Notes: Opportunity knocks, younger Illini step into the spotlight

Notes: Opportunity knocks, younger Illini step into the spotlight

CHAMPAIGN — Ricky Smalling spent the early part of this week in a boot and not practicing. The Illinois sophomore wide receiver not dressing for Saturday's game against Western Illinois — a 34-14 Illini victory — then wasn't exactly a surprise.

Combined with Mikey Dudek's season-ending knee injury in Week 1 against Kent State, though, and Illinois' wide receiver group was down its top two playmakers. That gave starts to Trenard Davis and Justice Williams, but it was true freshman Edwin Carter that made the biggest difference for the Illinois offense in the first half against the Leathernecks.

Carter, who made his Illini debut Saturday, hauled in touchdown passes of 18 and 16 yards for all of Illinois' first-half points. He held on to the ball for the latter despite getting upended — flipping upside down and landing on his head.

The initial hit on that play cost Carter, though.

He took a hard shot to his right knee and had to be helped off the field immediately — and even that was a struggle. He did not return to the game and his status moving forward remains unclear.

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The Big Ten relenting on its teams playing FCS opponents allows for a game like Saturday's against Western Illinois. It also opened the door for the Illini to schedule Illinois State in 2020 and Eastern Illinois in 2024.

Illini coach Lovie Smith is on board for more in-state opponents on the schedule.

"We're the flagship university of the state," Smith said. "We understand how big this game is for people in Illinois as much as anything. ... I like local teams playing. Whenever you get a chance to play with not much travel involved, it's a good thing for everybody involved. As we see it here, it's a good thing for Illinois fans and the state of Illinois as much as anything."

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Another Illinois true freshman, Carlos Sandy, also got time at wide receiver but earned the starter role in the Illini return game in place of an injured Dudek. Playing true freshmen is something that's simply become common for the Illini in the Smith era.

"It seems like we're getting a little bit of experience with that," Smith said. "You have to get them in there as much as anything. We like the talent of some of our freshmen coming in. We talked a lot about getting some of them early time. We felt that a few of them were ready. After you start them, they forget that they are freshmen. It's going to be fun watching them grow."

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Even though multiple true freshmen have already played this season, a redshirt still remains a possibility.

The new rule allows for a player to appear in four games before that option is lost.

"Our redshirt approach, just in general, is if there's a player that's one of our best we're going to start him right away — freshman, senior, whatever," Smith said. "If we feel like he can help us, we're going to do that. Then you let the rest of it kind of play out as much as anything. We're going to get a chance to see some of our young players. They'll tell us whether they need to be put on the shelf a while longer or if we need to get them more reps and continue to play them."

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Delano Ware is one of those young players. The freshman out of California started at strong safety against Kent State with Bennett Williams suspended, but he did not dress against Western Illinois.

"What we like about him is he's a physical safety with speed," Smith said before making sure to mention Ware was still just 17 years old. "We've got young players making some mistakes. It's just about cleaning those up and not making the same mistakes over and over again. I know he's a football junkie and we can clean some of those things up."

Ware said he's made improvement across the board since training camp started and he began showing he might be one of those true freshmen on the field early this season. He's learned the Illini's defensive system and he's cut down on some of what he called "old bad habits."

Ware is one of three true freshmen contributing in the Illinois secondary along with nickelback Sydney Brown and cornerback Quan Martin.

"They call us the 'Young Pups,'" Ware said. "I'm glad to take charge a little bit that we can play this well with the older guys. Age doesn't matter. If you can play ball, you can play ball.

"I'm going to focus on my vision and technique. ... As far as coverage, it's a little different. There's different techniques on that in getting my drops and steps. I believe I can bring an impact force. I'm a hard hitter, and I'm able to stop the run as well."

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Cam Watkins is one of the few veterans in the Illinois secondary. The redshirt junior cornerback has liked how his younger teammates have played so far, and he intends to keep leading them this season.

"I think they're ready to take that next step," Watkins said. "I just want them to be focused and stay concentrated. It's a bigger atmosphere. There's more eyes and chance for attention. I want them to calm down, take the pace of the game and just take it one play at a time."Communication was a major topic of conversation for the Illinois offensive line leading up to Saturday's game against Western Illinois. Mostly because the Illini didn't do enough of it in their poor first half in Week 1 against Kent State.

Included in those conversations? The Illini offensive linemen are making sure assignments are followed, they're staying aggressive and they're executing the techniques offensive line coach Luke Butkus wants.

"It was just communication with assignments," sophomore tackle Vederian Lowe said. "Some people were on different pages, but at halftime we got it together. ... The whole entire training camp we were trying to build chemistry. You've seen the chemistry coming together. It's not hard at all. It just takes time."

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Communication is especially important for Lowe playing alongside Kendrick Green. The redshirt freshman is in his first season on the offensive line after flipping from defensive tackle to guard this summer.

"I'm just trying to make sure me and him are on the same page and when I see something he sees it just as quickly as I do," Lowe said. "I'm just trying to get him ready for what we'll see when Big Ten comes."

★ ★ ★

Green moving to offensive line and immediately working in with the first group at guard allowed Illinois to move Alex Palczewski outside to right tackle. That puts the Illini sophomore on lefty quarterback AJ Bush Jr.'s blind side.

Palczewski's first game at tackle was a bit of a struggle, but Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith was pleased with how the Mount Prospect native fought against Kent State and he's confident in the growth to come.

"He struggled from a fundamental standpoint and from an assignment standpoint," Smith said. "First half was rough, but Alex is very conscientious. He's a guy who will work his tail off to get it right. I have complete confidence in Alex. We'll be fine with him."