The Illinois football team held its first practice at Camp Rantoul Monday. For newcomers, it can be a traumatic experience as they try to learn complicated systems while competing against upperclassmen who already know the ropes. For the others, it is a necessary evil designed to prepare them for 12 hostile opponents.
If the attitude and enthusiasm of the players is any indication, this could be the beginning of a rousing and highly productive fall. Players are eager to hit and hungry to maintain the momentum from last year's winning season and Texas Bowl triumph.
With a year in their respective systems under their belts, both the Illini offense and defense are working to refine techniques and perfect what they already know. There are a number of quality freshmen eager to prove themselves, but they must be exceptional to make up for the experience of the upperclassmen.
The competition between units is fierce; offensive coordinator Paul Petrino and defensive coordinator Vic Koenning plot daily to foil each other's strategies. It is a gargantuan war between two intelligent, aggressive foes eager for victory.
It is said Petrino can change strategies every play, let alone every possession. Koenning matches him step for step. The daily battles between their units will be a major highlight of fall practice.
The players will not don full pads until tomorrow, but they can't wait to begin hitting. You have to love to hit to be a college football player, and there were some hits on the first day that were excessive in Ron Zook's eyes. He stopped practice briefly to remind his charges to be smart about their play.
"I'd like to kind of ease into it. That's why I kind of got after them. I love the enthusiasm, I love the excitement. But you've got to be careful. I don't want to get anybody nicked up.
"I don't want to go crazy. The way these guys are going right now, there's gonna be plenty of contact."
Illini players have no longer to wait. Hitting begins tomorrow with a ritual drill designed to give everyone a feel for the action.
"We put on pads tomorrow," Zook reminded. "We always do Oklahoma on the first day."
The first day at Rantoul gives onlookers a glimpse of early depth charts. Defensively, the first unit was predictable. Whitney Mercilus, Akeem Spence and Craig Wilson manned the line, with Bandit Michael Buchanan and inside linebackers Ian Thomas and Jonathan Brown right behind. Trulon Henry was at nickel back, with Terry Hawthorne and Tavon Wilson at corners and Supo Sanni and Pat Nixon-Youman at safety.
The second unit had Glenn Foster at end, Wisdom Onyegbule and Austin Teitsma at tackles and Justin Staples at Bandit. Brandon Denmark and Houston Bates were the inside backers, with Earnest Thomas at nickel. The corners were Justin Green and Jack Ramsey; Steve Hull and Nick North played safety. Of course, there was plenty of mixing and matching; changes are likely as the Illini see who play best where.
Offensively, Nathan Scheelhaase is the starting quarterback, with Miles Osei backing him. Jay Prosch is a fixture at fullback, and Chris Willett spells him. Jason Ford and Troy Pollard were the top two running backs, but freshmen Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young got reps there, as did Bud Golden and Ean Days.
Evan Wilson, Eddie Viliunas and Zach Becker may lead the tight end race right now, but freshmen Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse got reps there. There are a number of receiver prospects, and they shared the load with no pecking order apparent. It is likely A.J. Jenkins, Darius Millines and Fred Sykes are starters for now, but many others had their moments Monday.
The offensive line is set at four positions. Jeff Allen is at weakside tackle, Jack Cornell and Hugh Thornton are the guards, and the center returnee is Graham Pocic. Michael Heitz and Simon Cvijanovic rotated at strongside tackle. The second group consisted of center Jake Feldmeyer, guards Tyler Sands and Alex Hill and tackle Nate Swanson in addition to either Heitz or Cvijanovic.
Six players took turns on both punt returns and kickoff returns. Hawthorne, Ramsey, Ryan Lankford, Millines, Pollard and Ferguson all did well during their turns.
In 11 on 11 action to conclude the day, Scheelhaase completed all six of his passes in brief action. Young made a one hand grab of a pass along the sideline. And Golden took a flat pass down the sideline for a long gain. Osei was two for three passing, while freshman Reilly O'Toole was one for three, his last toss being intercepted by Hull.
The defense gave the offense everything it could handle. Most running plays were stuffed after short gains at best, although Pollard had a big gainer as he took a quick option toss, beat contain and sped down the sideline. Craig Wilson was an immovable force on more than one play.
There was a practice visitor of note. Four-star running back Greg Garmon traveled from Erie, Pennsylvania, to visit the school and watch practice. The 6'-2", 200 pounder is a national recruit, some schools wanting him for offense and some defense. He says the Illini are in his top three at this point.
Tuesday's practice begins at 3:30 pm.