In his 30th year on the Illinois football beat, AP Top 25 voter Bob Asmussen is on call 24/7. Submit your questions BY CLICKING HERE and he’ll chase down answers.
URBANA — The first week of Illinois football training camp will be in the books by the time Friday’s practice is slated to end shortly after noon at the Campus Recreation Fields.
I came in with some ideas about what I would see. And in a lot of cases, those thoughts held up: The running backs are talented. The offensive line is steady. Lovie Smith enjoys coordinating the defense.
What have been the surprises? And what remains as unknowns?
Here are five that stand out:
1. Quarterback question
A year ago at this time, it was obvious to most fans and reporters that AJ Bush Jr. was going to win the starting quarterback job.
“Rightfully so,” Illini offensive coordinator Rod Smith said. “AJ was a good player. And AJ was an older player. And AJ was going against true freshmen, whose adjustment period to this game is hard.”
This time, not so clear.
Smith won’t likely name a starter until the week of the Akron game. If then. He doesn’t want to tip off the Zips on who to prepare for.
So, it will be Michigan transfer Brandon Peters or freshman Isaiah Williams or redshirt freshman Matt Robinson or redshirt freshman Coran Taylor.
If someone other than Coach Smith (Rod or Lovie) tells you X is the starter, they are guessing.
Rod Smith likes having options.
“There’s more competition,” Rod Smith said. “You’ve got to have three guys, in my opinion, that you feel comfortable with. I feel better about this year’s class. There’s a little more depth at the position.”
They have the skill set Smith wants.
“You’ve got to be able to throw,” Smith said. “You’ve got to be able to make smart decisions. You’ve got to throw with accuracy and you have to be able to make one guy miss. That’s tough on a defense. If you can be like Isaiah Williams and make six guys miss, that’s even better. Not everybody is like that.
“Brandon Peters is dynamic. He can throw the football. It’s just a matter of getting him comfortable into what we’re doing. Isaiah is dynamic athletically. Those guys are all good. Matt Robinson does some things.
“We can play with all of them.”
2. Taking shape
Receiver was supposed to be a concern for the team going into 2019. No returnee caught more than 33 passes last season. And drops have been an issue in the past.
But the balls aren’t hitting the ground nearly as much this camp. And there appear to be plenty of choices.
Two Southern Cal graduate transfers have provided a lift. Trevon Sidney and Josh Imatorbhebhe are taking advantage of their fresh starts.
“I think the offense fits me pretty well,” the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Imatorbhebhe said. “It’s simple: just get the ball in the hands of the playmakers and let them do what they do.”
After a week, Imatorbhebhe thinks there is enough talent at his position.
“I feel great about it,” he said. “I feel extremely confident. This group could be extremely special. I feel like we can be one of the best, if not the best, receiver group in the Big Ten.”
Edwin Carter, who suffered a severe knee injury in the second game last season, appears to be ahead of schedule.
“Boy, what a story that is,” Rod Smith said. “Just to have him out here, running around, to me is miraculous.”
3. Lending a hand
Lovie Smith added four new coaches to his staff this offseason: Mike Bellamy (running backs), Keynodo Hudson (cornerbacks), Bob McClain (offensive line) and Miles Smith (linebackers).
They have all jumped in and gone to work. With the idea of ending a five-year bowl-less run.
Hudson is a bundle of energy and a lot of fun to watch.
“It’s been absolutely awesome,” said Hudson, who arrived from Florida Atlantic. “I love the way the guys are working and their intensity and their attention to detail.”
The 40-year-old coach brings intensity to practice.
“All day long, baby,” Hudson said. “Nothing that was ever done great and at a high level was done without great enthusiasm. That’s always been me as a coach, me as a player. That’s my personality.”
The players are responding.
“They come to the party and they go to work,” Hudson said. “These guys feed off energy and enthusiasm. This is a fun game.”
4. Ends in sight
No question the loss of Bobby Roundtree hit the defense hard from a physical and emotional standpoint.
Who will fill the gigantic void left by the defensive end who suffered a severe spinal injury in mid-May?
Owen Carney Jr. is experienced and figures to take one spot. And Southern Cal transfer Wole Betiku is off to a good start. He was a highly-touted prep prospect who wants to take advantage of his second chance.
The coaches are hopeful Isaiah Gay will provide a boost as either a starter or backup. He came to Illinois in the same class as Roundtree and, at times, appeared to be equal in terms of potential.
Early in camp, the defensive tackles are ahead of the ends.
“We’re still piecing together our guys on the edge, kind of finding the best combination,” second-year defensive line coach Austin Clark said. “Every day, we have competition, which is good. I’m pleased with how we are so far.”
5. The next Brandon Lloyd. Or Arrelious Benn.
They both had an instant impact on the team. And helped lead the Illini to unexpected success.
Of any position on offense, Rod Smith said, receiver is the easiest for a freshman to break in early.
“You don’t have to be as physically dominating,” Rod Smith said. “You still need to be able to block. You’ve still have got to get off releases.”
This year’s candidate is Casey Washington, a 6-2, 190-pound Texans who is playing well in camp.
I saw Lloyd and Benn back in the day. It’s early, but Washington has the same look.
Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.