Illini Football Practices Upbeat But Serious

The Fighting Illini football team is gaining momentum. Each win breeds confidence and encourages more hard work and focus in practices and games. The Illini have had another solid week of practices leading to the Purdue invasion Saturday. They are thinking solely about the Boilermakers and the need to win their fifth game of the season.

Illinois practices have been upbeat and enthusiastic. Illini players sense a chance at a great season and have dedicated themselves to the task at hand. It is a cliché to claim you are taking one game at a time, but the Illini appear to be doing just that.

It is hard not to feel a sense of optimism. Even Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning, who sometimes lets one or two mistakes ruin his whole day, is taking a more positive tone these days.

"We did better scoring-wise than some people did against Indiana. But we gave up more yards than we have been giving up and dropped a couple spots statistically. The big thing is the win, and scoring defense is the most important thing."

The memory of four interceptions and a forced fumble against the Hoosiers brought a smile to his face.

"That was awesome. It was a good day for the defense. I think the players understand the priorities. We've got to work hard. We're trying to make the best we can of our opportunities."

Koenning confirms that Terry Hawthorne is rounding into shape and is ready to play both cornerback positions to share playing time with Travon Bellamy and Justin Green.

"I think so. We played him on both sides. I wasn't gonna play him at the boundary too much. But I anticipated wanting to have some fresh guys in the fourth quarter.

"That's the one thing we have not been able to do this season, is be fresh in the fourth quarter due to lack of depth. So we were trying to rest Travon. I think it's better for Justin because you get to a point where you're so tired you can't even think straight. He can be fresh now. We still don't have enough depth at safeties to rest those guys yet."

Safety Tavon Wilson, who moved from cornerback to fill in for the injured Supo Sanni, says Hawthorne's injury was a blessing in disguise.

"We feel like we added more depth because it forced us to play someone else. If Terry hadn't gotten hurt, Justin wouldn't have played as much. So now we've got three pretty good cornerbacks in Travon, Terry and Justin. And me if I have to go back there. We feel like we did get better when Terry got hurt."

Wilson had to make a major adjustment at the time, but he says he is improving nicely.

"Most definitely. I feel like I'm getting better every day. I'm a lot better player than I was against Missouri at safety. I've just got to do everything I can to help us win. I'm picking up the little things, like on play-action or bootlegs I've got to take the crossover. Little things like that."

Having Koenning as his position coach helps.

"It definitely does. He knows the ins and outs of the whole defense. I help get everybody lined up, so he makes that a lot easier. He puts together the game plan based on what he knows I can do."

It must be working because head coach Ron Zook says Wilson graded out extremely well against Indiana.

"We always go over everybody's grades on Sunday, and Coach Koenning said 98 percent. I'll be honest with you, I've coached the secondary for a lot of years, and I have never had anybody grade out 98 percent.

"I kind of looked at Vic and Vic kind of smiled and he said, "Maybe I'll go back and go through that film again." But he is playing extremely well. Not only is he playing well, he's a quarterback back there. And that's one of the reasons why we're excited about moving him back there.

"Tavon was in here (Monday) night at 10:30 pm watching tape. Those guys are really doing the part that you have to do off the field in terms of being prepared. Tavon's really done a nice job in terms of preparation and getting people lined up and all those things."

Zook knows the value of having versatile performers in the defensive backfield.

"I think the more guys you've got that can play two different positions, I'm a big believer in that. That's what gives you depth, and in particular if you're going to play young guys. Maybe a young guy, you can play him at safety, for example, and maybe Tavon could play corner. It gives you depth until you bring the young guys along.

"To me you've got Justin, you've got Terry, you've got Travon, I mean they're all three starters. And depending on who you're playing, how many defensive backs you want out there and that kind of thing, I think it really does help you."

Zook is also pleased with his front four on defense.

"I think they're playing extremely well right now. They're physical, confident. I think Coach (Keith) Gilmore is doing a great job in terms of getting them prepared for what they're going to see. Those guys are playing, they're having fun. I think that's the big thing."

