Illinois coach Ron Zook continues to appreciate the intensity of his team's practices this spring.
"There's the same enthusiasm as when we started. They're competing like you want them to compete. They're trying to help each other become a good football team."
Zook explained why Jason Ford missed Friday's practice and provided a prognosis.
"He has a sore knee. It's not an ACL or anything like that. We've just got to be smart. He might be back tomorrow, but I don't think there's any reason to push the issue. I think he's okay. He could probably go tomorrow, but why chance it? It depends on what the doctors think."
In Ford's absence, redshirt freshman Ean Days was given a look at running back, his high school position.
"We moved Ean Days over there. We had talked about that before spring practice started anyway, so it gives him a little look to see if he can help us there. He kind of made the same move in high school, and that's when he really took off. So who knows?"
As reported Wednesday, Jay Prosch had to return home due to family health concerns. Zook commented briefly on the situation.
"Jay is going through some tough times right now, but he'll be okay. He had to go home with some personal things. Hopefully he'll be back Tuesday."
The Illini emphasized ball security and ball stripping in fundamental drills. Defenders are all being taught how to strip the ball from opposing ball carriers. That is always an emphasis, but it is more of one this spring. The Illini are determined to force more turnovers this season.
Offensively, there is more play-calling diversity this spring as the Illini gain more knowledge of the offensive playbook. With Prosch out, fullback Chris Willett was actually seen carrying the ball, as one example. Also, the tight ends have received far more passes this spring than last fall.
Evan Wilson is making big plays daily as the starter. He made a great catch down the middle over safety Pat Nixon-Youman to set up Derek Dimke for a field goal in two-minute action. He also caught a touchdown in earlier 11 on 11 play.
Wilson is bigger and stronger than last fall, but he is also learning how to get off the line quicker and gain separation from linebackers. As one of the squad's tallest members, he appears to have a bright future as both a receiver and blocker.
The defense may have held a slight advantage Friday. Both Terry Hawthorne and Ashante Williams made excellent plays to break up passes in 7 on 7 drills. Steve Hull did likewise on a pass from Nathan Scheelhaase to Ryan Lankford.
Zook is pleased with the progress made by the defensive backs as they work for new secondary coach Mike Gillhamer.
"I'm very impressed with them. We've made strides there. I think the big thing is, when Coach Gillhamer talks, these guys know he's been coaching at the next level for a long time. He knows what he's talking about. They're trying to do everything he says to do, and you can tell it's really helped them."
While the scrimmage Saturday will include tackling, the quarterbacks will still be off limits. With only two scholarship quarterbacks on campus, injuries are a concern. But Zook believes they may let second teamer Miles Osei and the two walkons get hit some next week. He explains why.
"I think next week we're gonna have to, just for the defense's sake, and the offense. Get some guys in there going live. Nathan's taken enough shots. He doesn't have to prove to us whether he can take a shot or not. If it was up to Nathan, he'd do it in a heartbeat.
"Miles probably would, but we've got to be careful a little bit there too. What happens is, the offensive line for example knows they can't get near the quarterback, so they don't have that extra push right to the end. Things like that. We'll talk about it, but next week we'll probably have to do some live work."
The Saturday practice begins at 10:00 am, with the scrimmage beginning around 10:30 am and running to noon or shortly after. Once the players clean up, they will be available for the Illini's Family Fun Fest. Zook expects a hard-hitting scrimmage.
"We're gonna get after it. We hope to have the same intensity we had out here this morning. We'll go for awhile and see where we are. They were getting after it this morning. We actually cut some things out this morning as we were having a lot more contact than we talked about having."