Illini Making Progress As Camp Rantoul Begins

As the Fighting Illini football team moves into Camp Rantoul, it is a good opportunity to review the progress to date. Illini head coach Ron Zook met the media Sunday. He preferred cautious optimism, but he admits his team has made good progress over the summer.

Illinois coach Ron Zook shared his thoughts Sunday on the status of his team after three days of fall practice.

"We've had three practices now. One of the things we wanted to find out when we started was how hard our guys worked this summer. I told them at the end of spring it was important that we improve as a football team between then and August, and they were gonna have to do that on their own.

"I'm really not surprised where we are. Obviously, we have a long way to go, but you can tell these guys have put a lot of time in. The older guys have gotten the younger guys on board. Even though there's a lot of football in, and things have gone fast, these guys are getting a grasp. And the split practices gave our young guys a chance to get a lot of reps.

"Right now we're on course, but we've still got a ways to go. The guys are excited about going to Rantoul. The weather's kind of broken for us a little bit here. We've just got to continue to get better."

One thing is certain. After a year of experience with new offensive and defensive systems, the returning players have a better understanding of their roles. That helps them play faster. It helps the coaches also.

"The biggest thing about going through the system for the second time, on both sides of the football, is they know it better. More importantly than that, the coaches know the players.

"You've had a chance to go through all your cutups and watch every single play. So you have a better feel for what they do best. We can tweak a few things to make it easier for them and put them in better positions."

A large contingent of rookies has much to learn, but Zook spoke in glowing terms about them. His first mention was of the four offensive linemen.

"I'm particularly excited about those young freshman linemen. Hopefully they don't have to play a lot, but I think they've gotten pretty good reviews."

Media were most curious about running backs Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson. Both have made an impact the first three days.

"I've been very impressed with both. They have had an excellent first three days, about as good as we could have. I said to Donovonn yesterday, 'I'm glad to see you're human.' He was actually a little winded; he's been going hard. I think Donovonn's gonna be a special back."

Zook complimented the plebe tight ends also.

"Not only do we have some depth, we have some guys that will provide some competition. It's hard to get into the running game until you get pads on. But Matt LaCosse and Jon Davis, in terms of running and catching, they're both gonna be an asset there. The more competition you have there, the better you're gonna be."

Freshman quarterbacks Reilly O'Toole and Chase Haslett both had good moments the last three days. But their heads are spinning from the complexity of the offense.

"I chuckled about the two freshman quarterbacks because for Reilly and Chase both, there's a lot of ball in there. I told the guys last night, don't feel bad. Nathan (Scheelhaase) had the same feeling a year ago."

Linebackers Henry Dickinson and Ralph Cooper have also made a strong impression.

"(Dickenson) and Ralph Cooper got an awful lot of snaps these three days. I think there's no question Henry's gonna be an awfully good football player. He's probably way ahead of where I thought he would be, as is Ralph Cooper, in terms of picking up the system and knowing it. I've been impressed with the way they've picked things up."

Cornerbacks Eaton Spence and Valdon Cooper plus safety Nick North also caught his eye.

"I'm impressed with all three of those guys. There's no question that Eaton and Valdon are gonna be guys that work in. Nick North the same thing. They have to learn the system and what we're doing, but I've been very impressed with their first three days of practice."

Among the returnees, there is concern about defensive tackle. Akeem Spence is a good starting point, having earned Freshman All-American playing next to superstar Corey Liuget all season.

"One of the best things for Akeem was having a chance to work with Corey. First of all, he saw the work ethic and hard work and all the things you have to do to be good. He's kind of taken that over. He's shown Craig (Wilson) that they've got to do a lot of work on their own. I think that's a tribute to Corey Liuget."

Zook feels depth is developing.

"I honestly think our depth at defensive tackle has been improved. Craig continues to improve like he needs to improve. Akeem has a chance to be a pretty good player I think. And then Jake Howe and Austin Teitsma are gonna be pretty good players. They play with motors, they play fast. Glenn Foster's still a guy you can move if you have to."

