The Illinois football team continues to host high school prospects while going through spring practices. Among those who watched Wednesday's practice were Pickerinton, Ohio, athlete Godwin Igwebuike and Chicago Simeon linebacker Reggie Spearman. Wisconsin defensive end Chikwe Obasih is scheduled to stop by next Thursday.
Former Illini offensive guard Martin O'Donnell also stopped by. He seemed especially upbeat about the hiring of Luke Butkus as offensive line coach. He called the hire "very astute" on the part of Tim Beckman, from the standpoint both of coaching and recruiting.
Beckman was asked what players have been the biggest surprises so far this spring.
"All the guys are surprises; I haven't been here before. But Josh Ferguson has been a surprise because he didn't play last fall. I'm very impressed with Josh. I'm impressed with his work ethic. He's been doing outstanding; he's a breath of fresh air.
"As a team, I'm impressed with how fast they've learned our process of practicing. We've got a ways to go, but as a team they have learned the type of tempo we want to practice set for a full two hours. They have done an outstanding job."
Fellow running back Donovonn Young was wearing a green shirt, allowing him to participate in some drills. Beckman hopes for more Friday.
"We're excited about getting him back to see what he can do. We're really excited to see #5 run the football."
Cornerback Terry Hawthorne will try his hand at receiver, but he hasn't done so yet.
"Terry's first day at receiver will be Friday. He's got a big class Wednesday night, so he won't be here for tonight's practice. It's something that we've done at different places, if you can utilize players to help your football team. He's very willing, is excited about it. We have a good chance to get the ball in a playmaker's hands."
On a more negative note, starting receiver Darius Millines was back on crutches today. There are concerns about a recurring foot stress fracture.
"We're checking on his foot. He had a problem with it last year. We shelved him to make sure that thing was okay."
Safety Supo Sanni will not play any more this spring. He enjoyed only four practices before an Achilles problem in the foot opposite the one that required surgery two years ago ended it for him. At least, Beckman hopes they caught it in time to prevent a major problem.
"We caught it before it was going to get any worse, thank goodness. We want him to be 100% healthy."
The Illini defense appears to be the strength of the team. Beckman is generally pleased with his first unit.
"They're all seniors, that's one good thing. When you step out there on the football field, you've got three starters on the defensive line. And then you've got two corners that are seniors, and then a safety in Supo, who hasn't been out there as much.
"Also, Steve Hull has played a lot of football. Ashante Williams has played a lot of football. Jonathan Brown has played a lot of football. Those young men understand what it takes to be successful. They've been successful.
"They've got to progress their game to get better. Their ultimate goal is to be the best in this conference. We want them to continue to make those strides so they can be that."
Replacing star defensive end Whitney Mercilus is a daunting task. Beckman says several other players are showing promise.
"Whenever you're replacing the best player in the country, it's gonna be tough. I don't know if you actually can replace him. But we've got some very capable players who are playing good there now. Justin Staples and Tim Kynard, Darrius Caldwell has done a great job. (Brandon) Denmark's done a great job, (Mike) Buchanan of course. Someone's gonna have to step up and replace him."
It may not seem obvious to the casual observer, but there are major defensive concerns once all those seniors graduate. There is a major void in the younger classes.
"That's the lack of depth we talk about. The young guys have got to step up. There's a couple classes in there that are just not there. You're asking a lot for freshmen to come in here, but it's also a great recruiting tool."
Beckman explains next week's Spring Game will not give away tendencies for future opponents.
"It's gonna be very basic. To me, it's another opportunity to work on blocking and tackling, the fundamentals. Those are things I still believe in as reasons why teams win championships. They need to be fundamentally sound, they need to tackle well on defense. And then on offense, they need to secure the football. Those are the important things that we must achieve."
He wasn't willing to guess how the draft of players for the Orange and Blue teams will go.
"I'm going to let those guys do it. I'll talk about it after the draft next Wednesday. It's fun. I enjoy doing it with the kids. I get a great insight into what they think. It's just like the draft we had back in January. It's important to make sure you understand how the kids think."
In other news, trainer Nick Richey has taken a job as head of all athletic trainer functions at Bowling Green. Beckman is going through the normal hiring process to obtain a replacement.
The Illini will hold a scrimmage Friday in a closed practice inside Memorial Stadium.