The waiting is over. The Illinois football team resumed practices today for the home game with Arkansas State a month from now. Illini coach Ron Zook sees positive signs his Illini will be ready.
"It's the first day, and I'm excited, as they are. I know everyone has worked hard, and the attitude's been great. I'm cautiously optimistic. They want to go out and do the things they know they can do."
Zook knows better than to hype his team because of what happens if it doesn't live up to fan expectations. The first practice was far from perfect, but it was good for the first day. With a year into their new offensive and defensive schemes, Illini players demonstrated expertise impossible last year at this time.
"It was a good day for the first guys. They've been through it a second time now, so it's a little easier for them. The younger guys are like everybody was last year, but that's part of it.
"Overall, you can tell they've worked hard this summer, both physically and mentally. I think we're way ahead of last year, although the practice was similar to last year."
Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning is always concerned after the first practice. He sees many mistakes that must be corrected, but he also praised the offense.
"Right now, we made so many mistakes. We were like a nail in salt water; we were rusty. You can tell the offense has done a good job this summer. They're working through some new stuff, so that's a compliment to Nathan (Scheelhaase). Those guys know what they're doing.
"Today was not a finished product, by far. There's a lot of stuff to correct."A position change on the revised roster showed senior safety Trulon Henry as a linebacker. That is not exactly accurate according to Zook, even though Henry was playing the SAM position today in place of the suspended Ashante Williams.
"We're looking at him because of what happened with Ashante. We moved him there to make sure we have enough guys to play that position.
"I don't know how it got started he was a linebacker. It's a nickel back. It's the same position Terry Hawthorne played in the Texas Bowl. You want to get the best players on the field.
"If he plays that position, it means we bring another defensive back on the field. We're not changing defenses. The SAM linebacker is a nickel back. He's not a linebacker that plays over the tight end."
Regardless, it is not set in stone. Secondary coach Mike Gillhamer would need to find an adequate replacement for Henry at safety, and Henry must be the best option at SAM for the move to stick according to Koenning.
"We're mixing and matching back there. Coach Gillhamer wants to take his time and give those guys opportunities. We'll see where we are after a week or so."
In other personnel news, Zook summarized the status of signees Willie Beavers, a defensive tackle, and offensive lineman Chris Boles.
"Willie Beavers probably will not be here. Chris Boles is not here yet, but he'll be here."
The first day of fall practice is an opportunity to examine the new freshmen. The 23 scholarship players and multiple walkons is an impressive group. It is too early to pencil anyone in to receive playing time this year, but the long-term future looks promising.
Quarterback Reilly O'Toole appears to have learned a lot of offense this summer. He was predictably accurate with his tight spirals; he appeared comfortable for his first day. Running backs Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson both made positive impressions. Young appears muscular and in excellent shape. Ferguson displayed his outstanding quickness on more than one occasion.
Tight ends Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse appear to have bright futures. The 230 pound Davis has the athleticism and ball skills to help early in his career. And LaCosse put on a tremendous burst of speed once he caught a short toss over the middle. The 6'-6" LaCosse is not the tallest new tight end. That title goes to 6'-7" Rockford product Drew Anderson.
The height of the newcomers was impressive. Receiver Jeremy Whitlow is a muscular 6'-2", and Kenny Knight is 6'-5". They and fifth year transfer Brandon Clear, also 6'-5", add needed height to the position. Tackle Pat Flavin is 6'-7", tackle Scott McDowell is 6'-5", defensive end Kenny Nelson is 6'-6", and defensive tackle Chris O'Connor is 6'-5." Inside linebacker Henry Dickinson is 6'-4."
LaCosse needs to learn to block after playing quarterback in high school. Flavin is still slender, as is Nelson. They will need to gain size and strength over the next year or two. O'Connor also needs to bulk up to play defensive tackle. All the freshmen will benefit from the UI Strength and Conditioning program, but the potential is there.
Squadmen intimate offensive guard Ted Karras has made a good impression this summer with his strength, aggressiveness and knowledge of the position. Center Tony Durkin needs to gain strength. But Durkin, Karris, Flavin and McDowell have all been doing well for rookies.
Cornerbacks Valdon Cooper and Eaton Spence are both in the 170 pound range, but they are quick. Cooper and Ferguson both worked on catching punts with the upperclassmen. Squadmen say safety Nick North could be a good one.
Scheelhaase appears to have filled out more and threw a good ball. Running back Jason Ford is listed at 235, and he is in about as good a shape as he is capable.
All the players injured during spring were healthy and practicing today except offensive tackle Corey Lewis. Lewis worked on line drills with a Strength and Conditioning person as he has not yet been cleared to resume regular practice.
It was a fun first day, but Zook reminds there is still much work to do.
"The optimism coming back (from the Texas Bowl) has been good. What was important since January was how hard we worked. I think these guys understand we're not where we need to be yet."