Late Fall Camp Depth Chart
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I've always done this thing where I put out my own depth chart before the first game and then crow about its accuracy once the first official depth chart is released (or, under Lovie, who didn't put out depth charts, crow about it after the first quarter of the first game). I'd study what the coaches wanted, I'd study the players at camp, and I'd edit my depth chart daily.
This year, well, you'll hear no crowing. Bret Bielema only allows the media to view 10-20 minutes of practice the first two weeks of camp, and that's restricted to individual drills, so my depth chart confidence level has dropped from 97% to 61%. I'm choosing to view that as eleven consecutive "A" depth charts from 2009 to 2019 followed by a C+ preseason depth chart last season followed by this D- depth chart. Just like my grades from kindergarten to senior year.
The reason for closed-off practice has nothing to do with the media's ability to guess at the depth chart. They want Nebraska's gameplan to read "no clue what Illinois is going to run on offense or defense", and the only way to 100% guarantee that secrecy is to keep everyone out. I-Fund donors who got to attend an hour of practice on Saturday probably saw ten times the scheme and roster information that we've seen. Which means - and I'm being serious here - if you attended that practice, you can put together a better depth chart than I can.
But it's still a week and a half before the first game. And Bret Bielema said at media day on Saturday that he's going to release a depth chart (or at least a list of the starting-11 on both sides of the ball) "a week before the first game", so before that list comes out this weekend, here's my stab at the depth chart.
There aren't many changes to this depth chart from the last one 12 days ago, but based on a few things we did see during individual drills (such as certain offensive linemen pairing with others, meaning they might both play at the same time), I've made some starting lineup changes. Most notably, after watching Calvin Hart be paired with Jake Hansen in linebacker drills, I feel like they're prepping them to start together so I switched Hart into the starting lineup and moved Khalan Tolson to the second string. Also, with Julian Pearl and Palcho being paired together, I'm flip-flopping on something I said in August. I think they might play both Pearl and Palcho at the same time (instead of having one back up the other at right tackle).
I haven't gotten to the chart yet and I already need to clarify something. I did have Calvin Hart in my starting lineup the last time I put together a depth chart. But that's because I had 12 positions listed on the defense. I was guessing that they'd have a 12th-man "Swiss army knife" linebacker role for certain packages, and that they'd leave both inside linebackers on the field when switching to that. Watching them go through indy drills, now I'm not so sure. Feels like the same two linebackers might stay on the field for all packages. So I'm dropping my "LLB" position from the depth chart and just going back to ILB1 and ILB2. And because Khalan Tolson has been on an every-other-day practice schedule due to his knee rehab, I'm moving Tolson out of that starting spot (for now) and moving Hart from starting "LLB" to starting "ILB2".
Enough preface. My three-deep and then some comments.
QB | Peters (SR) | Sitkowski (rs-SO) | Johnson (JR)
RB | C. Brown (rs-SO) | Love (FR) | Epstein (SR) | Hayden (rs-JR)
TE1 | Barker (rs-JR) | Reiman (FR-walkon) | Marchese (SR)
TE2 | Ford (rs-SO) | Rosenthal (rs-JR) | Hohenstein (SR)
LT | Lowe (SR) | Kirts (rs-FR) | Barlev (FR)
LG | Jeresaty (SR) | Badovinac (SR) | Wisecarver (FR)
C | Kramer (SR) | Plohr (rs-FR) | Kreutz (FR)
RG | Pearl (rs-SO) | Pihlstrom (JR) | Cronin (rs-FR walkon)
RT | Palczewski (SR) | Okpala (rs-FR) | Gesky (FR)
WR-slot | Williams (rs-FR) | Sandy (rs-SO) | Hickey (rs-FR walkon)
WR-X | Hightower (JR) | Thompson (rs-JR) | Bryant (FR)
WR-Y | Navarro (JR) | C. Washington (SO) | Armstrong (JR)
ROLB | Gay (SR) | Coleman (rs-FR) | Cooper (rs-FR)
RDT | Randolph (rs-FR) | Pate (rs-JR) | McCoy (FR)
