The Illinois football team is as ready as it can be for the Arkansas State game Saturday. Camp Rantoul went extremely well, and the players and coaches are excited to get things going for the 2011 season.
Illini coaches and players have provided updates on the status of several players during the practice week leading to the game. Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning is in good spirits, meaning his defenders have practiced well this week.
"We're getting there. We're showing good progress. I'm real excited to see what they can do come Saturday."
He was hesitant to single out any player as a surprise, although a defensive end definitely came to mind.
"Glenn Foster might be the biggest surprise so far. He's doing well. I had high expectations for all of them, so you're not surprised when they do well."
Head coach Ron Zook also praised Foster, while saying his entire defensive line is playing well.
"I've been real happy with them, especially this last week. Craig Wilson continues to get better. I'm very proud of Glenn Foster. He plays with such a motor. Akeem (Spence) was slowed a little with an ankle, but he's back. There's not a concern at all about his ankle.
"Michael Buchanan has had a great camp. Jake Howe has really made some improvement. Wisdom (Onyegbule) is another guy that's had a big camp. Whitney (Mercilus) has had a great camp. He's a steady guy. He was probably our best end last year, and he's continued to improve.
"One of the exciting things about our new team is the new people. There's new faces. They get their opportunity to show what they can do. A lot of times they fare better than you thought from the way they played last year. Now they're gonna be the starter instead of second team. I'm excited about it."
Middle linebacker Ian Thomas sat out a couple practices this fall, but he's healthy and chomping at the bit.
"I'm ready to go. (Prosch) was a load when we were banging with him. He put me out a few practices. He's a great fullback. He's gonna do a lot for us this year."
Thomas also praises his fellow inside backers, all of whom are sophomores and freshmen.
"They're great. There shouldn't be any falloff when the second guy is coming in. I'm real confident in all the linebackers.
There was concern at the beginning of practice about the SAM position since potential starter Ashante Williams was suspended. But senior Trulon Henry appears to be acclimating to his new role according to Zook.
"Trulon's doing extremely well. He's one of those guys that always plays better in the games than in practice."
Outside linebacker coach Ron West concurs.
"He's coming along good. He's gotten more physical on his blitzes, and he's learning his coverages. He's very athletic, so it helps us."
Henry will take most of the snaps, but redshirt freshman Earnest Thomas is available if needed.
"If we're in a need basis, he can come in and help us some. Earnest has gotten a lot of reps, so that has helped him more than anything. Nine (Henry) is in pretty good shape, so we'll see how it goes."
Williams returned to practice Tuesday. Whether he gets to play later this year depends on decisions both by the University of Illinois and Zook. West is pleased to see him practicing again.
"I think it's good for Ashante, and it's good for us. I think he needs our team more than we need him. The kid was really hurting and missing football. He missed all of fall camp, so he's out here on the scout team. Offensive coaches are bragging on what he did his first day back.
"It keeps him busy, and he graduates this semester. We'll have to wait and see about playing time. It's up to the University and Coach Zook. I think they kind of go hand in hand on it."
The threesome of Tavon Wilson, Justin Green and Terry Hawthorne are all listed as first team at the two cornerback spots. Zook is happy to have Hawthorne make it through an entire fall camp unscathed.
"He's had a great camp. This is the first camp he's come through healthy. I know he feels good he's been able to go through it without any nagging injuries.
"Those guys are all starters. We're fortunate we have three guys who can play with anyone in the country."
"Supo is so excited to play, he said he can't sleep. The day to the year he injured his Achilles, he was a little hesitant. But he's had a great camp. He's a big physical guy, a guy that needs to play. I know Coach (Mike) Gillhamer is excited about him.
"Steve Hull got dinged up a little bit in our second scrimmage, but Steve's had a very good camp. He's a smart guy, and he plays like a quarterback. He gives the calls, he gives the checks. So I feel good about the safety spot."
"I'm very pleased with Justin," Zook admits. "And Ryan Lankford also."
Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino is also content with the results of fall camp.
"We've had a real good fall camp. Our guys have a chance to be a real good team."
Koenning called the offensive line "nasty," a concept that brought a smile to Petrino's face.
"They are. Hopefully they always are. That's something we take pride in, be tough, nasty as a whole group."
The continued development of starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has been chronicled. Zook reminds how the sophomore has continued to build on his success from 2010.
"It's important to understand this quarterback in his last 7 games threw for 13 touchdowns and only one interception. And he's better this year. That's exciting to see."
"I think both Reilly and Miles have progressed. Both of them give us different options. Miles is a very good runner as well as a good passer. Reilly is more of a pocket passer, but he's a decent athlete as well. We'll have things ready for them.
"I don't know what's gonna happen, but we think all three have progressed well. I think throughout the course of the year, you never know with injuries, you've got to have guys ready to go."
Zook said Osei would likely replace Scheelhaase in case of injury. But he was also noncommittal whether he will play O'Toole. It usually takes freshmen awhile to be ready for college action.
"Freshmen in their first game, Vontae Davis was a first round draft choice, and I remember him hyperventilating. Rejus (Arrelious Benn), same thing, hyperventilating before the first game. So the first game, you never are sure how they're gonna act. Miles has been through it. He's a tough guy."
Star receiver A.J. Jenkins wore a red shirt in camp to protect a strained pectoral muscle, but he's completely healed and as confident as ever. He says sophomore Darius Millines has made great progress.
"He's really picked up a lot. He has experience, and he's exploded this year. I guess he's emerged as the #2 receiver, and we know who #1 is."
Jenkins is excited about depth at receiver. Teams can't double team him.
"It feels real good. Now they can't just key on me. They can key on Darius also. And we have Ryan (Lankford) and Fred Sykes, (Spencer) Harris and others. And we have two new tight ends that came in this year. So that's a real good thing for us. They can't just key on me or key on Darius. And Nate now has a lot more options."
Many Illini fans are still unaware how well Harris has played this fall. He is both a solid receiver and blocker.
"Spencer has had a good camp. He's tough. He comes across the middle as an inside receiver. He has a chance to be a special guy also."
"He is down to about 230. I think this is the first time in at least two years since he has come back to campus healthy. He's had a great camp. He's stronger, faster. I saw him make some moves in Rantoul he hasn't been making since he was a freshman. I think a lot of that has to do with him shedding some weight. I think he's excited about his senior year.
"I'm proud of him. I'm proud of what he did. We've all been on him for three years. He's a big-boned guy. We finally stopped talking about the weight and started talking about body fat. He was a single digit when we went to Rantoul. He feels better about it."
Preparations for the Arkansas State have gone about as well as could be expected. Illini on both sides of the ball are primed for a good game Saturday.