Illinois spent a lot of practice time on fundamentals Friday. It was a less strenuous practice as the players need to be fresh for the Saturday scrimmage. The location of the scrimmage is somewhat in doubt at this point due to the threat of inclement weather.
"We're gonna follow the weather," Illini head coach Ron Zook explained. "I don't want to tear their field up. If it gets too muddy, we'll get them on the busses and go to Champaign. Hopefully that won't happen. I'm sure they don't want us tearing their field up. Hopefully we would know by noon."
If overnight rains leave the field too wet to play, the Illini will bus to Champaign and play inside Memorial Stadium. It is scheduled to begin at 6:30 pm, but that may be adjusted depending on the situation.
The Illini will play somewhere. Zook was asked his priorities for this first major scrimmage of the fall.
"Continue to improve, and no injuries. They're getting better every day, every practice. They've got to go out there and just let it loose. We're not gonna be as good as we will be in the first game, and we're not supposed to be."
Injuries have been minimal so far, with one exception. Senior receiver A.J. Jenkins has been slowed by a couple minor problems unrelated to the broken wrist that kept him out of spring practice. Zook clarified.
"He tweaked his hamstring Wednesday morning, but he'll be all right. A little bit of it is precautionary. He's also got a strained pec (pectoral muscle); his wrist is fine."
Will he play Saturday?
The Illini continue to demonstrate play-making ability on both sides of the ball during the latter portion of Friday's practice. It was a good day for two freshman tight ends. Both Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse have been impressive so far, and Friday was Davis's turn to star.
He caught four passes in 11 on 11 and two-minute action, with two being on the spectacular side. He grabbed two touchdown tosses during red zone play, one from Nathan Scheelhaase and one from Reilly O'Toole. The latter was a leaping grab in the back corner of the end zone. He made another great catch on a pass from Scheelhaase as he helped his team move down the field for a touchdown and two point conversion.
LaCosse made three good grabs, one where he stretched out his 6'-6" frame for a finger tip reception, and one where he adjusted to complete a tipped pass. Both he and Davis need to learn blocking fundamentals, but they will both likely see playing time as they become more familiar with the system.
Several other receivers were prominent also. Ryan Lankford continues to be a popular target. He caught two long passes on crossing routes, the second where he dove successfully. He also scored a touchdown on a long crossing pattern. He is able to gain separation from defenders, and Scheelhaase is able to get the ball to him accurately. They make a good combination.
Additional receivers who deserve recognition for their catches include Fritz Rock, Millines and Anthony Williams. Freshmen Kenny Knight and Jordan Frysinger each scored TD's. Zook is pleased with receiver depth.
"We've got some guys who can play. That's what it's all about, guys stepping up. Spencer (Harris) has had a great camp, Ryan Lankford has had a great camp, Darius is coming along really well. I can really feel Darius."
Running backs also had their chances despite a lack of tackling. Rookie Josh Ferguson had three quick runs for good yardage, one on an option pitch. Fellow freshman Donovonn Young exploded through a small hole for extra yardage.
Troy Pollard had another long gainer, his second in two days. Running back Jason Ford had a short touchdown reception. Scheelhaase broke contain on two long scrambles in addition to short runs for a touchdown and two point conversion.
It was good to see the first team offense have some success in two-minute offense. Derek Dimke booted a 33 yard field goal with plenty of distance to spare on the first attempt, and Scheelhaase scored on the second.
Backup quarterback Miles Osei is not as comfortable in that aspect of play. Today, his first pass was intercepted by cornerback Terry Hawthorne. That was his only play as Scheelhaase returned to replace him. The offense's leader hit Harris on two short passes before defensive tackle Jake Howe snuffed out the possession by tipping a pass incomplete at the line.
The defense showed up well at times also. Freshman cornerback Valdon Cooper retrieved an errant Osei pitchout and ran it back. He was also credited with a pass breakup. Besides the interception, Hawthorne broke up two other passes, the latter where he dove to tip the ball away.
Zook was asked about depth concerns in the defensive line.
"We're a little thin at spots, like a lot of people are. We're hoping to get a few breaks and keep some guys healthy. But we've got some guys that are gonna come along. I think Craig (Wilson) is coming along every day. I think we're gonna be fine on the defensive line."
Freshman guard Chris Boles was supposed to be at practice today, but he wasn't there according to Zook.
"The NCAA is backtracking on what they say. We're still on hold on that."