We can't leave out the linebackers. Martez Wilson is coming into his own, and he likes being used in multiple ways. He even got some reps as a rush end.

"It was fun," Wilson states. "It's fun when your coach lets you move around, do different things. Coming off the edge, blitzing up the middle, doing a good job on coverage. That forces the offense to look for you all the time. It makes you play even harder."

As the Illini defense gains confidence, it becomes more sophisticated. Details once overlooked are beginning to gain attention of the players.

"The small things really count now. That's what I try to progress on. You've got to play with emotion, you've got to play with passion. I think our defense is doing that. We're having a lot of fun. That's what you've got to do."

Outside linebacker Nathan Bussey likes how the defense created five turnovers last Saturday. It reminded them of what is possible and gives them encouragement to redouble their efforts.

"On defense, we all feel we can be playmakers. We all feel that if a team doesn't score, it can't win. It's a matter of doing your job and making the plays when you can make them."

Offense must not be overlooked in this analysis. It is still having trouble with consistency, and it needs to score more touchdowns in red zone action. But Offensive Coordinator Paul Petrino saw things he liked against Indiana.

"It was good that we hit a couple big plays that we planned on hitting. That was good because there were a couple this year where we worked all week, they've been there and we haven't hit them.

"The last drive, I was really proud of the guys. I thought they really made plays when they had to. There were a couple of series in the middle where we had to get touchdowns and we didn't. That's something to work on. It's a process to keep getting better from day 1. As long as we keep doing that, we'll be in great shape."

The Illini didn't take full advantage of great field position several times in the IU game. Did the players relax after seeing the defense make big plays?

"Probably, but they can't," Petrino relates. "They've got to keep grinding and playing hard. What they've got to do is get to the point where they expect to score every time they take the field, no matter where we're at.

"One time we went 90 yards in five plays. They've got to expect doing things like that. When you get a short field, that's easy money. We've got to get those."

Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase continues his slow but steady growth rate. Even with a large gash and swollen area on the top of his throwing hand incurred just before halftime, he played every second possession without adverse effects. Zook describes him as the All-American kid, one he knows will continue to improve.

"I think sometimes we forget he's a redshirt freshman, and we all want him to be the Heisman Trophy winner or be in the running for it right away. I think you have to keep in mind that he's doing all the things that we've asked him to do. Is it perfect? No, but I don't think anyone out there is perfect."

Can you win championships with him?

"I think so. I think just like in the National Football League, probably at every level, you've got to have a guy that can do it all. I really believe that Nathan's going to have that ability.

"I think that's maybe one of the biggest (things) that Nathan is learning, is don't try to do everything. Just do the things that you're coached to do. Nathan is such a competitor, he's such a winner.

"I was talking to him the other night about when he was on the scout team last year and he used to get after the defense, he'd throw the ball at their face. It was like a game to him, every practice was a game. That's a positive to him, the type of competitor he is.

"The thing he's learning now is that you've got enough good players around you, let's let everybody be part of it. I tell him all the time, plays don't care who make them, just make sure you're ready when they're there."

Mikel Leshoure is having an outstanding season rushing the ball, but his primary backup Jason Ford injured his ankle and is questionable for the Purdue game. Leshoure believes there is enough depth on the team to overcome Ford's possible absence.

"I think Troy Pollard is gonna come in and do his job. We're gonna be perfectly fine with him. There's not much of a difference between J. Ford and Troy. I think it will be similar to what it was in the past. As for me, I think I need to step up my role and play a lot harder. Try to produce more for my team."

Leshoure says the Illini offense is working hard and improving, in part due to winning games.

"Winning games definitely makes practice easier. We've got some confidence, and you can just come out and see the energy's there on offense and defense. Guys are willing to get better instead of just staying the same.

"Along with wins comes confidence. It's hard to gain confidence when you're losing. Winning games makes everything a lot easier."

Petrino agrees.

"I think anytime you have success, and it builds and builds and builds, it's easier to come work hard every day. That helps. Success usually breeds confidence, which breeds more success."

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