The Illinois football team emphasized fundamentals the first part of its Friday practice sessions. The defense spent a great deal of time studying plays and learning gap assignments, while the offense worked on improving efficiency.
One thing is clear, there is depth at running back. Senior Jason Ford is running with the quickness he displayed early in spring drills. Senior Troy Pollard is back to form after a concussion limited his spring.
Freshmen Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson are impressive. Young is exquisitely built, and he has good feet for the inside running game. Ferguson is smaller but quicker. He is a legitimate 4.4 guy, and once he breaks into the open, he is difficult to catch.
Tight end depth is also obvious. Evan Wilson and Eddie Viliunas return after playing well last year. Zach Becker is finally healthy and shaking off the rust from an 18 month absence. Freshmen Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse are demonstrating the talent and athleticism to be true threats in the passing game.
Nathan Scheelhaase is by far the best quarterback on the field. He is relaxed and confident. His arm strength isn't that much greater than last year, but he's more precise with his timing and better at finding open men.
Miles Osei continues to improve, although his ball still sails on him some of the time. Freshman Reilly O'Toole shows flashes of his expertise, but his head is spinning after just two days on the job.
There is a bevy of receivers, and all of them did good things at one time or another. A.J. Jenkins and Darius Millines are healthy again, so there is tremendous competition at all positions. Even the three freshmen show promise.
The 7 on 7 and 11 on 11 drills highlighted the Friday workout. Offensive plays of note included a nice low grab of an Osei pass by freshman Jeremy Whitlow; Fritz Rock ran hard after his catches; Jake Kumerow adjusted to an underthrown ball, coming back for a nice catch on a long sideline toss; and Brandon Clear fought off the aggressive Tavon Wilson to complete a crossing route from O'Toole.
Also, Fred Sykes made an impressive stop-and-go move, leaving freshman safety Nick North clutching air. Kumerow reached high to snare an O'Toole pass over the outstretched arms of two defenders on a long post route. Spencer Harris fought off Supo Sanni for a reception over the middle.
LaCosse made three great plays in a short time span. First, he used his 6'-6" frame to snare a high throw from O'Toole on the sideline over Trulon Henry and Steve Hull. Then he dove to catch an Osei toss. A short while later, he gained separation from linebacker Brandon Denmark to complete a flat pass. If he keeps this up, he will see playing time this year.
Millines caught a tough pass from Chase Haslett despite being hit simultaneously by Justin Green. Millines also faked Sanni on a quick run-after-catch for extra yardage. Haslett completed a long sideline throw to Ryan Lankford, who sped past rookie cornerback Valdon Cooper. Freshman Jordan Frysinger showed excellent acceleration after his catches.
Lankford made a couple more brilliant plays on the afternoon. He made a one handed grab of a Scheelhaase pass on a long crossing route, and he leaped to snare a Scheelhaase pass over Green. Spencer Harris stretched out to catch a long sideline toss.
Scheelhaase found Davis on a long crossing pattern, and he exploited a broken coverage by throwing a long sideline touchdown to freshman walkon Peter Bonahoom. The rookie from Prospect High School was noticeable more than once on the day. Notice the number of long completions by the squad.
The defensive secondary had its moments also. Miami Thomas intercepted a pass tipped off of Clear's hands. Tavon Wilson made several good plays, including a pick 6. He frequently was seen with outstanding coverage, demonstrating his experience and maturity. Freshman safety Nick North broke up a pass from O'Toole to Whitlow.
Also, safety Steve Hull broke up two passes. Green had great coverage on Millines, intercepting a Scheelhaase pass. Earnest Thomas broke up a Scheelhaase throw intended for Evan Wilson and a Haslett pass directed toward Lankford. Jonathan Brown broke up a pass to Wilson, and Green leaped to knock down a throw to Anthony Williams.
Practice continues Saturday afternoon with the last of the split squad sessions.