CHAMPAIGN — Lovie Smith and the University of Illinois coaching staff have made no secret about the excitement they feel for a group of freshmen football players who already have exceeded expectations.
The kids acted like they belonged and stole the show at the team’s training camp.
On Saturday, when Illinois opens the season by hosting Ball State (11 a.m., BTN), he’s hoping the rest of the world sees the same thing.
Smith did not release a depth chart Monday as part of the season’s first football notes package, a departure from what he did last year. Perhaps he’s taking a page from Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s secretive playbook, refusing to share information until the last possible moment. Or perhaps he doesn’t want to frighten anyone by spelling out the abundance of freshmen who are a part of Saturday’s personnel rotation.
Either way, coaches and players alike said Monday they’re looking forward to seeing how a wave of newcomers performs against Ball State.
“It’s such an exciting time for us,” Smith said. “We have a young ball club and we’ve been teaching them how we do things, how we’re going to win games. It’s been fun to watch and we’ve seen improvement since day one.”
Smith noted that veterans anchor some key positions throughout the team. He named junior quarterback Chayce Crouch, senior running back Kendrick Foster, veteran offensive linemen Christian DiLauro and Nick Allegretti and starting middle linebacker Tre Foster.
But based on who’s been practicing with the first units, and how the coaches have blended freshmen here and there, Ball State will be going against a number of Illini players who were on high school fields a year ago.
Offensive coordinator Garrick McGee said he’s hoping the freshmen can get through what he knows will be some opening-game jitters.
“The best part is that we’ll be playing with a lot of new guys and they are very talented guys,” he said. “The worst part is that we’ll be playing with a lot of new guys and they are very talented guys.
“They will probably have to settle down. They will be so fired up when they get out there. Hopefully, we can minimize the mistakes early and hopefully not have any major turnovers that could cost us. Once they settle in and realize it’s just football, I think we have some really talented kids who will be out there.”
Defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson said he’s not changing the level of expectation whether a player is a senior or is experiencing his first college game.
“The expectation on our end is that they will go out and play well,” he said. “This will be the first college game for many of them. These guys will be realizing their dreams as high school and Pop Warner players.”
Nickerson will not have the services of his top cornerback, Jaylen Dunlap, who still has not practiced because of unspecified circumstances regarding what Smith once described as, “a lower leg injury.”
Freshman Tony Adams is among those who figures to see action at corner.
Also out will be backup running back Reggie Corbin. Foster, a senior, will start and backing him up with be a pair of freshmen, Mike Epstein and Ra’Von Bonner.
One freshman Smith did identify as a starter is punter Blake Hayes, the 6-foot-6, 230-pound left-footed punter from Melbourne, Australia.
“He has a strong leg,” Smith said. “He has a variety of kicks he can make.”
Saturday will be the first time Hayes has ever played in an American-rules football game.
Connections with Texas: Lovie Smith said he and some of the Illini players have tried to stay in touch with family and friends in Texas who have been affected by Hurricane Harvey.
Smith, a native of Big Sandy, Texas, appealed to people to send prayers — and money, if possible — to help in the relief effort.
“We’re paying close attention to what’s going on down there,” he said.
Illinois has five current players from Texas and has three Texas high school recruits committed for the Class of 2018.