NT | Perry (SR) | Avery (JR) | V. Brown (rs-SO)
LDT| Newton (FR) | Woods (SR) | McConnell (FR)
LOLB | Carney (SR) | Holmes (rs-SO) | B. Barnes (SO-walkon)
ILB1 | Hansen (SR) | T. Barnes (SO) | Darkangelo (SO-walkon)
ILB2 | Hart (SO) | Tolson (JR) | McEachern (JR)
CB | Witherspoon (SO) | K. Smith (SR) | Curry (FR)
CB | Adams (SR) | Leitzsey (SR) | Nicholson (FR)
S | S. Brown (JR) | D. Smith (JR) | Hudson (SR)
S | Martin (JR) | E. Smith (JR) | Joseph (JR)
Kicker | McCourt (SR) | Griffin (rs-SO)
Punter | Hayes (SR) | Robertson (FR)
Longsnapper | Tabel (SR) | Hall (rs-FR)
Punt Return | Navarro (JR) | Williams (rs-FR)
KO Return | Love (FR) | Norwood (SO)
- I'm so ready for Ryan Johnson to be a thing. If you haven't read James Boyd's June 10th article on Ryan Johnson in the Decatur paper, go read it. So many great details. I'll also have some fun stuff to share in a podcast that comes out tomorrow after interviewing him on Saturday. The short story: he's a grad transfer (as a junior) from Northern Michigan who sent his film everywhere and got a walkon spot at Illinois. He arrived as the 6th quarterback (out of six), so basically an extra arm for camp, but now Bret Bielema and Tony Petersen often refer to him second or third when discussing their QB's. That doesn't necessarily mean he's second on the depth chart, but I really do feel like he might be third? Every time I've watched him throw in practice I've been impressed. My brain always goes to the extreme with these things, so I've basically made him our own Kurt Warner except instead of "was stocking shelves at the Hy-Vee" it's "was striping Hardee's parking lots".
- Linebacker was difficult. Both Tarique Barnes and Khalan Tolson are coming off injuries/surgeries last season. Both are limited in practice but on a plan to return them to 100% by the start of the season. But does that "limited" phase maybe stretch beyond the first game? If so, the backup linebackers are probably Isaac Darkangelo and Alec McEachern.
- I removed "FS" and "SS" from the safety positions because, honestly, I have no idea how they'll run the safeties in this defense. There will be two safeties on the field. Maybe three. Possibly one. And they'll do... safety stuff. And it could be any of those six names right there. Stay tuned to IlliniBoard for further in-depth analysis such as "two guys will be playing safety against Nebraska".
- Another "these coaches reference him all the time" player: Reggie Love. So while I'm still Team Mike Epstein and would love to see him start, the fact that he wasn't on campus all spring (and the fact that the coaches really loved Love in the spring game) has me moving Love up to the #2 spot behind Wild Goose Chase. Doesn't hurt that Reggie's position coach is now his former high school coach.
- I hovered over the "move freshman WR Pat Bryant up to the second string" button but didn't press it. During Bret Bielema's press conference on Saturday, he said that Bryant will make plays in practice that make you say "wowwww". At that point, I was ready to move Bryant up to a starting spot (he's MY GUY in this recruiting class). But Bielema followed that up with "he'll also make plays that make you say wooowwwwww" (negative inflection), so after that I decided I'd keep him on the third string. But for the record here, he's seventh on my list right now, so the first of those three third-stringers.
- Thinking about that, he might be the only true freshman to play against Nebraska in 10 days? Actually, no, I think defensive lineman Sed McConnell will play. All of the other freshmen listed in the two-deep above are second-year freshmen (last season didn't count), so from the 2021 class, I'll guess it's Bryant and McConnell and everyone else redshirts.
Thinking about THAT, I guess I don't really know. I'm saying that based on the feel of this three-deep, but this isn't like other three-deeps. This is a fairly blind three deep. Maybe I'll just close here with a list of five true freshmen in order of "most likely to play and not redshirt":
- Pat Bryant
- Sed McConnell
- Kionte Curry (I can't help myself)
- Tyler Strain
- DJ Johnson
Tired: Brandon Peters to Brian Hightower
Wired: RYAN JOHNSON TO PAT BRYANT