Asmussen | Spring is in the air for Illinois football

Asmussen | Spring is in the air for Illinois football

Did you know Illinois spring football starts today? It's true.

Entering his fourth season as a college head coach, Lovie Smith looks for his first bowl appearance. To get there, his team will need to make significant strides between now and the start of the 2019 season.

Smith has 15 precious spring practices to work out some of the bugs following a 4-8 season in 2018. Here are my 10 burning questions going into the session that wraps up April 19 and features the program's first spring game since 2015, on April 13 at Memorial Stadium:

1. Who is going to be the quarterback?

It's really a two-part question. M.J. Rivers II, who started three games in 2018, has the edge over classmates Matt Robinson and Coran Taylor.

Rivers earned the backup job last summer thanks to a strong training camp, though Robinson had his moments. Taylor watched and learned as a redshirt.

If Rivers holds the spot at the end of the spring, will he be able to fight off incoming freshman Isaiah Williams? The star recruit from St. Louis will have the summer to catch up.

2. What's the deal with Luke Ford?

The Carterville native is on the roster, wearing No. 82. The 6-foot-6, 250-pound tight end transfer from Georgia is hoping to gain immediate eligibility. That's in the hands of the NCAA, which seemed to be granting waivers left and right. Until it didn't.

Hard to imagine how Ford's former teammate at Georgia, quarterback Justin Fields, can be immediately eligible at Ohio State without Ford getting the same the same treatment. Unless the NCAA just likes quarterbacks better. Or favors Ohio State.

My guess: Ford is allowed to play this season and has a big impact on Rod Smith's offense.

3. Who is the one new assistant coach to watch?

Actually, it's an old assistant: Mike Bellamy. The former Illini receiver worked for Tim Beckman and Bill Cubit. Bellamy will be in charge of the running backs, filling the spot left by Thad Ward (now at Temple). Bellamy is thrilled to be back at his alma mater, where he played well enough to be an NFL second-round draft pick. Having Jeff George as his quarterback didn't hurt.

4, Can you take it easy on ...

... running backs Mike Epstein and Reggie Corbin, receiver Ricky Smalling, punter Blake Hayes, linebacker Jake Hansen, offensive lineman Alex Palczewski and defensive linemen Jamal Milan, Tymir Oliver and Bobby Roundtree? All those guys have shown they can play at a high level. The most important thing is to have them healthy for the opener on Aug. 31 against Akron. Put them in bubblewrap if you must. Just don't get them hurt in the spring.

5. The high school coaches clinic is this weekend in C-U. Who do you want to see Lovie Smith cozying up to?

Start with East St. Louis coach Darren Sunkeet, who has the state's top-rated player (safety Antonio Johnson) playing for the Flyers. Illinois is on his list, which includes Georgia, Michigan and Penn State. Smith should also hang with Monticello native and Lincoln-Way East's Rob Zvonar, who coaches star all-purpose back A. J. Henning. Illinois is in his consideration along with Alabama, LSU, Notre Dame and Ohio State.

6. Who replaces Chase McLaughlin as the Illini's next kicker?

It might be Danville's Caleb Griffin. A four-sport standout with the Vikings, Griffin also played baseball, basketball and soccer. A two-time N-G All-Area kicker, Griffin knows about the tricky Memorial Stadium winds and learned plenty while working with McLaughlin last season as a redshirt.

7. What other local products should fans watch for?

Champaign receiver Dominic Stampley, Danville defensive lineman Julian Pearl and Monticello receiver Dylan Thomas are on the spring roster. Stampley showed flashes last season, namely with 153 receiving yards at Maryland, while Pearl and Thomas both redshirted.

8. Who is the Clayton Fejedelem of this spring?

Let's go with linebacker Khalan Tolson. He's not a walk-on like Fejedelem was before the current Cincinnati Bengals safety emerged in 2014 and 2015 for the Illini, but the sophomore linebacker from Florida did most of his rookie work on special teams. A dynamic defender at Farragut Academy, he will have time to impress new position coach Miles Smith.

9. How many people will be at the spring game?

Not as many as were there for the 2007 game (about 10,000). But more than the last three years (no spring game). The weather on April 13 will decide whether the number is in the hundreds or the thousands at Memorial Stadium.

10. Will the defense improve?

It must if the team wants to improve on four wins in 2018. Lovie Smith takes over for departed Hardy Nickerson as coordinator. That cuts out the middleman. No need for Smith to explain to another defensive coordinator what he expects. It's his scheme. When it works like it is supposed to, the defense produces gobs of takeaways. In 2018, the team gained 20, good for 56th nationally. Decent. It was offset by a unit ranked 123rd in points allowed, giving up 39 per game. Only Louisville and Oregon State were worse in the Power Five.

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmusssen@news-gazette.com.

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