New Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas continued his whirlwind tour of statewide media centers and meeting those who will be working under him by making a brief stop at Illini football practice Thursday. It was a chance to meet Illini coach Ron Zook and speak with the team.
"That's the first time I've met him," Zook related. "Our team met him the same time I did. He's excited to be here obviously. It was good he had an opportunity to see the team.
"He gave us a little bit of his feeling and philosophy. I think it will be good that our guys get an opportunity to get to know him."
Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase expanded on Thomas's message.
"He had great things to say about us, about believing in our team. He says he has an open door policy. I think this is important for us student-athletes to have an A.D. we can get involved with and feel like, if problems come up, that we can talk to him.
"First opportunity I have, I'm gonna give him a visit. It's a good relationship to have, one of the leaders of the student-athlete circle to have a relationship with the A.D. I feel like I had a close relationship with Coach Guenther, and I hope to have the same with Mr. Thomas.
"I think it's important to see the Athletic Director's face, important that he's involved and cares about what you're doing. It was nice whenever Coach (Ron, former UI A.D.) Guenther would be traveling on the road with us, and to feel that comfort with him. That's everyone's boss. That's the head of the whole athletic organization. I think it's important to be familiar with that person."
Scheelhaase traveled with the Illini team for a game A.T. Thomas's former school Cincinnati in 2009. He was impressed with the overall image he received there.
"He did a lot of great things at Cincinnati. We saw what their stadium was like. I thought it was one of the best atmospheres that I had been a part of, so that's exciting."
At the end of practice, freshman offensive lineman Chris Boles finally entered Camp Rantoul. After spending the day with orientation and a mandatory physical exam, Boles will begin practicing tomorrow according to Zook.
"It's good to have him here. He says he's in shape. We'll find out. We'll have a chance to see him go tomorrow. He'll be in helmet and shorts tomorrow. We'll get him out there as soon as we can and break him in slowly."
Without benefit of summer conditioning the other freshmen endured on campus, it is likely Boles will need awhile to get in top shape and learn the offense. Scheelhaase says Boles was one of the pied pipers of this last recruiting class, contacting fellow recruits and getting them excited about Illinois. He and others were happy to have him join the team.
Time appeared to travel backward for the Illini Thursday. Their normal practice routine was put into reverse, with the two minute offense first on the agenda. It proceeded to other team and large group sections before ending with fundamentals.
Regardless the order of events, offensive coordinator Paul Petrino had his game face on from the moment he stepped foot on the practice field. He was determined to see his offense counter the success the defense enjoyed Wednesday.
Indeed, the offense had some victories on the day, although the defense asserted itself at times also. Reilly O'Toole ran the second team offense in a two-minute drill, but his moment in the sun ended prematurely when cornerback Justin Green intercepted a pass.
Scheelhaase moved the first string offense downfield for a touchdown in his two minute opportunity, but they had to earn every inch of territory. Passes were completed to Jason Ford and Matt LaCosse, but Earnest Thomas and Miami Thomas broke up the next two tosses.
Scheelhaase then found Ryan Lankford long over the middle to keep the drive alive. After Ford's touchdown burst was downed on the five yard line (no tackling was permitted), Scheelhaase found Spencer Harris for the score.
In 7 on 7 red zone work, A.J. Jenkins, Donovonn Young, Harris and Darius Millines all scored on passes from Scheelhaase. In full field 7 on 7 play, Miles Osei found Harris on a long post, the receiver doubling back to catch the slightly underthrown ball while Tavon Wilson was draped over him. Also, Reilly O'Toole hit freshman running back Josh Ferguson on a long touchdown pass.
Ferguson showed his speed when the Illini went 11 on 11 again. He scored three touchdowns, two by breaking contain to the outside and one by flying through a hole in the middle. Ford scored a couple times as well, one on a 20 yard scamper up the middle.
Other special offensive plays included Harris again, who changed directions to haul in a Scheelhaase pass; redshirt freshman Anthony Williams leaped up and out to snare a Scheelhaase throw; Ferguson caught a long touchdown pass from O'Toole.
Also, Millines grabbed a long pass from Scheelhaase on a post route; reserve safety Ben Mathis tackled Ford after a ten yard gain, but not before Ford ran over the top of him; and Young broke two tackles for a long gain.
The defense had a number of good moments besides those already mentioned. Those with pass breakups included Supo Sanni, Steve Hull and Tavon Wilson. In the latest case, Wilson rung Fritz Rock's bell as he arrived simultaneously with the ball.
Linebacker Houston Bates had a tackle for loss, and sacks were generated by Jonathan Brown, Earnest Thomas, Tim Kynard, Whitney Mercilus and Michael Buchanan. Trulon Henry intercepted a Scheelhaase pass in the red zone.
Starting senior linebacker Ian Thomas sat out the hitting part of practice to rest shoulder and chest injuries. Defensive coordinator explained Thomas is sore from running into powerhouse fullback Jay Prosch all the time. Freshmen Ralph Cooper and Henry Dickinson both appear to be ahead of Brandon Denmark as backups at that important position.
Perhaps not all Illini players are enjoying Camp Rantoul, but there is definitely an atmosphere of eagerness to practice not always seen late in the second week of camp. Scheelhaase explained why he looks forward to practice every day.
"We have a new mindset. It's been fun to be out here because we're excited about what we can do this season. This is where it all starts. This is where it's gonna make a difference or not."
The Illini continue with a Friday morning practice in Rantoul. Starting time will be between 10:30 and 11:00 am to give student-athletes needing to make course changes time to do that before school begins Monday.