Six practices into the University of Illinois football training camp and there’s a growing sense the best players on this team may be too young to prove it yet.
Lovie Smith’s first full recruiting class has been making plays all week and the notion that this coaching staff might know what they’re doing in terms of targeting worthy recruits got a big boost Friday when Smith received a commitment from the highest rated player he’s been able to lure.
Calvin Avery, a 4-star defensive tackle from Bishop Dunne Catholic in Dallas, gambled on Smith and the Illini even though he had scholarship offers from Oklahoma, Southern California, Texas, Florida State, Notre Dame, Nebraska, Ohio State, Florida, Baylor and TCU.
His high school teammate, offensive tackle Kievan Myers, previously committed, a sign that Smith’s recruiting efforts in his home state are starting to pay off.
Helping in the push to pluck players out of the Lone Star state is another Texas native, wide receivers coach Andrew Hayes-Stoker, and it’s his position group that could be the best overall bunch on the team.
The group already includes two proven performers in Mike Dudek, who was a freshman All-American in 2014 and has returned after missing two straight seasons with ACL tears, and senior Malik Turner, who led the team with 48 receptions for 712 yards and six touchdowns last season.
Sam Mays, a junior from Missouri City, Texas who arrived before Smith was hired, could be the breakout performer this season.
So far, he has only showed glimpses. He’s a 6-foot-3 athlete who can go high for a ball but who hasn’t quite come to terms with how good he can be.
Hayes-Stoker is trying to coax him into believing.
“He’s becoming that guy, he is that guy, he has the ability to be that guy,” he said. “But he’s just now learning he can do it.”
Dom Thieman, who showed promise as a freshman last year before an injury ended his season early, is back along with speedy Trenard Davis, who seems to have settled in at wideout after being used as a defensive back and quarterback.
Beyond those with experience, the real excitement can be seen among three freshmen who have already dazzled in training camp.
Carmoni Green, a Miami native, enrolled in January and has the speed Illinois has been missing at the position. Ditto for Kendall Smith from Bolingbrook, who Hayes-Stoker said already has caught his eye.
But the jewel of the group could be the first player to ever commit to Smith and that’s Ricky Smalling from Chicago Brother Rice.
Smalling committed in June 2016 and there was brief concern when Smith said he would not be with the team when training camp opened last Monday.
But Smalling was in uniform on Friday after academic paperwork from Brother Rice was finally straightened out to the NCAA’s satisfaction.
He’s playing catchup, but in brief pass-catching drills on Friday he showed the quick-twitch skills that have had the staff drooling for more than a year.
“Ricky has really strong legs, so he can get in and out of his breaks,” Hayes-Stoker said. “He has really strong hands and he has a very good feel for the game. He knows how to move defenders and work his leverage and attack the seams of the defense. He brings a lot of savvy for a freshman.”
Smith will never forget that Smalling was the first to pledge his allegiance to his program.
“It means an awful lot,” he said. “He bought in early on. Of course, we bought into him, too, early on. Ricky is a good football player. He’s going to help us win a lot of games during his career.”
The wild card in the receiving bunch is another freshman, 6-6, 225-pound Louis Dorsey from Jacksonville, Fla. Is he a tight end, as he’s listed on the team roster? Is he a wide receiver, because he has repeatedly lined up split wide in training camp? Or is he the hybrid player offensive coordinator Garrick McGee likes to develop?
Without question, he has the physical makeup to be a dangerous red zone target.
“We’re not going to say (what he is) right now,” Smith said. “We’ll let everybody else figure out how they should play him. He’s that cross, a guy who could line up in-line but who’s also pretty comfortable outside, too.”
Hayes-Stoker knows Dorsey is more than just a big target who can run. “He has hands,” he said with a smile. “And he has a feel for the game.”
Hayes-Stoker won’t say that his wide receiver group is the strongest position on the team. But he will say he likes where this group is headed.
“Overall I’ve been impressed,” he said. “They’ve made plays, a lot more plays than we made last year.”