The Illinois football team held its third and final split squad workout on the Memorial Stadium practice fields Saturday. A great deal was accomplished in a short amount of time according to head coach Ron Zook.
"They get a lot of plays in these three practices, and these are probably harder. We had 50 plays a team in practice yesterday. We usually don't get that. We had 60 plays of 7 on 7, and that's a lot of plays.
"When you get a lot of plays and the same amount of individual time, you're probably getting more work, and you don't have as much rest in between. This has been great weather though, and it's supposed to be nice next week too."
Defensive line coach Keith Gilmore has been absent the first three days attending to the needs of a sick grandson.
"Coach Gilmore will be back tonight (Saturday)," Zook explained. "He'll be around tomorrow. I don't know all the details, but he texted me to let me know. I'm glad he went and did what he had to do."
There was some one-on-one work between offensive linemen, possible since shoulder pads were worn for the first time. Among the interesting individual battles, defensive end Whitney Mercilus beat tackle Jeff Allen to the quarterback; defensive tackle Austin Teitsma used a swim move to speed past guard Alex Hill; and defensive tackle Jake Howe overcame the block of walkon center Kevin Griffin.
Also, freshmen Scott McDowell and Ken Nelson split their two chances. Tackle McDowell held off the charging defensive end the first time, but Nelson used a swim move successfully on the next one. Offensive linemen Graham Pocic and Hugh Thornton held off Craig Wilson and Akeem Spence respectively.
There was plenty of quality play in one-on-one, 7 on 7 and 11 on 11 action. Anthony Williams made a catch in stride on a long bomb from Nathan Scheelhaase. Spencer Harris held onto a pass despite being sandwiched by linebacker Ian Thomas and Ramsey. Brandon Clear outfought a sandwich from cornerback Justin Green and walkon linebacker Alex Porter.
Also, freshman tight end Jon Davis reached high to grab a long post from Scheelhaase. Frosh tight end Matt LaCosse caught a deep pass on a long crossing pattern. LaCosse and Davis have the speed for post routes and long crosses. Clear ran past cornerback Miami Thomas to grab a long sideline bomb from Miles Osei. And Osei hit Jake Kumerow in stride on a deep throw down the sideline.
The defense stepped up frequently also. Cornerback Terry Hawthorne and receiver Ryan Lankford had repeated physical interplay. Illini cornerbacks are more confident and aggressive this year. Also, safety Supo Sanni stripped the ball free from walkon freshman Hayden Daniels.
Miami Thomas forced a fumble by arriving at Clear a split second after a catch. Thomas later stripped tight end Justin Lattimore, recovered and returned for a touchdown. And linebacker Jonathan Brown broke up a pass from Osei to Lattimore, the tip landing in the waiting arms of linebacker Brandon Denmark.
Senior receiver A.J. Jenkins ran routes but wasn't thrown the ball for most of the last two days. Zook explained.
"A.J. has a strained pectoral. He caught a couple out there today, so he'll be fine."
Zook also discussed senior running back Jason Ford, who appears to be as quick as he has ever been despite his stocky body.
"Jason is probably not quite as light right now as we'd like him to be, but if you look at his body percentage, he's such a strong guy. He made all his runs. He's good. These three days, he hasn't had any issues."
Placekicker Derek Dimke got his first live action of the fall, and he is in midseason form. Punter Matt Eller is doing double duty, and his kicks made a positive impression also. The only walkon in camp at the moment is Taylor Zalewski from Orland Park. He struggled kicking off the turf. Patrick Dunn, Nick Immekus and Brennen VanMiegham will join the squad later.
While avoiding specifics, it is obvious Zook likes what he sees from the freshmen.
"I'm impressed with some of these young guys. As we install more, it will get cloudier and cloudier. The offensive linemen, there are some guys I'm really impressed with."
Zook may be exaggerating a wee bit, but he wants his younger players thinking positively about their upcoming two week isolation at Camp Rantoul. If the focus is on results, the time will go fast.
"It's like going on a cruise, a two week cruise. Anybody that loves football loves Camp Rantoul. I think the older guys will do a good job of helping them through because they remember.
"There's nothing that's easy about Camp Rantoul. All Division 1 schools go through it. It's all hard and it's like anything worth working for, it involves sacrifice. We just have to go up there and be a more consistent team and a better team."
Midlothian Bremen running back David Smith visited practice Saturday.