Illinois avoided the drudgery of two-a-days with a rousing evening practice Wednesday. The Illini defense was fired up for the morning session, and it became especially aroused late in the second session.
Illini coaches were highly energized in the morning, trying to keep players on their toes and focused despite the wear and tear of fall camp. Head coach Ron Zook was animated, getting after both players and coaches when things didn't go smoothly. Most of the extra energy was probably scripted, but it kept the Illini playing hard.
Zook was pleased with the coaches' effort.
"The coaches are fired up. The coaches are coaching, pushing and demanding. Football's a hard game, and these guys understand that."
Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning explained his coaching strategy at times like this.
"We're fighting. We really haven't installed anything new. We're just trying to get better at what we do and eliminate mistakes. The biggest focus is getting guys to play fast and fight through the fatigue of training camp."
The defense was more aggressive throughout the day, not surprising since the offense had the better of it Tuesday. As Zook has stated several times, it appears to be an every-other-day phenomenon.
"I told the defense, they've got to play like that when we're going live."
That encouragement paid off late in the day. The defense was totally dominant to begin 11 on 11 work under the lights. After Jason Ford produced a long run on the first play, the defense buckled down. Defensive end Whitney Mercilus sacked quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase on consecutive plays to begin the onslaught.
Fired up safety Steve Hull broke up a pass and proceeded to drop kick the ball thirty yards back up the field on the next play. Linebacker Jonathan Brown sacked Scheelhaase; defensive end Tim Kynard stopped Donovonn Young, playing in front of his dad and uncle, for no gain; SAM Earnest Thomas broke up a Reilly O'Toole pass; and defensive tackle Austin Teitsma stopped Josh Ferguson for minimal gain.
The offense then began to assert itself, proving it was down but not discouraged. Once in the red zone, the running backs began to find openings. Ferguson sandwiched a quick burst between two quality Young runs. Troy Pollard then burst through a big hole to score from 16 yards out.
Again, the defense countered as play continued in the red zone. Hull had a tackle for no gain, cornerback Tavon Wilson had a tackle for loss and sack on consecutive plays. Earnest Thomas then sacked O'Toole before Young powered for a 6 yard touchdown.
Defensive tackle Wisdom Onyegbule held Ford without a gain three yards from the end zone before Young scored. Scheelhaase found A.J. Jenkins for a 3 yard touchdown, and Pollard ran three yards for a score. However, Mercilus reestablished defensive dominance by sacking Scheelhaase on the last play of the night.
Despite the impressive defensive display, coordinator Vic Koenning ordered his first up-downs of fall camp. A regular feature last season, the Illini have made far fewer mistakes this fall. Perhaps right after a big performance was a great time for Koenning to reassert authority. He knows the offense will be fired up Thursday, and he wants to prevent a reversal.
"I think Bud felt like he wasn't going to get an opportunity, so he will probably go somewhere else. Matt, probably the same thing. He probably felt like he wasn't going to get the opportunity. I don't like to see them go; I like to see them stay and fight through it. I tried talking to them."
Golden was deep on the depth chart even before Young and Ferguson joined the mix. It was clear seniors Ford and Pollard had established themselves, and Young and Ferguson were getting far more carries than Golden.
Eller was the starting placekicker in 2008. He was 10 for 15 on field goals that year and defeated Iowa with a last second field goal. But he went into a deep slump the following season and was replaced by Derek Dimke. The more he tried to improve his kicking, the worse it got.
Last year, depression over his plight continued as he realized he would never see the field unless the talented Dimke was injured. Eller made a decision to work at punter last winter and was number one in spring despite some inconsistency. He worked hard over the summer and was much improved entering 2011 Camp Rantoul.
In the meantime, Illinois recruited Justin DuVernois out of Florida as the punter of the future. He and Eller had a fairly evenly matched competition until Wednesday, when Eller shanked a couple punts. When Coach Zook stated Duvernois may have taken the lead, the handwriting was on the wall. Eller likely doesn't want to be a backup at both punter and placekicker his final season.
This leaves the Illini with minimal depth at the two kicking positions. Freshman walkon Taylor Zalewski was seen punting as well as placekicking Wednesday. He has a long way to go to be an effective backup at either spot. Walkon placekicker Patrick Dunn joined the team this afternoon. There are some other walkons who may eventually challenge, but they won't join the team until school begins.
For those concerned about defensive tackle Akeem Spence's health status, he did individual drills with a slight limp. Zook explained the sprain Spence experienced Tuesday was his first ever injury. He expects the talented youngster to be full speed again soon.
Zook was generally pleased with the team's progress Wednesday.
"It was a little better. Both sides competed hard and got after it. We got in a lot of plays in two hours. We've got three more practices. I told them we've got to accomplish as much in those three days as we did tonight. When things are hard, leaders have to step up. They're beginning to do that."