ILLINOIS FOOTBALL PREVIEW SERIES
Illinois announced its fall practice schedule last week. The Illini open camp on Monday, July 31. All practices are open to the public and are free to attend.
With fall camp fast approaching, Orange and Blue News has five burning questions that we'll be looking for answers to when the Illini take the practice field.
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1. IS CHAYCE CROUCH THE ANSWER AT QUARTERBACK?
There's a heavy load on the shoulders of Chayce Crouch. Lovie Smith has already named the junior his starting quarterback, and Crouch is charged with breathing life into an offense that was one of the worst in the nation in 2016. The stats were astoundingly bad. Illinois was 13th in the Big Ten in both total offensive and passing efficiency during conference games. In need of making progress in year two after a 3-9 record in his first season, Lovie is putting his faith in a quarterback who is coming off a shoulder injury and who has limited playing time under his belt. Last season, Crouch completed 18-31 passes for 249 yards, 1 touchdown, and 1 INT before going down against Rutgers in game 6 with an injury that required off-season surgery. Had he thrown enough passes to qualify, Crouch's 125.7 passing efficiency rate would have placed him 8th in the Big Ten. The hope is that Crouch makes the Illini offense more dynamic with his running ability. He showed flashes, with 137 yards on the ground and 2 rushing TD's in an overtime loss to Purdue. If Crouch can convert some key 3rd downs with his feet, something graduated QB Wes Lunt could never do, it adds a new dimension. Is this the QB who can lead Illinois back to a bowl game?
2. CAN FRESHMEN MAKE AN IMPACT ON THE DEFENSIVE LINE?
The defensive line was supposed to be the strength of the team a year ago, but that never really materialized. Despite fielding two of the top pass rushers in the Big Ten in Dawaune Smoot and Carroll Phillips, Illinois posted just 1.7 sacks per game in Big Ten play. They couldn't stop the run either, allowing 219 yards on the ground per game, good for 105th in DI football. Defensive line coach Mike Phair now faces a nearly-total rebuild. Sure, there are some leftover players with potential. Starters in the spring who stood out included Jamal Milan and former JUCO transfer Sean Adesanya. A crucial factor, however, will be if Phair can get a positive contribution from at least some of the defensive lineman who signed in the class of 2017. Former 4-star Florida prospect Owen Carney had the advantage of enrolling early and he got meaning snaps in the spring at right defensive end, Smoot's old spot. Others with a high ceiling include ends Lere Oladipo and Bobby Roundtree and tackle Kendrick Green from state champion Peoria (Ill.). Phair has to get them ready in a hurry. Some of the freshmen will need to play, and for Illinois to have a chance in the Big Ten West they will have to hold their own and make some plays.
3. IS THE RUNNING GAME READY TO TAKE THE NEXT STEP?
The Illinois running game didn't get much support from the rest of team last season. It's 4.8 yards per rush was good enough to move the ball, but the defense couldn't get off the field, and the passing attack was abysmal, particularly on third down. A 28.39 3rd down conversion rate was next to last in the nation. Tulane was the only DI team that was worse. Illinois rarely sustained drives and couldn't put defenses' backs to the wall. That's the next step; move the chains consistently, get into the red zone, and punch it into the end zone. There's a capable stable of running backs, led by senior Kendrick Foster. Football players who don't fit a certain physical profile have to go above and beyond to prove themselves. The small-but-mighty Foster did just that in 2016, finally taking over as the feature back mid-way through the season. He's backed up by Reggie Corbin and the Illini add Dre Brown back from injury as well as true freshmen Ra'von Bonner and Mike Epstein. Illinois doesn't have to be Wisconsin this season, but they do need to take the next step in the running game.
4. WILL DUDEK RETURN TO FORM?
Modern medicine is wonderful thing. There was a time when an ACL tear was a career-ending injury in football. Thanks to new surgical procedures and sophisticated rehab programs, players are coming back faster than ever and playing at a high level. Ask Mike Dudek, who has suffered two serious ACL injuries that derailed his 2015 and 2016 seasons. Illinois needs play-makers badly, and if Dudek can match his super-human performance as a true freshmen, they have just what the doctor ordered. A full-go Dudek would add explosion and excitement to an otherwise plodding offensive attack. Illinois ranked No. 134 in the nation in offensive plays of over 20 yards. Dudek is the kind of player that sells tickets and causes defensive coordinators to change their game plan. Senior wide receiver Malik Turner is a nice piece, but he needs help. If anyone can make a dramatic return, its Dudek. He's a unique athlete with the kind of attitude and work ethic that coaches dream about. We'll watch Dudek closely when camp opens. Has he retained the full range of tools that made him special; super-quick feet, big time hops, tremendous body control, and vice-grip hands?
5. HOW WILL THE OFFENSIVE LINE SHAKE OUT?
There aren't a lot of preseason accolades for this unit. Lindy's magazine ranks the Illini offensive line the 12th best in the Big Ten. Two full-time starters return on a front five that was middle of the pack in the Big Ten in sacks allowed and yards per rush, two tell-tale statistics. Veteran tackle Christian DiLauro and guard Nick Allegretti are a nice starting point, but who fills in the rest of the spots? One weak link can derail a team's offensive line play. Gabe Megginson hasn't yet lived up to his high school ranking, but he's just a redshirt sophomore so there's time to put it together. Center Doug Kramer is scrappy but undersized. Tackles Adam Solomon and Jordan Fagan battled for a starting spot in the spring, and that will continue into the fall. There's very little depth, which was exasperated when part-time starter Darta Lee was dismissed for an off-the-field incident. Illinois has been recruiting road grader types with size like Larry Boyd and Vederian Lowe, who both top 330 pounds. But it would be very premature to plug a freshman into the lineup. The Illini are likely at least a year away from being able to bully opponents. We'll be watching this unit closely to see who breaks out as the clear starters and how Luke Butkus uses the pieces that he has.