways to get the ball," Corbin said. "Different ways to be a decoy. Different ways to help the team. Whatever I have to do to help the team and win is all that really matters."

"It's a lot more free out there (in the slot)," Epstein added. "You've got a lot more space. I think I work well in the space, and I think I can use that to my advantage."

Fellow running back Dre Brown agreed.

"Our running back room is so deep," Brown said. "We have so much talent in our room that we can almost put everybody in a different spot either at a blocking back or out in the slot or out wide. It's awesome to use our talent."

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Former Illinois running back Kendrick Foster made the trip from Peoria with Richwoods and Illini teammate Brandon Roberts for Monday's practice.

Foster, who rushed for 1,064 yards at Illinois and played his last season with the Illini in 2017, is continuing to work out in advance of a tryout for the Alliance of American Football league, which will play its first season in February.

"I'm flying to Houston and will run the 40 again and go through some position drills and hopefully catch the attention of one of the NFL scouts or the Alliance scouts and go from there," Foster said. "It's a lifestyle. I've been doing it for so long I can't stop. It's not in my blood to stop."

Foster is also working with young football players in Peoria and participated in a "back-to-school bash" at a Peoria church two weekends ago.

"In my standpoint, it's not likely for a Peoria kid to get a free education and go to a Division I university," Foster said. "Just to beat those odds is awesome. I've already beaten the odds of going to a Division I school and a prestigious university and getting a free education.

"I've won the battle already. Now the icing on the cake is playing professionally, and that's my next goal. I just want to continue to help the kids in Peoria and encourage them and lead them on the right path and let them know they can do it, too."

Camp confidential

Day 3 is in the books for Illinois football training camp. Beat writer Scott Richey breaks it down:WHAT HAPPENED MONDAYThe physicality jumped a level with the first practice in shoulder pads. Nothing changed, though, for the Illini offensive linemen. They got physical from the first rep of day one, and offensive line coach Luke Butkus simply wanted more Monday morning.WHAT TO EXPECT TODAYDon't ask Lovie Smith for a depth chart. The Illini coach doesn't have one. The first week of training camp is more about evaluations, so younger players will continue to get plenty of reps. They're the ones the Illinois coaches haven't seen much of yet.

Scheduling matters

Here's when the 11 remaining Illinois football training camp practices take place, with all of them at the Campus Rec Fields except for Aug. 18. That practice will be at Memorial Stadium:

DATE TIME

Tuesday 9-11 a.m.

Wednesday 3-5 p.m.

Thursday 9-11 a.m.

Friday 9-11 a.m.

Aug. 11 3-5 p.m.

Aug. 13 9-11 a.m.

Aug. 14 9-11 a.m.

Aug. 15 3-5 p.m.

Aug. 16 9-11 a.m.

Aug. 17 9-11 a.m.

Aug. 18 3-5 p.m.