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Gold and Black Illustrated, Vol 27, Digital 6

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Page 104 of 117

GOLD AND BLACK ILLUSTRATED VOLUME 27, ISSUE 6 105 may be a team that competes very well in the Big Ten West in a year or two." For now, though, Smith will hope a new QB, a receiver returning from injury and potential in the backfield can provide a spark to an offense that ranked 13th in points (19.7 ppg) and total offense (315.1) last season. Chayce Crouch (18-of-32, 249 yards, TD) was Smith's pick for QB, but there aren't many other good options. Jeff George Jr. struggled in four starts last season, com- pleting only 40 percent of his passes, and true freshman Cam Thomas isn't ready. Perhaps if highly regarded ju- nior college transfer Dwayne Lawson finishes his degree and is able to get to campus in the fall, he could press for snaps. But, for now, it's Crouch, who missed the final sev- en games of last season with a shoulder injury but should be healthy by camp from offseason surgery. Perhaps Crouch could learn to utilize potential weap- ons in the receiving corps with Malik Turner (48 catches, 712 yards, 6 TDs), Mike Dudek (76 catches, 1,038 yards, 6 TDs in 2014) and a pair of four-star recruits in Ricky Smalling and Carmoni Green. Dudek is coming off back-to-back ACL injuries, but if he could return even remotely to his freshman form — when he set Illinois records — that'd be a considerable boost. "He appears to have retained his straight-ahead speed but what really made him special were his quick cuts and leaping ability," Buschon said. "If he has retained those tools, Dudek could be one of the best comeback stories in the Big Ten this year." With former four-star prospect Ke'Shawn Vaughn gone to Vanderbilt, senior Kendrick Foster (720 yards, 7 TDs) could be the top weapon out of the backfield. But sophomore Reggie Corbin (523 yards, 2 TDs) will be in the mix, as well as three other underclassmen. Toward the back half of the season, the defense appeared to establish an identity, led by an aggressive second- ary. Sophomores Patrick Nelson and Stanley Green are hard-hitting safeties, and senior corner Jaylen Dunlap (63 tackles, team-high 11 PBUs) has NFL potential with a good combination of physicality, tackling ability and how he can "flip his hips and run with Big Ten receiv- ers," Buschon said. But the Illini will need to be much better against the run, and that could be a tough proposition with their best front seven players gone and not enough good young players at those spots in the program right now. With the NFL-bound guys, Illinois was 12th in the league in run defense. Without? "Illinois needs to be a lot better up front," Buschon said. "They got moved around a lot by Big Ten offen- sive lines. Sophomore defensive tackle Jamal Milan (6-foot-3, 300) has talent and size but needs to stay healthy. After Milan, the pieces along the D-line are largely unproven. "A year under the tutelage of Lovie and defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson should help. The scheme can be a tough one to learn, and that experience should make a difference. Lovie threw young guys into the mix, and now they've had year in the strength program." — Stacy Clardie

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