Illinois football appears to be in good shape as it prepares for a scrimmage Saturday to conclude the third week of spring ball. Both offense and defense are getting after it, helping each other improve through quality competition.
Illini coach Ron Zook wants to accomplish a number of goals this spring, so he practiced indoors Friday.
"We came inside because it was windy. We may have to come in tomorrow, depending on what the weather is like. Sometimes you're better off coming in and getting work done.
"You get 15 days, and you want them to be the best you can be. I thought it was more important to come in here than to be outside where it was blowing around."
Punting is an area of concern this spring, and it is one area that can't be practiced well indoors. Matt Eller is punting this spring in hopes of regaining a starting spot he hasn't had since he was the placekicker during the 2007 Rose Bowl season of 2007. He is a work in progress according to Zook.
"There's a lot of room for improvement. Matt Eller's punting, but we've got some work to do in the punting game. We'll get one established. We signed a guy, so as long as we keep the long snapper and the protections, we'll be all right."
Walkon Brad Janitz is competing with Eller. Janitz has been adversely affected by the speed of the oncoming rush.
"The one thing he has to do is speed up his operation. He's gotten a little better, but he's still not where he's got to be."
Ryan Lankford was worked again at punter Friday. His low line drives don't hit the roof of the indoor facility, so he could use his rugby style in practice. In addition, the Illini practiced opportunities for him to use his running skills.
This fall, it is hoped freshman Justin DuVernois can make a major impact as a punter.
"The get-off time is one of the things I like about him. He was on a pretty good football team that didn't punt. But he's got a heck of a leg. We'll get him in here this summer and let him have a chance to show what he can do."
There was no tackling but plenty of pad-popping Friday. Defensively, Jack Ramsey made a leaping interception of a Nathan Scheelhaase pass to end the first team's 2-minute offense. Michael Buchanan sacked Miles Osei to prevent the second team from moving into field goal position on its 2-minute effort.
During later 11 on 11 action, defensive tackle Akeem Spence tipped a pass at the line of scrimmage. Whitney Mercilus was credited with a tackle for loss, as was defensive end competitor Glenn Foster. Tavon Wilson picked off a Scheelhaase pass intended for Lankford on the sideline. Supo Sanni, Pat Nixon-Youman, Miami Thomas, and Trulon Henry all broke up passes.
Offensive highlights included Osei producing a long gain on a scramble. Guard Hugh Thornton made an excellent peel-back block on Ashante Williams to free Troy Pollard on a swing pass. Pollard also had a quick burst up the middle for a big gain.
Osei hit Lankford for a long completion, and he hit tight end Eddie Viliunas on a long post route. In red zone action, he hit Spencer Harris for a 20 yard touchdown. Scheelhaase had good moments as well. He found Harris on a long crossing route, Viliunas for a good gainer and Langford on a 20 yard touchdown pass.
Jay Prosch was back at practice after missing a week to support his family during difficult times. Jason Ford was involved in some drills, although he appeared a little gimpy due to a sore on the back of his knee. He may see time in Saturday's scrimmage. Bud Golden will probably not be available as he recovers from a ligament strain in his foot.
Zook was pleased with last Saturday's scrimmage, and he expects more tomorrow. More than anything, he wants continued improvement.
"I thought last Saturday was a great scrimmage. We got better as a football team. Although we'd like for them all to be ready to play a game right now, it's probably a little unrealistic. But I think overall we've continued to improve, which was one of our goals this spring.
"We've got one week to go. I think tomorrow will be a pretty good scrimmage. They're gonna get after each other."