Illini Resume Season Preparations In Rantoul

The Fighting Illini football team got back down to basics on the Camp Rantoul practice field Monday after a rousing scrimmage the day before. While there was no hitting, intense competition between offense and defense continued unabated.

Illinois coach Ron Zook continues to be pleased with the overall improvement and effort of his football team. Not surprisingly given the success of the offense in the Sunday scrimmage, he feels the defense had the upper hand Monday.

"It was a good day. The tempo was good. When one side gets the edge, the other side kind of comes back the next day. That happened today. The defense got after them and played well."

Speaking for the defensive unit, outside linebacker coach Ron West sees definite growth since new schemes were installed for 2010.

"We feel like we're ahead of where we were a year ago as far as the knowledge of the players. We're probably doing a little bit more than we were a year ago at this time. They're picking a lot of it up."

One position change was noted Monday. Linebacker Henry Dickinson backed up fellow freshman Ralph Cooper in the middle while starter Ian Thomas sat out scrimmage work due to a minor injury. Zook downplays the importance of the move but likes both rookies.

"We moved him in there. There's not a whole lot of difference between the MIKE and the WILL. It's just whether he's on the strong side or weak side.

"Ian's got that sprained AC joint. He probably could have gone yesterday, but we decided to hold him. Both Cooper and Dickinson are doing well for freshmen."

West said senior Trulon Henry is beginning to pick up his new position at SAM, a linebacker/nickel back hybrid.

"Trulon has adapted. He still makes some mistakes. Every day is a learning day for him. But he's doing a lot better. I see bursts of him making plays that can really help us."

The punting situation became a little clearer Monday. With senior Matt Eller shanking two efforts, freshman Justin DuVernois may have moved slightly ahead. The youngster's best kicks are long, high spirals reminiscent of Anthony Santella's boomers a year ago.

"We had a good day today," Zook stated regarding the punt unit. Both of them have got to become more consistent, but Justin has done a good job. I think right now, Justin is probably a little bit ahead."

West helps Zook with the punt team. He feels all special teams are improved this year due to experience and better depth.

"We're way ahead on special teams. I think a lot of it is due to the returning players and the system being in. They have an amount of knowledge in the system. Doing it the second time is a lot easier than doing it for the first time. They've been through it. They know the problems and adjustments, things like that.

"We're looking at so many young men right now on special teams. We've got more guys this year that can run and do what we want them to do. We didn't have that nucleus last year. It's gonna make us a better football team.

"We're having to look at more numbers, but that's a good problem to have. We've got a lot of competition there; they can teach each other a lot. We've still got work to do, a lot to get done in five days."

There was no tackling Monday, but offense and defense went against each other extensively. Some of the offensive highlights included receiver Spencer Harris, who caught multiple passes including three long post patterns.

On one occasion, he reached high to snatch the ball out of the air over two defenders. His last bomb led to a 5 yard touchdown run by Jason Ford in two minute offense. He is becoming a go-to player for the Illini.

Also, frosh tight end Matt LaCosse caught a sideline pass and used his speed to eat up ground downfield. In addition, he caught a long bomb on a post pattern from Nathan Scheelhaase.

Darius Millines made several good plays, including a leaping grab for a touchdown from Scheelhaase and two other TD's in red zone action. He also held onto a pass from Scheelhaase while Terry Hawthorne was draped over his back. A.J. Jenkins, playing but wearing a red shirt to prevent injury, made a leaping grab of a Reilly O'Toole throw on the sideline.

There were several special running plays as well. Troy Pollard enjoyed two long runs through big holes provided by the starting offensive line, the second for a touchdown. Freshman Josh Ferguson continued to leave defenders in the dust. Among other runs, he found himself wide open on a quick pitch to the outside, and he scooted in for a touchdown.

Defensively, end Glenn Foster tipped a Scheelhaase pass at the line; redshirt freshman SAM Earnest Thomas broke up a pass and caught LaCosse for minimal gain on a flat pattern; cornerback Justin Green intercepted O'Toole; and Henry broke up a pass from Scheelhaase.

In addition, Bandit Michael Buchanan enjoyed a sack; fellow Bandit Justin Staples foiled a Scheelhaase option run; and safety Pat Nixon-Youman and Hawthorne broke up passes, the latter with a headlong dive.

The Illini were scheduled for a double session Monday, but one practice had to be called off. Zook stated the abbreviated attempt at a scrimmage Saturday night resulted in a loss of one other practice due to NCAA rule.

"The Big 10 told us it cost us that practice. That's the rules. All we were trying to do was keep guys safe. That's why we went one (practice) today. You have 29 practice opportunities.

"We ran 15 plays (Saturday). Yesterday, we ran over 100. It doesn't put you behind. It's one of those things where you wish people would have a little common sense."

The Illini continue with a 3:30 pm practice in Rantoul Tuesday.

Watch two videos by Holly Smith.

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