The Illinois football team is coming together, slowly but surely. With over two weeks now in the books, the Illini are ready to begin classes and early morning workouts. All that remains is a big scrimmage Saturday in Rantoul. The first game is at home versus Arkansas State two weeks from tomorrow.
New addition Chris Boles spent his first day with the team Friday. He must practice two days without shoulder pads, so he is limited on what he can do during drills. But he received individual instruction from grad assistant Jon Carvin, and he did draw praise practicing a combo pass protection block.
One thing is for sure, Boles has the largest hips and thighs on the team. Some people compare him physically with Corey Liuget, although his listed 325 might be a little under his actual weight. Boles has a pronounced back arch, allowing him to be a knee bender and balanced in his stance. He has potential.
Visiting again today was Donovonn Young's father Cartrell, who will return to Texas after moving his son onto campus tomorrow. He renewed acquaintances with Josh Ferguson's father Collin. It was interesting to watch the two develop a positive relationship in the same way their sons have done. The future Illini Dynamic Duo has supportive fathers off the field. It is an ideal combination for both.
There has been some discussion of coaching technique this camp. Some coaches express themselves strongly at times. None are more animated than offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, one of those who inserts colorful language at times to make a point. Illinois head coach Ron Zook relates to that style of coaching.
"I tell him he's an offensive Ron Zook. It's exactly how I used to coach. He demands that they play at the highest level that they can, and he's got their respect. Paul is wound up all the time."
Some practice observers might take offense at the language, but it is not used to attack a player personally. It appears the players understand and accept it. It is a demonstrable way of emphasizing a point and appears to enhance the coaching styles of Petrino and others who use that language.
Zook contrasts defensive coordinator Vic Koenning with Petrino.
"Vic is a little bit different person. But I think you have to coach your personality."
Make no mistake, Koenning can explode on the practice field also. But he is more heart-based and less fiery in his moment-to-moment coaching.
"If you try to do what's best for the kids individually, it will end up being what's best for the team," Koenning explains. "Some guys need to be pushed, and that's what's best for the kid. That doesn't always mean that you're nice, but a lot of times you can pat them on the back and make them believe in themselves. Then they'll help the team better.
"I'm not big on beating them down. I try to be big on boosting them up. I do have expectations. I may not celebrate too much when somebody makes a play because that's kind of the expectation.
"Tough love is necessary sometimes, but it's not an easy thing to do. Sometimes you've got to win an Academy Award, be an actor. My voice isn't hoarse for no reason. My head isn't splitting for no reason."
It appears Petrino has some thespian in him also. After practice, no matter how intense he's been, he is upbeat and positive. Whatever happened in practice doesn't affect him afterward.
"Those guys have been having a great fall camp. I'm really excited. So far this fall camp, we've been looking pretty darned good.
"But you've got to come out every day. We tell them every day, 'Prepare for practice, have a great attitude and great effort.' If it's not 100%, then we're gonna grind them. We're not gonna be satisfied unless it is that way. Every day you get better or get worse, and we want to make sure we're getting better every day."
Defensive line coach Keith Gilmore is one of those who uses minimal swearing to make a point. He says he tries to treat his players as if they were his son. Of course, on rare occasions he will use an expletive, but it is done to effect.
Different strokes for different folks. The key is the results, and the Illini players seem equally responsive to all the coaching variations used in practice.
Less media practice attention has been devoted to line play, in part because of the distance media must stand apart from the action. When it is possible to observe, it gets reported.
The last two days, the offensive and defensive lines have gone one-on-one nearby. While there were no individual plays where an offensive lineman pancaked his man or where a defender threw the blocker to the ground on his way to the quarterback, one could sometimes determine who had the advantage on a particular play. Of course, no one wins all the time in line play; the result might reverse on the second attempt.
Among the offensive linemen who experienced success were Jake Feldmeyer over John Valentine; Ted Karras over Chris O'Connor; Jeff Allen over Justin Staples and Michael Buchanan; Jack Cornell over Jake Howe; and Simon Cvijanovic over Darrius Caldwell.
Defensive standouts included Craig Wilson over Cornell; Whitney Mercilus over Cvijanovic; Staples over McDowell; Tim Kynard over Michael Heitz; Glenn Foster over Cvijanovic; Wisdom Onyegbule over Graham Pocic; Nelson over Flavin; and Mark Sullivan over Shawn Afryl.
Mercilus continued his fine play with a sack late in 11 on 11 play Friday. He believes the Illini defensive line is capable of numerous sacks this season.
"We've got a couple guys, Mike Buchanan and Justin Staples. I definitely see them improving each and every day. Glenn (Foster) also. And (Akeem) Spence has been getting a couple sacks in there throughout team practices. And Craig Wilson, especially bull rushing. I see a lot of guys who could do that."
The defense continued its fine play with several impressive efforts. Justin Green broke up a pass from Scheelhaase. Frosh linebacker Henry Dickinson made a great play, diving to deflect a ball thrown from Reilly O'Toole to fellow freshman tight end Jon Davis. Staples and Buchanan registered sacks.
The offense had some fireworks also. O'Toole threw a long pass to Brandon Clear. He went up against two defenders in the end zone and couldn't pull it down. But an alert Spencer Harris picked it up before it hit the ground for a touchdown. Harris has been one of the most pleasant surprises of fall camp.
It was also good to see offensive tackle Corey Lewis take a rep on a combo pass protection drill. It required hitting three players coming from different directions on a blitz package, and Lewis was praised for his effort. It had to make him feel good to get into the action after so long on the sidelines. This should help him psychologically to speed up his readiness for play later in the season.
Patrick Dunn was impressive kicking field goals when working by himself. The walkon who recently rejoined the squad was kicking them high, long and straight. He appeared to have more distance than freshman Taylor Zalewski, who has been backing up senior leader Derek Dimke. However, when given live action, Dunn missed two of three.
It just shows how much harder it is to kick live than by yourself, and it shows the Illini must continue to search for a backup at the position.
Koenning always remembers the imperfections when interviewed after practices. His defense has played well this fall, but it can always improve. He wants more leadership on defense, and he's been stymied to some degree by minor aliments that have kept top players from practicing full-time.
"Ian Thomas could be the guy; he's been hurt most of camp. Jonathan Brown has a little bit, but he's a true sophomore. It's coming. Whitney Mercilus and Akeem, and Akeem's been hurt the last couple of days.
"We've got to keep working those guys to establish leadership in their play. Their actions are always gonna speak louder than anything they say. We've got to get them to play well so their play will assert some leadership."
Saturday's scrimmage will begin at 10:00 am on the fields at Camp Rantoul.