CHAMPAIGN — A number of young University of Illinois football players are struggling to find a comfort level playing major roles with the team.
Some of the offensive linemen have been overwhelmed trying decipher complicated line stunts. Some of the freshmen simply get fooled by opposing seniors who have so much more experience. Others are paddling as fast as they can to keep their head above water while still adjusting to the demands of college course work, difficult practices and the Big Ten football games.
Then there is Ricky Smalling.
If there was a bright spot in last week’s loss to Rutgers it was the play of the freshman wide receiver from Chicago Brother Rice, who is so confident in his own ability that he’s in the face of his offensive coordinator challenging him to make it happen. Now.
Smalling is showing offensive coordinator Garrick McGee he has something this team badly needs.
“Extreme confidence, and that’s something we don’t have a lot of,” McGee said. “We have a lot of guys who are very talented but true confidence, they don’t have. Ricky has that.
“There are times when I call a timeout and Ricky walks right into my face and says, ‘OK, do you want to get the ball moving or not?’ And it’s pretty good to have a freshman who is like that. When he becomes a junior I’ll probably have to tell him to get out of my face because he’ll be saying to throw him the ball every time.”
This came to light against Rutgers because Smalling was responding to McGee’s challenge earlier in the week to start fighting harder for contested passes. McGee felt quarterback Jeff George Jr. was delivering some reasonable jump ball throws and that his receivers had to compete more forcefully for possession.
Hearing that, Smalling instantly showed his overflowing confidence. “He challenged me,” McGee said. “He said, ‘All right, you want to see me compete for the ball? Then throw the ball out there to me. And I’ll show you how I’ll compete for it.’”
McGee liked what he saw as Smalling responded with five catches for 111 yards and his first career touchdown.
On the fourth-quarter touchdown, a 30-yard pass from George, Smalling used his speed to gain a step on the Rutgers defensive back, then leaped high in the air and ripped the ball away with both hands.
“It’s good when a kid tells you what he’s going to do and I trusted him and he did it,” McGee said. “That’s pretty good, especially when he’s 18 years old.”
Smalling’s role could become larger in the second half of the season. Not only is he starting to earn that trust, but with veteran Mike Dudek out an unspecified period of time with a knee injury, George seems to be developing chemistry with Smalling and another freshman target, tight end Louis Dorsey.
The 6-foot-6 Dorsey is a big receiver Illini coaches think could grow into a genuine star. Like Smalling, confidence is not an issue.
“He’s another one that is on a thin line between confidence and arrogance,” McGee said. “I like them to be really close to that line but never cross over the line. He’s as close as you can be to the line.”
Each of the freshmen has big-play potential.
Smalling, who wasn’t getting on the field early in the season, now has 14 catches for 272 yards, an average of 19.4 yards per reception. That’s the best on the team. Second is Dorsey, who has 11 catches and is averaging 17.2 yards per catch.
Ayo to decide: Thursday night, Chicago Morgan Park basketball guard Ayo Dosunmu will reveal his college decision. Dosunmu will make his announcement at 7 p.m. at the Jordan Brand Store in the Chicago Loop. He said he is picking between Illinois and Wake Forest.
The 6-foot-4 guard was on campus in Champaign this past weekend, one week after an official visit to Wake Forest. ESPN lists him as the 29th ranked high school senior in the country.