Zook made special reference to Wisdom Onyegbule, a senior walkon.

"Wisdom has done a pretty good job too. Here's a guy I was watching last night. I was impressed with him watching tape. I was sitting there beside him, and Wisdom was grading himself. He's listening to what the coaches are saying, and he's giving himself plusses and minuses.

"That tells me it's important, and he's working to get better. He's a smart guy. He'll play a lot of football for us."

The SAM/nickel back hybrid position is also a concern following the suspension of Ashante Williams. Senior safety Trulon Henry is working there, but Zook reiterated he is not really considered a linebacker.

"We're cross-training Trulon. Really, nobody thinks it's a big position change. He's playing a nickel back. If you go back to the bowl game, it's basically the position Terry Hawthorne played the whole game. Nate Bussey didn't play very many plays in the bowl game.

"Arkansas State is gonna spread you out and show you every play they make, with guys all over the place. So we would have worked on that anyway. If there was one area that had depth, it was probably the secondary."

Zook realizes the value of players knowing more than one position. Boundary corner Jack Ramsey is learning safety to help if needed there.

"We're training Jack Ramsey at safety as well. When I coached the secondary, when you get a guy who can play two positions, that gives you depth."

Perhaps the biggest unknown out of spring was the punting position. Freshman Justin DuVernois was given a scholarship and has an outstanding leg. However, he is in a fierce battle with a fifth year senior. While the position may not be considered a strength, it is not as big a concern as feared.

"Justin has done a really good job. But Matt Eller has really worked this summer. Back in the spring, I said that was one area where we had a question mark. I feel 100% better where we are in the punting game. Matt Eller has really surprised me these three practices."

Offensively, Scheelhaase returns after a full season at the helm. The experience and maturity gained is noticeable.

"There is no question in my mind, Nathan is much improved in throwing the football. He's gonna get better and better as he knows what's going on."

While the freshmen running backs have excited onlookers, the depth chart still shows senior Jason Ford on top. He is in the best shape of his life, even if he didn't quite reach his weight goal.

"To be successful, you've got to run the football. For the most part, we've been fairly successful at running the football. We expect to run the football well again this year.

"Jason's done well. He's had a very good camp so far. His weight isn't down totally where we wanted it, but you have to look at it two different ways. His percent body fat is down, which was important, and he's stronger. It's down, but maybe not to the number it initially was.

"He made all his runs in the summer, the first time since he's been here. That shows that he has worked hard and is ready to go. We originally said we wanted him at around 232-233. He's under 240."

Offensive tackle Corey Lewis missed all of last season after ACL surgery, and a repeat of the surgery continues to delay his return to daily practices. Zook said he is close, but they will wait until he is 100%.

"They're not gonna clear him until they feel he's ready to go. He's out there working hard. And having competition at his position is gonna make him get better faster as well."

Lewis hopes to be ready at least by the Big 10 season. In his absence, redshirt freshmen Michael Heitz and Simon Cvijanovic will both see playing time.

"When we come out of camp, we're gonna be in pretty good shape. Coming out of spring the way they did, it was great competition for them. Constant competition raises your level. They're both bigger, they're both stronger. Coach (Joe) Gilbert feels very good where we are with those guys. They're both gonna play a lot of football.

"They'll continue to compete, and we'll get Corey back. So it's hopefully gonna have a little depth there."

The Illini will enjoy an 8 game home schedule this fall, and everyone is optimistic of the advantage that offers. Even the Big 10 portion has teams playing in Memorial Stadium where Zook would prefer to play them.

"With four games at home and four on the road, we probably lucked out to have the four teams at home you'd probably pick. That's doesn't mean we're gonna win them; we've still got to go do it. But you'd probably rather play the four teams at home we have."

To a man, Illini players are convinced the Texas Bowl win was a springboard to a second straight winning season. Zook sees a chance to make history.

"The University of Illinois has never won two bowl games in a row. Obviously, we're gonna have an opportunity to do that. That is a goal. It's important to get to a bowl game and then to win the bowl game. We'll have a chance to do something that's never been done."

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