Tom Dienhart, Senior Writer, August 25, 2016

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Lovie Smith has brought a pro mentality to practice. The BTN bus tour witnessed this Wednesday.

[ MORE: Dienhart: Here's what I learned at Illinois practice ]

Illinois' sessions typically last less than 90 minutes, not counting film work and walk-throughs. And there has been little tackling or hitting all in a name of avoiding injury and keeping players fresh. Very efficient.

Smith is a calm influence who never screams or swears. He's the ultimate CEO.

Get my fun takes from Illinois practice below.

Most impressive player: Hard not to like DE Dawuane Smoot. The guy is a beast off the edge; he will be first-team All-Big Ten.

Top specimen: DE Carroll Phillips is a chiseled player who drips with pro potential. He must adjust to playing with his hand on the ground. But the guy is lightning quick and explosive off the edge at 6-3, 240 pounds.

Loudest coach: Offensive line coach Luke Butkus is non-stop motion. And let?s just say that he likes to yell ?encouragement.? Very intense-as you would expect.

Impressive newcomer: I loved 220-pound true freshman Tre Nation. The guy can be a battering ram. I?ll be interested to see how much he plays.

On the rise: Cal transfer Hardy Nickerson Jr., is the real deal. The guy plays fast all the time. No plays off. All intensity. The Illini are fortunate to have him.

Best drill: Watching the defensive linemen do bag drills was a blast. Line coach Mike Phair is a terrific coach who had his guys humming today.

Nagging question: Can the Illini run the ball?

Under the radar: Keep an eye on TE Tyler White, a 6-5 target who could be a factor.

Number: 5, head coaches for Illinois since 1997: Ron Turner, Ron Zook, Tim Beckman, Bill Cubit, Lovie Smith.



Lovie Smith has put his stamp on the program off the field. He has added three recruiting positions: A high school relations; recruiting analyst and graphic designer. Also new: two offensive, two defensive and one special teams analyst.

The o-line has potential with just two starters gone. Austin Schmidt is a senior left tackle, and senior Joe Spencer is an anchor. Christian DiLauro is a big right tackle. Nick Allegretti is the left guard (can also play center) and rising redshirt freshman Gabe Megginson is the right guard.

Wes Lunt is the man at QB. Depth is a bit dicey. But Lunt told me after practice he likes this offense and a commitment is being made to run the football.

The linebackers have questions. But there is no question about Hardy Nickerson Jr., in the middle. The Cal transfer and son of defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson plays at one speed all the time: fast. Plus, he?s smart. He is flanked by athletic James Crawford, who arrived as a safety. Julian Jones, Dele Harding and Mike Svetina also are in the mix. The staff plays a lot of nickel, so just two LBs often are deployed.

The secondary has three new starters. The only starter back is safety Taylor Barton. He is teaming with Caleb Day and Darwyn Kelly. Darius Mosely is one corner with Jaylen Dunlap slated for the other side. Chris James and Dillan Cazley are the nickel backs. And that's a key spot, as DC Hardy Nickerson Sr., likes to play with three cornerbacks and just two linebackers. The nickel is a key spot, as it is treated as its own position during position breakout sessions in practice.

The wideout corps needs to step up. Justin Hardee and Malik Turner look good. And Zach Grant has emerged. He played high school ball with Wes Lunt. Desmond Cain also will factor in. Too bad Mikey Dudek remains out with a knee injury for the second year in a row. There are some big tight ends. The guys I like is 6-5 Tyler White. True frosh Zarrian Holcombe could factor in along with Dominic Thieman and M.J. McGriff.

The RB depth is a work-in-progress. Ke?Shawn Vaughn is the top option. Keep an eye on Kendrick Foster, who has had a good camp. Tre Nation is a 220-pound true freshman. Reggie Corbin is a redshirt freshman.


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