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Five things we learned from Illini spring football

Spring football is near the bottom of the sports priorities for this Midwesterner.

Unlike most Southerners, I’m too preoccupied with March Madness, the start of baseball season and the NBA playoffs to get too excited about 14 college football practices that culminates in one 48-minute intrasquad game. Judging by the announced attendance of 6,000 at Saturday’s Orange and Blue Spring Game at Memorial Stadium, most Illini fans aren’t exactly counting down to the Sept. 3 season-opening kickoff against Arkansas State either.

But after hours of positional drills, seven-on-sevens, thud-tackling and Paul Petrino internet-soundboard-worthy soliloquies, we did learn something about a team coming off its first bowl win of the millennium.

1.      Ryan Lankford will be an impact receiver

If the 6-foot, 170-pound sophomore wasn’t on the first team before the spring, he definitely made his case to crack the starting lineup after an impressive month. With returning lead receiver A.J. Jenkins and sophomore Darius Millines out the entire spring due to injury, Lankford developed into the Illini quaterbacks’ favorite and most reliable target. A drop in practice was so rare that it was tweet-worthy.

While he’s added about five pounds since the end of his freshman season, Lankford won’t out-muscle most defenders. But he has sprinter’s speed, runs clean routes and coaches rave about his work ethic. Lankford led the Illini with five catches for 64 yards on Saturday and was awarded Most Improved Offensive Player for the spring.

“It meant a lot,” Lankford said. “It meant all my hard work is really paying off on the field and off the field, that the coaches realize I’m here trying to do my best, trying to be the best player I can be at all times.”

2.      The Illini offensive line will be among the best in the Big Ten

Mikel Leshoure received all the accolades but those canyon-sized holes against Northwestern didn’t create themselves. With four starters returning – Graham Pocic, Jack Cornell, Hugh Thornton and Jeff Allen – and former starter Corey Lewis expected back this summer after missing last season with a torn ACL, the Illini offensive line was expected to be the strength of the offense and it lived up to the hype this spring.

Coaches say Allen could be one of the best tackles in the country, and Pocic has a great shot at playing on Sundays. Sheer size – the four returning starters average 6-5, 311 pounds – and experience are the hallmarks of this group. But the lingering question is who starts opposite Allen. Redshirt freshmen Michael Heitz and Simon Cvijanovic competed during the spring. Both improved but are still wet behind the ears. Lewis hopes to reclaim the starter’s spot but must test his surgically repaired knee this summer.

3.      Ron Zook may lose most sleep over special teams

The Illini head coach said last week that senior Derek Dimke, who made a school-record 24 field goals last season, could be the best kicker in the country. But an 0-for-2 performance – attempts were from 29 and 31 yards – during a windy Saturday and similar performances throughout the spring didn’t exactly back up those expectations. Dimke is adjusting to a new holder, Tim Russell, and Zook said that may have been cause for the misses. The two have the summer to work out the kinks.

But the “biggest question mark” on the team, Zook said, may be at punter. Kicker Matt Ellar was given a look this spring, but as expected the results weren’t awe-inspiring. The best option on the spring roster may have been Lankford who was a productive – and possibly dangerous – option using a rugby-style, running punt. Incoming freshman Justin Duvernois received a scholarship to be the punter, and the job appears to be his to lose.

4.      UI defense needs a top-notch playmaker

Vic Koenning said it’s difficult to find first-round draft picks and the Illini defensive coordinator may have to make up for the loss of two. Last year, offenses had to scheme for defensive tackle Corey Liuget – likely a top-25 pick on Thursday – and linebacker Martez Wilson, also a first-round possibility. Koenning concedes that he doesn’t have a player of that elite ability yet.

“What we got to do is develop strength in numbers and keep telling ourselves, ‘Strength in numbers,’ ” Koenning said. “We’re going to have to do that up front (on the defensive line) and at linebacker and in the secondary. We’re going to have to play fast and fresh and hard until guys develop into what Martez was or what Corey was. Right now, there’s a bunch of guys  that we’re trying to get the most out of them and they’re still in the developmental process.”

Freshman All-American Akeem Spence looks solid in the middle of the defense, and converted offensive lineman Craig Wilson has progressed much faster than the Illini envisioned. Bandit Michael Buchannan was solid but unspectacular, as was defensive end Whitney Mercilus before he suffered a busted finger during a weight-room incident. Sophomore linebacker Jonathan Brown may have the most potential to be a difference-maker in the front-seven – he had three tackles for loss on Saturday – but he had some discipline issues this spring. The three most impressive players this spring, according to Koenning, were in the secondary: Tavon Wilson, Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green. The Illini are hoping for more takeaways from their veteran defensive backs.

5.      Running back still unsettled but deep

Jason Ford was supposed to be the workhorse last year, but the emergence of Mikel Leshoure – likely a first- or second-round selection after a record-breaking 2010 – set those plans back a year. Lingering knee soreness this spring delayed those plans another month as Ford missed most of the last two weeks of the spring. His backups, Troy Pollard and Bud Golden, also were nicked up for the majority of the spring. But redshirt freshman Ean Days, a 1,300-yard rusher as a senior in high school, emerged in the final week as a capable ballcarrier after switching from defensive back.

Days showed some shiftiness as he carried the bulk of the load on Saturday, though he did fumble a few times. A sprained foot limited Golden, a more straight-line runner, and Days made a case to move up the depth chart.

“At the end of the day, it’s up to the coaches where I’m going to be come summer or whatever,” Days said. “From what they tell me, I’m moving up, but I guess we’ll just have to see.”

“To me, Ean really impressed me,” Golden said. “I don’t want another guy to come in and take my position. We’re making each other better.”

Freshmen Donnovon Young and Josh Ferguson will increase the competition when they arrive on campus in June. The Illini need Ford and Pollard to be a credible threat in the Big Ten, but at least they added some depth this spring.

Jeremy Werner is co-host and reporter of the “Tay and J Show,” which airs 3-6 p.m. weekdays on 93.5, 95.3 ConnectFM and streams at http://www.myconnectfm.com. E-mail him at jeremy@myconnectfm.com.

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