Illinois football coach Ron Zook was upbeat following day two of spring football practice.
"I've been very pleased with the way we've competed, the way we've focused. It's night and day compared to last year because we're building on the things we did well and adding some new things."
This was the second day without full pads, and defensive coordinator Vic Koenning saw it as an opportunity.
"We've really got it piled in the first two days, and we'll kind of thin out as we go. We wanted to get a lot of film where we can teach from. So obviously we're gonna make some mistakes. It's the second year, and they understand what's expected."
The Illini are accustomed to the speed of practice, but onlookers are impressed.
"We had a prospect here, and he and his dad both commented on how fast a tempo our practice is," Koenning noted. "They've been to a whole lot of practices, junior days and stuff. They were amazed at the tempo of practice.
"I just think that's what we do, Coach (Paul) Petrino, Coach Zook and myself and all the rest of the coaches. And the players have bought into it now. Last year, the first couple days they could hardly make it through the practice because they weren't used to that. Now, we're burning. I think that will do nothing but make us better."
Koenning is now coaching inside linebackers. With two positions to worry about rather than four, he was asked whether practices are now easier for him.
"I don't know. My head is pounding about the same as always. Obviously, we've got a long way to go. We've got to get better. There's a lot of fundamental things we really need to improve on.
"At linebacker, you can hurt yourself so badly by using poor footwork. So we're having a major concentration on stance and starts. Doing the footwork right. Especially when you're in shorts and shells, you can't really practice too much shedding and stuff, but you can sure practice the basic stance and starts.
"If you get yourself out of position on the first step, it makes it harder to get to the ball. That's some things I thought we really needed to improve from last year is look like we're all doing the same thing. I'm gonna know they're taking the coaching. There's some more improvement we've got to make there."
Inside linebacker Ian Thomas was back operating with the first unit Thursday. Safety Steve Hull did individual sessons with the defensive backs after sitting out Tuesday with a sprained ankle. Safety Supo Sanni did some 7 on 7 work, adding to his work load from the first day. Pat Nixon-Youman replaced him when he rested.
It appears the defensive backs are listening attentively to new secondary coach Mike Gillhamer. He's coached NFL players, so they trust what he is doing. He was placing a big emphasis on creating fumbles and returning them.
Cornerback Terry Hawthorne was trying constantly to strip the ball during 7 on 7 and 11 on 11 work and was successful 2-3 times. That may not translate on game days as tackling will be his highest priority. Hawthorne also broke up a couple passes, but he arrived late on both his gambles for flat pass interceptions.
WILL linebacker Jonathan Brown made a couple plays during passing drills. He intercepted a Nathan Scheelhaase pass intended for Fred Sykes over the middle, and he broke up a pass from Miles Osei to Evan Wilson.
Quarterbacks can take as much time as they need to find open receivers when there's no rush, so they find it easier to complete passes during 7 on 7 drills. But still, Scheelhaase continues to show accuracy and touch.
Fred Sykes, Ryan Lankford, Spencer Harris and Evan Wilson were popular targets with the quarterbacks, with Sykes getting the most action. Sykes caught a flat pass and juked cornerback Jack Ramsey to gain extra yardage. Lankford showed his tremendous quickness on his routes. He appears to be operating faster with experience.
Scheelhaase and Anthony Williams combined for the long play of the day in 11 on 11 action, a bomb on a post route for a touchdown. Right after, Sykes made a brilliant over-the-shoulder grab before stepping over the sideline.
While receivers A.J. Jenkins and Darius Millines miss the spring with injuries, younger receivers are getting a chance to prove themselves. Zook feels it will help the team in the long run.
"The more they catch, the more they play, the better they're gonna get, the more experience they're gonna get. All it does is make your receiver corps that much deeper."
Koenning was asked how the freshmen defenders were coming along. He was nurturing in his response while indirectly admitting they still have a way to go.
"They've got to continue to understand that this is all a new thing for them. A heart surgeon, when they do their first surgery, they can't make a mistake. This isn't heart surgery or brain surgery. This is the first time, and they can make a mistake. We'll learn from it. We'll get there."