Illinois football coach Ron Zook continues to be pleased with his team through four spring practices. But there is much to accomplish in a small amount of time, including getting younger players up to speed.
"It was a good practice. We're trying to get a lot of young guys ready. To me the season is this week. That's the way we've got to approach it. Every day we've got to play better. The season is a long way off, and we can't wait to get better. We've got to do it now."
While one side of the ball is usually ahead of the other at this early stage, having them both relatively even may be a good sign.
"I don't know if anybody is ahead or behind. The offense is making great progress. Our whole thing is we want to start where we left off. Even though you've got to go back and do all the fundamentals, in terms of attitude-wise and confidence level, we're starting where we left off."
It is obvious the four veterans along the offensive line have experience. Jeff Allen, Jack Cornell, Hugh Thornton and Graham Pocic continue to expand their games. Offensive line coach Joe Gilbert has been pleased with their play so far.
"In the first four practices, I think the guys are starting to jell a little bit. I think the older guys are really improving. They're now trying to learn their position, not just assignment-wise but focusing on the little details that will make them be better.
"One of our big goals is not just keep going in the run game but improving in the pass game. That's one thing we stressed a lot in the off season. Now we're trying to improve on techniques of pass protection. The guys are working at it."
He also sees potential at the open tackle position.
"We're getting a lot of competition with the young guys at tackle between Simon Cvijanovic and Michael Heitz. They are rotating at the position. Both of them are a little bit different athlete. Both of them have their positives and minuses.
"But both of them are pushing each other. Right now, we see where one guy has a good day and the other guy maybe doesn't have as good a day. And then vice versa the next day. It's gonna be fun to see how they go through these scrimmages and how it all works out."
Gilbert must still develop depth on the inside. But he has hope for the youngsters working at the 2nd string center and guard spots.
"I think some guys are starting to do some things. Are they ready to play yet, no. Thank God for spring ball. But I think we will have some depth inside as well."
One could see the quality of the veteran offensive linemen in one-on-one drills with the defensive line. Thornton controlled Akeem Spence twice. Cornell did likewise to Craig Wilson twice. Heitz had a good day as well, containing Glenn Foster twice on his pass rush.
However, the defenders showed much better against the reserve linemen. Wilson bull rushed Jason Feldmeyer effectively and shed Shawn Afryl like he was a rag doll. Jake Howe got the better of Cornell on one confrontation.
Also, Austin Teitsma bulled Andrew Carter on one of two tries and dominated Alex Hill. Wisdom Onyegbula pushed Pocic backwards on a bull rush. Justin Staples used inside moves to embarrass Nate Swanson twice. And D.J. Woods got the better of Hill on one occasion.
Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was not as sharp in 7 on 7 and 11 on 11 segments as the first three days, but he seemed to improve as the day went on. Among Scheelhaase's offensive highlights, Ryan Lankford made a leaping catch on a long crossing route. Evan Wilson was the recipient of a touchdown pass on a long post route. And Scheelhaase found Jason Ford wide open on a wheel route thanks to a blown coverage.
The first string offense also moved the ball downfield efficiently in a two-minute drill. Scheelhaase favored sideline passes to Lankford, who caught four. Ford also had a good run in the series. Derek Dimke hit a 37 yard field goal into the teeth of the North wind.
But the defense made some excellent plays on pass defense throughout the day. Among the highlights, Jack Ramsey intercepted a flat pass from Miles Osei and returned it for a TD. A little later, Supo Sanni tipped an Osei pass into the waiting arms of Brandon Denmark. Houston Bates caused a fumble after Osei completed a pass to Lankford. Ashante Williams, Justin Green and Ramsey all broke up passes.
In the running game, Ford, Troy Pollard and Bud Golden all ran hard and had good gains at times sans tackling. But again, defense showed it self equal to the task. Trulon Henry, Jonathan Brown and Pat Nixon-Youman each had good hits on Pollard for zero or negative yardage. Ian Thomas grabbed Ford for TFL. Also, Ean Days blocked a Matt Eller punt.
Practice continues Wednesday morning as the Illini hold their first spring scrimmage.