Tim Kish, a former defensive coordinator during Ron Turner's time at Illinois, retired at the end of the 2018 college football season and is doing his best to keep his distance — at last some anyway — from the game.
URBANA — Illinois football further addressed what had become a glaring lack of team speed with its 2019 recruiting class. Guys like Kyron Cumby and Marquez Beason immediately became two of the fastest Illini, with Isaiah Williams not too far behind.
Bringing back strength and conditioning coach Lou Hernandez helped, too. Illinois’ spring and summer workouts delivered a steadily growing number of players in the “Speed Freaks” group that registered 20-plus mph on the field. It’s a mix of offensive and defensive standouts — from running backs Ra’Von Bonner, Dre Brown and Reggie Corbin to defensive backs Sydney Brown, Nate Hobbs and Quan Martin.
That’s enough speedy guys that Illinois coach Lovie Smith had to make a training camp declaration as the debate about “fastest guy on the team” gained steam.
“Seriously, we had to let the guys know that when it’s dark outside we’re not going to go out and have a foot race at 9 at night,” Smith said. “We want to be physical. We want players that can make plays. We know that it’s not just about how fast a guy can run or how high he can jump, but that helps an awful lot. That helps an awful lot.”
That doesn’t mean the fastest Illini aren’t still thinking about that potential race as they all put in their claim as fastest on the team.
“It would be fun,” Cumby said. “The other day we tried to do it, but they don’t want us getting hurt. Hamstrings, with us fast guys, that’s an issue. We’re kind of chilling out right now.”
Cumby has flashed his top-end speed during the first week of training camp in a position switch from high school. The now-former running back out of Plano, Texas, has received reps exclusively with the Illinois wide receivers to go with some time as a punt returner.
“I think he can do a lot of things with the ball in his hands,” Illinois wide receivers coach Andrew Hayes-Stoker said. “For him, right now, he’s playing more slot receiver than he has and it’s new to him. He’s kind of feeling his way through some of the routes, but when he gets the football he’s strong.
“He’s got really good hands for a guy that’s played running back his whole life — extremely good — so that’s been encouraging to see. He’s got home run ability.”
Cumby’s end goal would be to play both wide receiver and running back at Illinois. He understands, however, that the Illini have some serious depth at running back. Wide receiver is his best bet to get on the field sooner, and his versatility might speed up that process in offensive coordinator Rod Smith’s system.
“He likes speed and he’s a mastermind of putting players in positions to be successful,” Cumby said of Rod Smith. “I really want to focus on receiving. You think of the players like Tarik Cohen. They added that element to their game to be good not only in the backfield.”
Cumby doesn’t single out Cohen by accident. The Chicago Bears running back has a similar build to the 5-foot-8, 180-pound Illinois freshman. Cumby doesn’t see being perceived as undersized as an issue.
“You think of the Rondale Moores and players like that,” he said of the dynamic Purdue wide receiver. “They’re having success in this league because they’re not used to players like that. With my unique speed, I think it will flow right in.”
Hayes-Stoker likes what he’s seen so far from Cumby in camp. The Illinois coaches are still learning what he can do, and he’s still getting comfortable with the offense.
“He’s climbing the hill of the learning process,” Hayes-Stoker said. “I think the time that he spends with me in the receiver room is very beneficial for him whether he’s coming out of the backfield one day or whether he’s in the slot or whether he’s flexed out wide.
“He’s shown he can do multiple things. For a smaller guy, he tracks the ball really well down the field. All these things he’s doing right now are going to help him in the future. I think he’s got a bright future here.”
Whether that bright future inevitably involves a foot race to truly crown the fastest Illini remains to be seen. Hayes-Stoker doesn’t mind that the players are itching to find out for sure.
“We’ve had to hold the reins on them a couple times,” he said. “We’d rather have that problem than to try to get them motivated to go and compete. This group we brought in right now, they’re more competitive, and I think it’s elevated the competitive level of the team.
“(Team speed is) for sure better than when we got here. I think you guys just watching practice will see more ‘wow’ plays than what you’ve seen in the past.”
Beat writer SCOTT RICHEY provides an update on how the 15 Illini who signed in the 2019 class for Lovie Smith’s program are faring during their first training camp at Illinois:
NAME POS. HOMETOWN
Tarique Barnes LB Memphis, Tenn.
Barnes has played his way into the two-deep as backup middle linebacker
Marquez Beason CB Dallas
Speedy cornerback added another interception to his camp haul Friday
Dalevon Campbell WR Missouri City, Texas
Big wide receiver (6-foot-4, 200 pounds) gives Illinois more depth
Seth Coleman DE Melbourne, Fla.
Florida native needs to bulk up, but he’s got good speed off the edge
Shammond Cooper LB St. Louis
Four-star linebacker has potential but has repped mostly with third string
Kyron Cumby WR Plano, Texas
High school running back has repped exclusively at wide receiver in camp
Nick Fedanzo RB Lombard
Reps hard to come by in deep Illinois backfield for Montini Catholic grad
Evan Kirts OL Evergreen Park
Brother Rice grad is mostly getting third team reps and needs to add size
Griffin Moore TE Bloomington
Summer workouts were good to Griffin, who looks and has played stronger
Moses Okpala DL St. Louis
Okpala has practiced at both defensive end and defensive tackle thus far
Josh Plohr OL St. Louis
Plohr has spent first six practices working with Illini training staff
Keith Randolph DE Belleville
Two-sport Belleville West standout has shown flashes at defensive end
Joseph Thompson CB Chicago
Phillips grad has yet to practice as he works back from undisclosed injury
Casey Washington WR Round Rock, Texas
Early camp standout could see field early if he keeps making plays
Isaiah Williams QB St. Louis
Dual-threat quarterback steadily gaining ground in quarterback competition