There's nothing quite like the smell of a herd of offensive linemen at 7:00 am. It is music to the nose of those who love football. It means Illinois is playing football again.
The Illini moved to morning sessions this spring and may do so again in the fall. It gives them the rest of the day for classes, homework and other essentials. The players are accustomed to it, having recently completed three weeks of 6:00 am conditioning sessions.
The enthusiasm and intensity were present from the beginning. Players were flying around hoping to make a positive impression. And coaches were already in top form, eager to push players past their limits. It signaled the beginning of what all hope will be a productive 15 days of practice.
New defensive secondary coach Mike Gillhamer appeared to fit in well. He checked his schedule sheet frequently to be sure of the practice schedule as he becomes accustomed to a new system. But he seemed to have a good personality for the role. There is no doubt he knows his stuff.
There were some injury absences that must be explained before a depth chart can be discussed. The receiver positions were short-handed due to injuries to A.J. Jenkins and Darius Millines. Jenkins has a broken wrist and Millines a stress fracture in his foot. Redshirt freshman Anthony Williams is on the roster but missed the first practice to work on his academics.
Tight end Zach Becker is being brought along slowly after repeated problems with stress fractures in both feet. He rode the stationary bike most of the day. Safety Steve Hull worked with the strength and conditioning people as he recovers from an ankle sprain sustained playing basketball over spring break.
Safety Supo Sanni did some position drills but was held out of scrimmage work while recuperating from Achilles tendon surgery. Russell Ellington also was missing to work on academics. And offensive tackle Corey Lewis sat out as expected as he heals from knee surgery.
Thus, the first string offense consisted of center Graham Pocic, guards Jack Cornell and Hugh Thornton, and tackles Jeff Allen and Simon Cvijanovic. Joining them were quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, running back Jason Ford, tight end Evan Wilson, fullback Jay Prosch, and receivers Fred Sykes, Ryan Lankford and Spencer Harris.
The second string offense included center Tyler Sands, guards Andrew Carter and Alex Hill, and tackles Michael Heitz and Nate Swanson. Heitz rotated on occasion with Cvijanovic as both redshirt freshmen need plenty of reps. Quarterback was Miles Osei, with running backs Troy Pollard and Bud Golden both getting carries.
Tight end was Eddie Viliunas, with Justin Lattimore working both there and at wide receiver. Chris Willett is the 2nd string fullback. Receivers working with the second unit included Jake Kumerow, Tim Russell and Fritz Rock. Rock was moved from safety since he was a high school receiver. He has much to learn, but he is an aggressive runner after the catch.
The starting defensive unit Tuesday included end Whitney Mercilus and tackles Akeem Spence and Craig Wilson. Michael Buchanan played Bandit, Ashante Williams was stationed at SAM, the MIKE was Brandon Denmark and the WILL Jonathan Brown. Trulon Henry and Supo Sanni were lined up at safety, while Tavon Wilson and Terry Hawthorne were the corners.
Austin Teitsma and Wisdom Onyegbule manned the second string tackle spots, flanked by end Glenn Foster and Bandit Justin Staples. Ian Thomas and Houston Bates were the inside backers, while Earnest Thomas lined up at SAM. Ean Days and Ben Mathis were the safeties, and Justin Green and Pat Nixon-Youman were the cornerbacks.
Several Illini were noticeable for the strength they gained in the off season. Evan Wilson was much stronger in the upper body. Tackles Austin Teitsma and Jake Howe continue their growth into Big 10 defensive tackles. Redshirt freshman D.J. Woods has slender legs, but his upper body shows much strength work. Defensive backs Ashante Williams, Green and Nixon-Youman all proudly strutted their stuff.
Some other Illini made news by dropping excess pounds. Foster is much happier at 260 than 275. Hill continues to remold his body. And Ford looked much quicker due to better conditioning. He is listed at 240, but a comparison with last fall indicates he likely dropped 10-20 pounds since then.
Punting remains a question mark, but new hope is possible as 5th year placekicker Matt Eller trys his foot there. He has an extremely strong leg, and he uses a one-step approach. Only inconsistency marred his performance.
Cornerback Miami Thomas appeared to be running without a limp as he tries to regain the respect of Illinois defensive coaches. He has gained weight, and a fire appears to be rekindled in him that was missing last year. He even got into a brief skirmish with a receiver during 7 on 7 drills.
Scheelhaase was especially accurate in both 7 on 7 and 11 on 11 drills. The tight ends were featured throughout, and Evan Wilson was especially evident with several grabs of long, downfield tosses. Lattimore caught one over the middle, and Viliunas caught three, with one going for a big gain down the sideline.
Sykes was also prominent in the passing game. He showed his experience time and again. One catch was a long bomb for a touchdown from Osei as a defender broke coverage, and Sykes turned a crossing pattern into a long TD on a pass from Scheelhaase.
All three running backs ran with speed and aggressiveness, although there was no hitting as everyone practiced in shorts. The Illini go at it again Thursday, same time same place.