Juniors Watch Day 3 UI Football Practice

Saturday was a special day for the Fighting Illini football players and coaches. It was a first chance to work in full pads and do some hitting on a bright, sunny day. In addition, it gave a handsome group of junior prospects a chance to check out the school. Around 150 prospects watched practice and toured the facilities. Everything seemed to go smoothly on Day 3.

Illinois football coach Tim Beckman described his third spring practice as a scrimmage in his itinerary, but it was more an introduction to what will intensify later.

"It's the first day of football in full pads, so we wanted to have a physical practice. We had a couple drills, early gauntlet-type deals, one-on ones, a lot of competition drills, situational drills. Things that are football-oriented."

The Gauntlet drill was a variation of the old Oklahoma Drill used by the previous regime. The first portion was identical, with a lineman trying to dislodge a defender to allow a ball carrier through a confined space. But in this drill, there were three levels of blocks, line, linebacker and secondary. Running backs had to make it all the way through if possible.

It is always difficult for media to view these drills since players gather around to watch when not performing. In addition, around 150 junior prospects plus an equal number of family and coaches watched the action with great interest.

Among highlights for offensive linemen, Tyler Sands pushed aside Jake Howe; Hugh Thornton, who looks ready for his best season, drove Glenn Foster to the turf; Simon Cvijanovic had his way once with Justin Staples, who operated with the first unit; Ted Karras neutralized Najee Robinson; Shawn Afryl topped Kenny Nelson; Alex Hill over Chris O'Connor; and Evan Wilson won his battle.

Defensively, Austin Teitsma outwrestled Karras; Dejazz Woods pushed past Tony Durkin; Kenny Nelson outmuscled Patrick Flavin; and Akeem Spence, Mike Buchanan and Jonathan Brown all showed up well, among others.

Placekickers Taylor Zalewski, Patrick Dunn, Nick Immekus and Brennen VanMieghem all hit their field goals both early and late, with the longest splitting the uprights from 40 yards out.

"Yeah, they did a good job. And I think Coach (Alex) Golesh has done a good job working with those young men. But we've got to put them in situations and stuff."

Beckman was happy with his Junior Day turnout.

"I think we had about 150 prospects. No question, that was a great turnout. It was a beautiful day, they got to watch us practice. We're going to introduce ourselves to them right now and showcase this great institution that we're at."

On rare occasions, former Illinois head coach Ron Zook would play popular music during warmups to help his players get fired up for a practice, especially during the dog days of Camp Rantoul. But Beckman will do him one better and use it for parts of every practice. Surprisingly, it isn't about generating energy.

"Always. We always stress it at certain times of practice. It forces our players to communicate. Instead of verbally, they've got to communicate other ways. It's something we've done the last three football seasons. We expect Memorial Stadium to be loud, so we'll have to do a lot of signaling, those types of things."

Among the highlights of 11 on 11 action, completed without tackling, defensive end Brandon Denmark backpedaled into coverage to break up a flat pass from Reilly O'Toole to Kenny Knight. Brown completely blew up a short pass route intended for Spencer Harris from Nathan Scheelhaase.

"Defensive back Nick Forzley predicted he would get an interception on this day, and he caught one sent by Miles Osei toward Jeremy Whitlow. And Buchanan's rush on Osei forced a throwaway.

Offensively, Scheelhaase hit Darius Millines on a crossing route over the middle. Osei found Jordan Frysinger multiple times on short patterns, one of which he sped for extra yardage before being bumped out of bounds. Jon Davis made a clutch catch downfield from O'Toole. And Zack Becker, asked to help out at running back due to a lack of depth this spring, is seeing occasional carries, something he hasn't enjoyed since high school.

Beckman won't share his top practice players until after he reviews film from the day. But he did mention those who won his IPOP awards for the Friday night practice.

"I thought Eddie Viliunas had a great practice, and he won it for offense. Henry Dickinson (defense), Pat Dunn (special teams), and the unsung hero was Nathan Scheelhaase. The unsung hero is somebody who, offensively or defensively, makes plays. They get points for it. We're instilling team competition. If your name is on the IPOP, your team gets 25 points."

In summation, it was a spirited first day in pads. But Beckman reminds how much more must be learned in the 12 remaining spring practices.

"We've got a ways to go. But I was excited with the way they performed. They got off the field last night late, they're back here today at 10:00 am, so it was a short turnaround."

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