For a sleepy early morning, Illinois football players and coaches were highly motivated as they continued spring drills. Head coach Ron Zook was pleased with the effort.
"We got after it a little bit. Some tempers were flying, but I think it was a good practice. The defense made some progress today, and it's good to see. We'll come out tomorrow and get after it a little bit more. We hope to continue to get better."
A skirmish erupted as a few players let their competitiveness get the better of them.
"The little squabble over there in 7 on 7's started off with a little screwing around, and then it kind of escalated. That's what you've got to guard against. A.J. Jenkins has a cast on his hand, and he was in there swinging with the other one. You like the intensity, you like the competitiveness, but when the horn blows it's over. We're a team."
Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning was happy to defer to the head coach regarding discipline. But he understands the importance of not taking sides when fights erupt.
"I think we're all supposed to be supportive of each other. It's a fine line coaches have. If I'm just taking one side and being critical of the other side, that detracts from the team aspect. Having been a head coach, it probably helped my perspective on that.
"Nobody wants anybody to get hurt. I think everybody's just competing. Guys need to step up and let their play speak louder than their words, and just play. If we do right, right will follow, in all aspects of life."
The physicality was nothing new. The offense and defense are standing up to each other daily, allowing both to improve. Zook referred specifically to last Saturday's scrimmage, adding the defense played better than his first assumption.
"After watching the tape, it was probably as physical a first scrimmage as we've had since I've been here. The defense made a bunch of plays and was a little bit better than that. As the saying goes, 'It's never as bad as it seems or as good as it seems.'
"Whoever does the best one day, usually it's the other side that comes out and does pretty well (the next day). Today was probably the defense's day, and Saturday was probably the offense's day. That's probably a good thing; we want both sides to play well."
Fullback Jay Prosch missed the practice but is due back from Alabama tomorrow. Troy Pollard and redshirt freshman Ean Days took turns running the ball as both Jason Ford and Bud Golden sat out with minor ailments.
"Jason went through individuals today, and tomorrow he'll probably do a little bit more. Saturday hopefully he'll be ready to go. Bud sprained his foot. It's not a bad sprain; it's a ligament between his big toe and his little toe. He did it in the scrimmage on Saturday."
The first half of practice was devoted to fundamental drills. When the offense and defense began to face one another, both sides had good moments. Offensively, Fred Sykes made a great over-the-head-grab on a post route. Miles Osei continued to show improved accuracy on rollouts by hitting Spencer Harris for a good gain.
Also, Jake Kumerow made a tough reception with Justin Green draped all over him. Tight end Justin Lattimore did likewise with a grab contested by Brandon Denmark. Tight ends Evan Wilson and Eddie Viliunas continue to be prominent in the passing game. Wilson made a great adjustment to catch a ball thrown behind him, and Viliunas made a diving reception.
The first week of spring ball, quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase and Osei found open receivers constantly in 7 on 7 action in particular. But the Illini back 7 asserted itself several times Tuesday. Tavon Wilson made a great deflection of a Scheelhaase pass attempt to Ryan Lankford and was credited with a second one later. Terry Hawthorne also broke up a pass.
Going 11 on 11, defensive end Tim Kynard made possibly the play of the day, intercepting a Scheelhaase pass from a distance of no more than 4-5 yards away while rushing the passer. He deflected another pass as well. Ian Thomas and Justin Green were also credited with interceptions.
Denmark and Jack Ramsey broke up passes, while Jonathan Brown (twice), Whitney Mercilus, Earnest Thomas, Houston Bates, Glenn Foster and Jake Howe were all credited with sacks. It must be remembered that three of the four tackles on the team are two redshirt freshmen plus a walkon, although veteran offensive linemen also struggled at times against aggressive, stunting linemen and blitzing linebackers.
Bates ran with the first team after his excellent play Saturday, but Brown gave him a battle.
"I think Bates is doing a great job right now, but all the linebackers are playing well," Zook summarized. "They're all gonna play. I don't get into who's starting and who's not. You guys put way too much stock on that stuff. The key is they all continue to get better."
Brown was demoted Saturday after being called for a personal foul, but Zook isn't holding an extended grudge.
"He understands what the deal is. I'm not upset with Jonathan. He knows he can't do that. Up until that play, he was playing well and having a good scrimmage. He had a good day today."
Koenning is pleased with the overall progress of the defense and is working to help it reach its potential.
"When the guys do what they're supposed to do, they're playing at a pretty high level."
The differences between this year and last are obvious. Both sides of the ball now understand the schemes and are comfortable with the packages introduced last year by Koenning and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino. Zook explains the difference.
"We were starting at ground zero last year. Now you're starting with a knowledge of what we're trying to get accomplished. The coaches and the players know each other, and that's a good thing because we know what the players can do.
"What might have been good at Arkansas or Clemson doesn't mean it's gonna be good here. And what's gonna be good here may not be good at Arkansas or Texas. Those are the things you've got to work through when you start. That's one of the reasons why I think we're way ahead of where we were at this time last year."
While the Illini are playing well, more improvement is needed. Zook summarized those needs.
"I think defensively, we can't give up big plays. Offensively, we've got to continue to protect and make sure we give Nathan a chance to throw. We've got to continue to polish."
Practice continues Wednesday morning.