The Illinois football team enjoyed the Gauntlet drill Saturday morning. Head coach Tim Beckman describes the drill, which is a more extensive variation of the Oklahoma drill used by the previous UI staff.
"Like in the spring, we're getting three phases of blocks, and a back's got to run the gauntlet. We pair them up so we have the best against the best."
Beckman is keen on team competitions. He rewards winners with better meals or special treats, increasing player motivation. He was pleased with the closeness of the activity.
"It came down to a 9-9 battle. It was the first team to 10. The offense won the competition. You make it through the gauntlet, you get a point. If you don't, you don't."
With players and staff encircling the drill, onlookers had difficulty seeing who made special plays. But judging from the players celebrating afterward, some results became known. For instance, Donovonn Young got the offense off to a fast start by scooting through the gauntlet untouched. A big block by Hugh Thornton got him off to a good start, and downfield blocks were also effective.
Other offensive players to make it all the way without getting tackled included Jeremy Whitlow, Devin Church, Ryan Lankford, Justin Hardee, Kenny Knight and Dami Ayoola. Good blocks were sustained by Scott McDowell and Joe Spencer, among many others.
Defensive stoppers included Teko Powell, Tommy Davis, Davontay Kwaaning, B.J. Bello, Jonathan Brown and Jack Ramsey. There were plenty of good efforts on both sides of the ball, but only those closest to the action could identify the players.
There were some position and depth changes on the squad. For instance, Henry Dickinson was sharing first team reps with fellow linebacker Houston Bates. He may have received even more reps than Bates in what will likely be a competition that continues all fall. They were both at MIKE, with Brown at WILL since the linebackers continue to work at both spots.
Cornerback Jack Ramsey was deployed as an extra back in a dime package. He also alternated with Church at corner. Bello was playing safety instead of Star. Freshman Mason Monheim had a few 2nd team reps at linebacker. And guard Ted Karras returned to action in the afternoon since everyone was in shells and shorts.
Chuurch was singled out in the afternoon session. Coaches removed the white stripe from his helmet and permitted him to add his name to the dry-erase board to indicate he's making progress in camp. He shared the honor with his team mentor Lankford.
The rookie honoree for Saturday morning was linebacker Mike Svetina, accompanied by his squad sponsor Dickinson. Beckman commented on Svetina.
"He's made some plays. Mike made a play a couple practices ago and scored a touchdown. He's a guy that continues to learn, continues to improve."
Svetina, as well as fellow freshmen linebackers Mason Monheim and T.J. Neal, may all get playing time this fall on special teams.
"I'm about playing players. That's why they're on scholarship here instead of standing on the sidelines watching the game. We've got a bunch of good freshmen. The three linebackers have really done good."
There was a lot of special team work again Saturday. No detail is left to chance. All assistants share the teaching load, which includes the proper way to catch balls, make blocks and sustain tackles.
While a large number of squadmen are tested on their ability to field kicks and punts, for the second day in a row freshmen Church and Ayoola shared time on punt returns.
"Those guys are capable of doing it," Beckman notes. "Also Tommy (Davis). They've all done pretty good. We're gonna evaluate to make sure we've got the best guy back there. Miles Osei can catch punts too."
Justin DuVernois leads the punt competition. He has a great leg and is much more consistent this year. Nick Immekus continues to impress as a placekicker. He was successful on all his attempts today, including a couple 43 yarders and a 48 yarder that had plenty of room to spare with a tail wind. Freshman Ryan Frain also did well, although a 47 yard attempt was blocked by Dickinson.
One thing is certain. Illinois will play the best player at each position on each special team regardless of age or level of experience. Large numbers of players are tested for each special team. Whomever is most consistent at each specialized role will play.
For instance, fifth year senior Justin Staples has been making plays on several of the teams. He had the fastest time on a punt block drill, maneuvering around a blocker to reach the tackling dummy representing the punter in 1.68 seconds. Justin Hardee, Knight and Church all had impressive times as well.
There were some interesting results when receivers and defensive backs went one-on-one. Tight end Jon Davis outfought safety Supo Sanni for the ball; Reilly O'Toole hit Spencer Harris on a long come-backer; Church held on despite coverage from Davis; and Peter Bonahoom outdueled Earnest Thomas for the ball.
Also, Jeremy Whitlow gained separation from Jevaris Little, and Lankford did likewise versus Pat Nixon-Youman; Darius Millines made a quality catch with Eaton Spence all over him; Eddie Viliunas made a great catch despite physical coverage by Ben Mathis; Knight gained separation from Justin Green; and Justin Hardee leaped high to grab a pass over Bentley in the corner of the end zone.
There was also a lot of 11-on-11 situation work, with starters opposing each other. There were a number of outstanding efforts on both sides of the ball. Offensively, Young made a couple quick cuts for first downs. Osei caught a pass from O'Toole and broke tackles to reach first down yardage.
Zach Becker took a handoff and rambled up the middle for a first down. Nathan Scheelhaase again ran effectively both on scrambles and quarterback draws. Osei hit Lattimore on a bomb over the middle. Scheelhaase found Harris and Jon Davis over the middle for lengthy completions. He completed a pass to Lankford, who scooped it before it could touch the ground.
Osei found Ayoola twice in a row on swing passes, and the freshman running back made good runs after each. Scheelhaase ran 25 yards for a touchdown on a draw. O'Toole hit Osei for a good gain. Millines caught a Scheelhaase pass on a crossing pattern and proceeded downfield for a long gain. And Osei used his speed for a long gainer on a scramble.
As well as the offense played at times, the defense asserted itself even better much of the time. Those credited with sacks included two each by defensive tackle Glenn Foster and Leo Michael Buchanan, Powell, Akeem Spence, Austin Teitsma, John Valentine and Jonathan Brown.
Tackles for loss or for minimal gain were registered by Ralph Cooper (twice), Nick North, Akeem Spence and Foster. Pass breakups were credited to Ashante Williams (twice), Ramsey, Tommy Davis, Zeph Grimes, Green and Jevaris Little. Teitsma tipped a pass at the line of scrimmage, and Eaton Spence recovered a fumble.
Illini players were in shells and shorts for the afternoon session, so fundamentals and more special teams work were emphasized. But there was some competitive team action as well. Highlights included Ashante Williams diving to intercept a Scheelhaase pass. Tommy Davis intercepted a tipped pass. And O'Toole hit Osei for a completed pass, with Osei scampering downfield for a big gain.
The Illini will hold their final Rantoul practice Sunday morning. At 5:00 pm, the players and coaches will be available for Fan Appreciation Day at Memorial Stadium.