Illini Hold Spirited Practice With Full Pads

The first day in full pads is always exciting for the Fighting Illini football team. While players were instructed to "practice like pros" and stay on their feet Friday to allow a completion of plays, there was a noticeable energy as they realize the season is getting closer. Cooler weather also helped put a bounce in Illini steps.

A persistent North wind blew in much colder weather to Camp Rantoul Friday. With the high temperature for the day not expected to exceed 75 degrees, Illinois players received a temporary reprieve from the hot summer. It may not have been ideal for conditioning, but much was accomplished.

The Illini worked a great deal on special teams Friday. Tackle technique was also emphasized as fundamentals dominated the session. And there was plenty of 11-on-11 work.

Illini players are required to sprint from one drill to another, and from the field to the sideline and vice versa. UI coaches want them accustomed to doing everything fast. A big part of whatever effectiveness the offense has this year depends on playing at a tempo faster than the defense expects.

It may be too early to make comparisons with other programs, but it appears the Illini offense may eventually resemble programs like Oregon. The Illini lack the team speed of the Ducks, but there have been times when Oregon overwhelms opponents by being in hurry-up mode much of the game. Tempo changes keep defenses off balance and prevent wholesale substitutions.

In a couple position changes, starting right tackle Simon Cvijanovic appears to be in the doghouse temporarily. He his on the third unit until he proves worthy of resuming his normal role. In the meantime, Alex Hill moved into right guard and Michael Heitz went from guard to tackle.

Also, Tommy Davis received plenty of work at Star backing up Ashante Williams in Ta'Jarvis Fuller's absence. His experience and versatility make Davis a valuable asset. He can help out at every secondary position and should see playing time wherever needed.

With linemen now in full pads, it's useful to watch one-on-one battles between offense and defense. It takes multiple reps to judge any player, so the following should be taken with a grain of salt. But there were a few matchups that are worthy of mention. The apparent winners were those who appeared to have a temporary advantage during their pass rush wrestling match.

Offensively, Jake Feldmeyer neutralized Jake Howe; Hugh Thornton stymied Justin Staples twice; Tyler Sands and freshman Joe Spencer each held off Vontrell Williams; Shawn Afryl topped Daniel Rhodes; Cvijanovic and freshman Robbie Bain each slowed Teko Powell; Heitz held his own against Michael Buchanan and controlled Staples; Alex Hill topped Glenn Foster; and Graham Pocic neutralized Darrius Caldwell.

Defensive winners included Foster over Hill, Austin Teitsma over Tony Durkin, Kenny Nelson ran over Afryl, Caldwell topped Heitz, and Dejazz Woods over Ryan Nowicki. When they went to combo blocks with two linemen at a time, Powell earned praise for bursting through two offensive linemen to reach the quarterback. Bain and Nowicki got revenge for the o-line by pancaking Powell.

In full team action, Ashante Williams leaped to tip away a long pass from Reilly O'Toole intended for Ryan Lankford. Buchanan threw Josh Ferguson for a loss. Powell stopped Lakeith Walls behind the line. Earnest Thomas dove over the top of Darius Millines to tip away a Nathan Scheelhaase pass. Teitsma sacked O'Toole.

Also, safety Pat Nixon-Youman diagnosed a flat pass from Scheelhaase to Ferguson, stopping it for no gain. Tommy Davis and Nick North broke up passes intended for tight ends LaCosse and Evan Wilson respectively. Buchanan enjoyed two straight sacks. Defensive tackle Jake Howe ran down a short completion from O'Toole to Donovonn Young for minimal gain. And V'Angelo Bentley leaped to break up a pass intended for Evan Wilson.

Offensive plays of note included several nice runs by Ferguson and Young. Ferguson has retained his quickness while gaining strength and weight, and his multiple moves make him hard to tackle. Young seems quicker and more confident this year, and he is making good cuts both inside and outside. He is catching the ball better as well.

Senior back Zach Becker plowed forward for good yardage on an inside trap. Scheelhaase used his running ability to good advantage several times. Freshman running back Dami Ayoola continues to battle for playing time, showing good inside awareness plus a quick outside cut, and fellow freshman Walls showed his speed on a quick opener up the middle.

Pass plays of note included Millines making a great leaping catch of an O'Toole pass; tight end Tim Russell made a good grab in traffic; Scheelhaase found hot read Eddie Viliunas in the spot vacated by a blitzing linebacker; and tight end Justin Lattimore made a brilliant diving catch in the end zone on a pass from James Nudera.

Also, Millines made a good downfield block to help spring Ferguson on a swing pass. LaCosse stretched out his long arms for a finger tip grab of an O'Toole pass. And Ferguson took just three plays to ramble 20 yards for a TD in red zone action.

Right now, Nick Immekus is leading in field goal competition. The redshirt sophomore is getting the most reps, and his distance, accuracy and consistency have been impressive. Taylor Zalewski, Brennen VanMieghem and rookie Ryan Frain are all doing well in their competition. Frain boomed a few punts today, so he is also in a pitched battle with Garrett Stroup behind Justin DuVernois for that role.

Coach Tim Beckman will remove one rookie helmet stripe each day of practices until all newcomers have been honored. Yesterday was Tommy Davis, and today the winner was Ayoola. Ferguson shared the limelight as Ayoola's mentor.

The Illini will have double sessions Saturday, one day before their return to campus.

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