Illinois Fighting Illini Spring Practice: 3 Things We Learned

    With Illinois' spring practice in the books, here's what we know and what we learned about the Fighting Illini as we head into summer drills.

    April 5, 2017

    With Illinois’ spring practice in the books, here’s what we know and what we learned about the Fighting Illini as we head into summer drills.

    After going 3-9 in his Illinois debut, head coach Lovie Smith used his second spring to continue gradually changing the culture at a program that’s had just four winning seasons this century. Unfortunately for Smith, he had access to a small number of players in February and March, due to graduations, injuries and just four early enrollees. Here’s what we know, right now, in the wake of Illinois’ spring practices.

    Illinois Fighting Illini Spring Practice Redux

    1. QB Chayce Crouch’s Shoulder Coming Along Well

    Crouch didn’t do much throwing in the spring, giving way instead to Jeff George Jr. But the shoulder he had surgically repaired last fall is healing nicely.

    Barring any setbacks, Crouch will be the Illini signal caller for the Ball State opener. Smith has said as much. Smith has also remarked that his 6-foot-4, 225-pound junior is becoming one of the vocal leaders of the program this offseason. Crouch showed flashes after starter Wes Lunt went down in 2016, rushing for 137 yards and two touchdowns in an Oct. 8 loss to Purdue. He wasn’t rushing anything in February and March, though, electing to take it easy so he can let it rip when the team reconvenes for practice in August.

    2. RB Dre Brown and WR Mikey Dudek Avoided Injuries

    Brown and Dudek, who suffered devastating knee injuries in each of the last two springs, are thus far unscathed. To be fair, both were also among the many Illini players who did not suit up or absorb contact.

    The coaching staff is holding its breath that Brown and Dudek will finally be in a position to contribute this fall. Brown is a former touted instate recruit, but he’s yet to play a down with the Illini. The absence of Dudek has been especially painful for the program, which has missed his hands and playmaking ability in the passing game. The Naperville product was a revelation as a true freshman in 2014, catching a team-high 76 passes for 1,038 yards and six touchdowns. If Dudek is finally healthy, he and Malik Turner will make a formidable duo for Crouch.

    3. Tre Watson An Emerging Star Linebacker

    All-star defensive linemen Carroll Phillips and Dawuane Smoot and LB Hardy Nickerson have all graduated. Watson will begin his junior year as the unrivaled catalyst of a compromised and rebuilding Fighting Illini D.

    In his first season as a starter, Watson used 102 tackles and three forced fumbles to earn honorable mention All-Big Ten. Now, the 6-2, 240-pound Tampa native is moving inside to middle linebacker, where he’ll succeed Nickerson, call defensive signals and generally clean up a lot of messes. After finishing last season with 10-plus stops in three of the final four games, all signs this offseason point to Watson picking up where he left off in 2017.

    MORE: Former Missouri QB Maty Mauk Seeking Redemption, NFL Shot


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