The Illinois football team made a good impression on visitors as it went through a fast-paced practice on Zuppke Field Saturday. A strong North wind affected sideline passes, but a warm sun was refreshing for all concerned. The Illini did a lot of 7 on 7 and 11 on 11 work, including their first two-minute offense of the spring.
An early highlight was the Oklahoma Drill, a rite of passage on the first day in pads. A blocker and defender battle head-on while a running back tries to pass through a confined space. As always, team members gathered around to watch the wrestling matches, as excited to hear the pads pop as to collide with teammates.
Perhaps the biggest individual wins for defensive players were earned by tackle Craig Wilson over Alex Hill, tackle Austin Teitsma over Nate Swanson, SAM linebacker Ashante Williams over Spencer Harris and Bandit Justin Staples over Justin Lattimore. Wilson also fought to a draw with Graham Pocic. SAM linebacker Earnest Thomas impressed by battling to a draw with muscle man fullback Jay Prosch.
Other apparent victories for the defense included tackle Wisdom Onyegbule, who may have had the best sequence of efforts with wins over Andrew Carter, Michael Heitz and Swanson twice. Tavon Wilson won twice, over Fred Sykes and Fritz Rock. Jake Howe had an advantage over Carter and Hill. Trulon Henry won over Heitz but lost to Eddie Viliunas.
Also, Miami Thomas topped Ryan Lankford, Akeem Spence over Russell Ellington, Jonathan Brown over Jake Feldmeyer, Ashante Williams over Jake Kumerow, Tim Kynard over Hugh Thornton, Brandon Denmark over Tyler Sands and Jack Ramsey over Sykes.
Several offensive blockers excelled in their opportunities. Tackle Simon Cvijanovic had an especially good day, beating Kynard three times, Glenn Foster twice plus Whitney Mercilus. Fellow freshman Heitz balanced his losses with victories over D.J. Woods twice and Teitsma. Viliunas won out over Ashante Williams and Henry.
Also, Lattimore defeated Staples, Rock over Supo Sanni, Sykes over Ramsey, Prosch over Najee Robinson, Evan Wilson over Staples, Carter over Brown, Lankford over Kaemon Mitchell and Harris over Justin Green. Starting linemen Jeff Allen, Jack Cornell, Pocic and Thornton also had victories in limited action. Evan Wilson and Michael Buchanan split their two matches.
Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase continued to impress with his passing accuracy. There was no tackling, but he showed confidence and command in the pocket earned from a year's experience. He completed all five of his passes in an early 11 on 11 drill, and 15 out of 17 in two subsequent 7 on 7 segments. His two misses were quality breakups by Henry and Green.
Senior Fred Sykes continues to be a popular receiving target, but Scheelhaase and backup Miles Osei spread the wealth around. Speedster Lankford had four grabs in the 7 on 7 drills, including one outstanding catch. Redshirt freshman Anthony Williams caught three passes. Viliunas, Harris and Kumerow had two receptions each.
The lone interception on the day was a pass from walkon quarterback Sean Anderson. Tavon Wilson popped it into the air, and Brown returned it to paydirt. Scheelhaase hit Kumerow on a long post pattern, who showed good acceleration after the catch to score. Lankford grabbed a Scheelhaase pass on a long crossing pattern that gained around 30 yards.
Without tackling, it was hard to judge the running game. But it is obvious Jason Ford is quicker and more maneuverable at a lighter weight. He also showed good hands and an ability to adjust his body on sideline throws adversely affected by a strong wind. Backup Troy Pollard had a couple big runs to his credit.
Saturday was the first time for field goal kicking this spring. Derek Dimke did all the kicking, but he appeared in midseason form. If he remains healthy, Illini coach Ron Zook believes he can be one of the best kickers in the country. Dimke ended the day by hitting a 28 yard field goal into the wind.
His holder was Tim Russell, a walkon wide receiver from St. Charles. The long-armed Russell must acclimate to keeping his elbows in when placing the ball down for Dimke, but Zook is optimistic he can do a good job there. Russell, a high school quarterback, may also be the backup long snapper. Steve Hull will also get a chance to hold for kicks once healthy.
Scheelhaase looked relaxed and confident running a two-minute drill, much better than last fall. He marched his team smartly down the field with nary a mistake. He passed to Lankford, Ford, Anthony Williams, Lankford and Evan Wilson consecutively, putting the ball in position for Ford's two runs to score.
Ellington still has much academic work to do before he can practice daily. But he was in study hall all morning, and coaches Zook and Vic Koenning made the decision to let him get a taste of football after a long layoff.
The Illini return to the field Tuesday morning as spring ball continues.