Illinois football coach Tim Beckman was pleased with the first combined practice of Camp Rantoul Thursday.
"I thought it was great, very spirited. The players are practicing extremely hard. I think our seniors are doing a great job of leading. We haven't had issues with not being on time, etc. I think our players understand how we practice, and the demands we put on them. Those are the type of things that can make anybody better."
The Illini put on full pads Friday, so that will be the first opportunity for them to do what they enjoy most, hit. Until then, they have been content with running plays and practicing fundamentals in preparation for the fall schedule.
Thursday was the first opportunity to estimate a depth chart. However, there is competition at several positions, so changes are likely over time.
The first offense includes tackles Hugh Thornton and Simon Cvijanovic, guards Graham Pocic and Michael Heitz, and center Jake Feldmeyer. Nathan Scheelhaase is the first string quarterback, and Darius Millines, Spencer Harris and Ryan Lankford are considered starting receivers.
However, there are multiple player groupings which are utilized depending on the play call. This is especially true at running back and tight end since there is depth at those positions. Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson are both considered #1 at running back, and they sometimes line up in the same backfield.
Senior Eddie Viliunas and junior Evan Wilson share the starting tight end position and sometimes play together. Sophomores Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse back them up and are especially utilized in pass formations. Davis also carries the ball on occasion.
The second unit is less clear. It appears Tony Durkin is the center, Tyler Sands and Alex Hill are the guards and Scott McDowell and Pat Flavin are the tackles. Ted Karras would likely be playing guard if he was cleared for full contact.
Reilly O'Toole is the #2 quarterback, although Miles Osei would likely be giving him a major battle for the spot if he wasn't dividing his time with running back and slot receiver. Osei would have to be considered no worse than a second stringer due to his versatility and importance to the team.
Davis and LaCosse are on the second unit, as are receivers Fritz Rock, Kenny Knight and Devin Church. Fullback/H-back/running back Zach Becker is probably no worse than second string, but his play package is unique and limited. Freshman Dami Ayoola is running with the 2nd unit also.
The first string defense is mostly predictable. Michael Buchanan and Tim Kynard are at Leo and end respectively, although Justin Staples may play ahead of Kynard once his suspension is lifted. Right now, that may be one game, although the final decision is not yet known. Darrius Caldwell and Kenny Nelson ran with the second unit Thursday.
The linebackers are Jonathan Brown and Houston Bates. The second teamers are Ralph Cooper and Henry Dickinson, although Mason Monheim was seen getting a few reps backing Cooper. And Dickinson is in a good battle with Bates for a starting spot.
Ashante Williams is a leader at the Star position. Likely second teamer Ta'Jarvis Fuller hurt his wrist today, and his future availability is uncertain. In his absence, Tommy Davis and Daniel Quintana saw reps there.
The cornerbacks are seniors Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green, and they are backed up by Ethan Spence and Jack Ramsey. The 1st string safeties are Supo Sanni and Earnest Thomas. Steve Hull is not yet cleared for full-time duty, or he would probably be listed first there. Pat Nixon-Youman was joined by Nick North as safety backups.
Nick Immekus is impressing with his accuracy and distance on field goals. He appears to be ahead of freshman Ryan Frain at the moment, with Taylor Zalewski needing more consistency to go with his strong leg. Justin DuVernois is doing well as the starting punter, although Garrett Stroup and Frain are competing well.
Much of the practice Thursday was devoted to special team work and fundamentals. A large number of Illini are being tested as punt and kick returners. No stone will be left unturned to find those natural at catching the ball. Hawthorne was praised for improving his understanding of how to field punts. When the team went 11-on-11 for the punt game, Ayoola and Church fielded them.
To the chagrin of some Illini Nation purists, the Illini practiced the muddle huddle formation. This formation was shone prior to every extra point attempt the past seven years, although it was rarely used to secure a two-point conversion. As special team coordinator, Salem will use it on occasion if the situation warrants it.
Salem demonstrated the proper way to secure a fumble for the entire team. Every player had a ball to use. Their job was to follow proper technique to prevent anyone from ripping the ball from their grasp.
Speaking of Salem, he likes to throw garbage cans. No, he isn't angry, and he's not trying to hurt somebody. Instead, he throws an empty plastic garbage can on the ground in front of his running backs after they catch a pass. This forces them to make a quick, unexpected cut to avoid the can.
Offensive coordinator and receiver coach Billy Gonzales doesn't use the Jugs machine during practice to help his receivers catch the ball better. That was an important part of practice last year, but the Illini were expected to do Jugs drills on their own this summer. In another interesting change from last year, Gonzales insists his players all practice a spin move after a catch to gain extra yardage.
There were several outstanding efforts during 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 work today. Safety Nick North had great coverage on Jon Davis and intercepted an Osei pass. Tight end Justin Lattimore made a great catch over safety Tommy Davis. Jon Davis abused freshman safety Taylor Barton, running him into the ground. Hawthorne outfought Millines on a pass route. Church gained good separation from Ramsey.
Also, Harris and Rock found themselves open against Jevaris Little and Eaton Spence respectively. Scheelhaase hit Jeremy Whitlow on a long pass over Green. Ramsey broke up a pass intended for Harris. Viliunas's quick cut downfield abused Tommy Davis. And O'Toole hit Becker on a long sideline pattern.
In addition, Ferguson used multiple cuts and a spin move to gain good ground yardage. Peter Bonahoom made a diving grab of an Osei pass. Osei redeemed himself with a clever run on a quarterback draw. Jon Davis powered for a good gain up the middle on a running play. And Hawthorne, Cooper and Foster each enjoyed sacks on the day.
At the conclusion of practice, Beckman made a special presentation to senior NIU transfer Tommy Davis. Each newcomer wears a white stripe on his helmet to signify being a rookie. Davis was the first one to receive a battlefield commission of sorts, getting to remove the tape from his helmet to place on a dry-erase board for all to see. Davis was joined in the spotlight by Thomas, who is Davis's player mentor.
The Illini have only morning practices today and Friday. But their days will be filled with activity nonetheless. In addition to meetings, Beckman shared his plans for the afternoons of these two days.
"We'll come out in the afternoon and have a competition. We'll split the team up into 8 different teams and have some type of 15-20 minute competition. We'll see if the offensive linemen can throw a football into trash cans and stuff like that. I'm always building that competition in them. Then we'll evaluate film and have walk-throughs."
Beckman may not continue Camp Rantoul in future years, but he admits finding it beneficial.
"I'm happy with it. The facility is very nice inside. We get to treat this a little like an NFL camp."
Practices continue with a morning session Friday.