The 90 Illini - 40~36

Aug 05, 2017

I'm sitting here writing two 90i posts before practice tonight at 5:30. Once I complete them I believe I'm... caught up? Let's see. 28 days from the first game, and once I publish the second one I'll be at player #30. Yep! Time flies when you've having fun. And this trip to camp is always fun. On to the list:

40. Dominic Thieman

Wide Receiver
6'-3", 195 lbs.
Sophomore (on scholarship, 4 years to play 3)
St. Thomas Aquinas High School / Fort Lauderdale, Florida

What I Know About Him

Well, I learned yesterday that he went to St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale to play baseball. He went out for football as a freshman (a rarity in Florida - kids usually start when they're six or seven), worked his way up to varsity ("varsity" for perhaps the best high school football program in the country), and eventually earned a college scholarship.

It's weird how that works. Thieman was the 5th or 6th best (recruiting rankings-wise) wide receiver on his high school team. But if he was in Illinois, he would have probably been the best receiver in the state? Now you see why Lovie sends his staff to Florida non-stop.

Despite his low ranking, Thieman was the leading receiver on his high school team his senior year (playing alongside receivers going to Miami, West Virginia, etc). That led to him finding the field right away as a true freshman last season.

What I Expect From Him

He was in the middle of his breakout game last year - four catches in the first half vs. Minnesota - when he broke his ankle and missed the rest of the season. He was also out for spring ball while he rehabbed the ankle and (you'll hear this a lot) the staff is taking it easy with him at camp, making sure he's 100% by the time the season starts.

But once he is 100%, I think he'll be the 3rd or 4th receiver on this team. And then, after Malik Turner graduates after this season, perhaps a breakout season in 2018.

39. Del'Shawn Phillips

6'-2", 220 lbs.
Junior (on scholarship, 3 years to play 2)
Garden City Community College / Highland Park, Michigan

What I Know About Him

He was a surprise flip for Lovie during the December recruiting period last year. He was verballed to Arizona and, coming from junior college, was approaching his December signing date before enrolling in January. Illinois got a visit from him the weekend before and got him to flip his commitment.

He was on campus in the spring to get a jump-start on learning the defense but an injury early in camp cost him nearly every snap. He was still able to go through team meetings and such but his practice time was limited. That probably stunted his growth a little bit - the growth required to go from juco superstar to Big Ten linebacker.

What I Expect From Him

I always overestimate the impact a junior college player will have when he arrives on campus. Always. I need to tattoo "they'll contribute the second year, not the first" on my hand so I won't forget. From Zane Petty to Joe Fotu to Connor Brennan and several others, the pattern has been "play a little" as juniors and then "play a lot" as seniors.

Of course, Phillips is Lovie's only juco recruit, so this might not be a reminder I need much more. But for this season, I'm limiting my expectations for Phillips due to my rule. I think he'll be a contributor on special teams and in certain situational defenses. Later in the season I expect to see him in a heavy rotation at Will or Mike Linebacker, but for right now, especially at the beginning of the season, I think he's still learning the defense.

38. Henry McGrew

Tight End
6'-3", 245 lbs.
Junior (on scholarship, 2 years to play 2)
Blue Valley High School / Overland Park, Kansas

What I Know About Him

I find myself constantly trying to explain my views on "scheme fit" when it comes to recruiting. McGrew is perhaps the best example of this. He was recruited to be a "Leo" in the Tim Banks defense - the hybrid linebacker/defensive end who sometimes will drop in pass coverage. And he was pretty good at it. Enough to earn playing time as a redshirt freshman in 2015. His position coach at the time, Al Seamonson, raved about him. "He's going to play a lot of football here".

Then the scheme changes. There's no Leo position anymore - just a prototypical weakside defensive end. So while McGrew was on defense last year, he was a man without a position. So this year, he's moved over to tight end. A player who would have played thousands of snaps at Leo but gets moved to offense under the new scheme.

What I Expect From Him

Really hard to say. In the first few days of camp I've seen him catch a nice pass one play and then completely whiff on a block the next play. These were within his first five practices at tight end, so I'm willing to wait to see how he takes to the position.

Is it OK to say that my expectations are for him to get thrown into what I'm now calling the League Of Extraordinary Blockers and hoping he emerges near the top of the list? Similar to the 2010 offense, Garrick McGee likes going to a pile of blockers and using them at fullback, H-back, and tight end. And it seems like they just take all of the leftover linebackers and defensive ends (plus several walkons) and toss them in the pile.

Three or four guys will emerge from the pile. It really could be anyone from McGrew, walkon TE Bobby Walker, converted DE Brandon Jones, converted walkon DE Brandon Roberts, converted linebacker Austin Roberts, or Nate Echard. Guys like Caleb Reams, Griffin Palmer, and Andrew Trainer will likely be prototypical tight ends. But the rest will be used as blockers everywhere. Hopefully McGrew emerges near the top.

37. Jordan Fagan

Offensive Lineman
6'-6", 300 lbs.
Senior (on scholarship, 1 year to play 1)
Grossmont Junior College / Chula Vista, California

What I Know About Him

Fagan was a one-year juco (transferred after one year of junior college football). That was in the winter of 2014 when all of the offensive line injuries led them to scour the country trying to find juco linemen. As you may recall, they had trouble even assembling an offensive line for Heart of Dallas Bowl practice given all the injuries. So the grabbed three juco linemen that month.

Fagan played right away as a sophomore (mostly on extra points and field goals) and then played in seven games last year (starting the Western Michigan after Gabe Megginson's injury).

What I Expect From Him

Now is the time. Like, right now. Maybe even today. He's a senior, the offensive line is thin, he held down the starting right tackle spot in the spring, this is the time for him to go get it. If he gets passed by one of the younger guys this camp, he'll spend most of his senior year observing from the sideline.

So go get it, kid.

36. Mike Epstein

Running Back
6'-0", 190 lbs.
Freshman (on scholarship, 5 years to play 4)
St. Thomas Aquinas High School / Fort Lauderdale, Florida

What I Know About Him

Most everything I know about him I just wrote out in this post. So I'll just move along to what I expect.

What I Expect From Him

With Dre Brown still not 100% cleared after the two ACL surgeries, now is the perfect time for Epstein to grab some early carries. As we saw last year, Lovie isn't afraid to go down his depth chart and turn to a guy on the third or fourth string. Just look at the Nebraska game last season - after playing sparingly here and there, suddenly third-stringer Reggie Corbin is named the starter at running back.

So with a coach willing to give everyone a shot to prove it on the field, Epstein is in a good spot. Foster and Corbin are still ahead of him, but if we have a sizeable lead against Ball State, I think you'll see a lot of Epstein. He's the second-highest true freshman on my list for a reason.


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