Asmussen | Spring game a chance for Illinois football players to impress

Asmussen | Spring game a chance for Illinois football players to impress

CHAMPAIGN — "Bobo" is ready to go. Ready to prove he deserves playing time during the 2019 season.

"It's gameday. Everybody should be treating it like that," he said.

"Bobo" is the nickname for Illinois defensive tackle Jamal Woods. The Hueytown, Ala., native is "Bobo" at home with his family.

It helps the Illinois coaches to differentiate between Woods and fellow defensive tackle Jamal Milan, aka "Big Mal."

Today at Memorial Stadium, Woods and the Illini have the program's first spring game since 2015.

Woods can't wait. He missed part of the 2018 season because of a knee injury he suffered against Penn State. Fortunately, he didn't need surgery, just rehab.

"Personally, I just want to get back to myself," Woods said. "I want to get back full gear."

There will be fans in the stands. That shouldn't matter to the players, Woods said.

"If you're going to bring your game, you should bring it out every day," he said. "Every day, you should go hard."

Still, the cheers help. Woods appreciates the support,

"It can motivate you more," he said.

The 280-pounder is comfortable at tackle, where he can use his speed against opposing offensive linemen.

"I'm quicker than some of the guards who are in college football right now," Woods said. "I am able to move through them real quick."

Time to shine 

Today's game means more than an average spring workout.

"Every practice matters," Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. "But we don't go live every day. All the work that the guys have put into these spring practices, we should see the results out there.

"Yeah, we're going to put a lot of stock into this."

It's possible for a player to rise from far down the depth chart.

"When you get into a game and you play an unbelievable game, yes, you take all that into consideration," Smith said. "Hopefully, that will be the case."

Smith and his coaches have a good feel for most of the returning players.

"But some of the players we haven't seen a lot of, it's a big day for them," the Illini coach said. "Can they move up? Absolutely."

Picks to click 

In my 30 years covering Illinois football, I have seen plenty of players use the spring game as a springboard to the upcoming season.

Besides Woods, here are four other players who I expect to make a mark:

Verdis Brown, offensive guard

The large Chicagoan moved from defensive line to offensive line during the spring. After sitting out as an academic redshirt in 2018, he provides depth at the three inside spots. While the starting positions are mostly settled, new line coach Bob McClain wants competition. Brown has the ability to play sooner rather than later.

Caleb Griffin, kicker

The four-sport standout at Danville can ease the minds of the coaches with a steady day.

He is trying to replace one of the top kickers in the nation, Chase McLaughlin.

Unlike McLaughlin, who came to the Illini from Texas, Griffin is already used to the unpredictable weather.

Consistency is the key. The Illini have to be able to trust Griffin will hit a 42-yard field goal late in a game. No pressure.

Matt Robinson, quarterback

The Californian has been sharing the first-team snaps in practice with returnee M.J. Rivers.

Like Rivers, Robinson got on the field in 2018. Unlike Rivers, he redshirted.

When touted Isaiah Williams arrives during the summer, Illinois is expected to have a two-quarterback race. If Robinson can show arm strength and the ability to move the team, he can make it a three-player competition.

Early in 2018, observers felt Robinson played better than Rivers. Today offers another opportunity to show they were right.

Delano Ware, linebacker

Another Californian who has moved to a new position.

He played in 11 games as a freshman, starting eight times in the secondary.

The coaches already know he can tackle. They want to see how he performs in pass coverage.

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

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