Dienhart: Here's what I learned at Illinois football practice

@BTNTomDienhart

Dienhart: Here's what I learned at Illinois football practice

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Lovie Smith has returned hope to the Illinois program. But, he has work to do as he looks to stabilize a place where consistency has been elusive. He is the fifth coach at Illinois since 1997.

[ MORE: Get Tom Dienhart’s fun takes from Illinois practice ]

Here is what I learned at Illinois practice.

1. This is a good defensive line. In fact, it is the best in the Big Ten West and one of the top four in the Big Ten. And it begins with Dawuane Smoot, an often-times unblockable defensive end who will play at the next level. Carroll Phillips is the other end who looks like a pro. Tackle Ryan Bain is a beast on the interior. Chunky Clements is next to Bain. And depth is good, as Illinois can roll seven or eight players. Auburn transfer Gimel President has been better than expected.

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2. The linebacking corps remains a work in progress. Hardy Nickerson Jr., is the real deal. It was a god-send that he transferred from Cal, following his father, Hardy, a former NFL star linebacker, to Champaign. The guy is smart and a hard worker. James Crawford is on one side. He is a former safety who can run. Julian Jones and Mike Svetina are on the other. Stay tuned. Will this unit hold up? This isn’t much quality depth—or athletic ability.

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3. The jury remains out on the team’s ability to run the ball. The line has some nice parts, with Austin Schmidt at left tackle, Nick Allegretti at left guard, Joe Spencer at center, Gabe Megginson at right guard and Christian DiLauro at right tackle. Megginson arrived amid a lot of hype. These guys need to get a push for RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn. Keep an eye on some other backs, like Kendrick Foster, Tre Nation and Reggie Corbin.

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4. There is potential at wideout. It’s too bad Mikey Dudek is out for a second year with a knee injury. Still, Malik Turner is a nice wideout. And I like Justin Hardee. Keep an eye on Desmond Cain. Zach Grant has had a nice camp and has mojo with QB Wes Lunt, as they played together in high school. But more help is needed for a unit that needs to stretch the field to open up defenses for the ground game.

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5. Lovie Smith is making an impact. There is a different air about the program with Smith on board. He has brought instant credibility to the program and professionalism. Plus, Smith has built a good staff that figures to get the most out of the talent at hand. This was one of the more well-organized practices that I have seen on the tour. Very efficient. Not much hitting.

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Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer

About Tom Dienhart: BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, and send him questions to his weekly mailbag.

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