The Illinois football team practiced in shells and shorts Sunday morning, the final workout in Rantoul. It appears Illini coach Tim Beckman and his staff are pleased with the setup in Rantoul. While nothing is finalized, Beckman is considering doing it again next year.
"This has been great. The hospitality here has been unbelievable, and the facilities are good. We will talk about it as a staff, but we've had a great time here.
"I like this, I really do. It gives the kids a chance to see what could happen to them in the future at pro camp. I think it's unique; it's the first time I've ever done anything like this. So I definitely think it has its advantages, no question."
Given their penchant for secrecy prior to their season opener, it was assumed Illini coaches objected to Rantoul because practices there cannot be kept away from prying eyes. But one assistant said he was disappointed with the poor turnout of fans.
There were visitors in addition to the families of players. The total number each day was comparable to what has occurred every year, with the possible exception of 2008, after the Rose Bowl invitation. Whether Illini fans would come out in larger numbers to support a winning team remains to be seen. But it would be ironic of Camp Rantoul ends this year due to poor fan support.
Despite the early start, Illini receivers dressed early and did walkthroughs of plays and routes. Coach Billy Gonzales felt a need for the extra work, so hopefully it helped.
The Illini have been fortunate regarding injuries to date. The main injury has been a broken bone in the hand of Ta'Jarvis Fuller. He was fitted for what some call a "club," extra padding around his hand and fingers to allow him a chance to work out more. While he isn't ready to practice, Fuller was able to run with less pain and even did a few pass routes to help defensive backs practice.
Starting left tackle Hugh Thornton didn't practice Sunday. He wore a compression stockinet on his left leg while wearing a purple jersey. He did exercises with the Strength and Conditioning staff, including large numbers of ab crunches and medicine ball work. He seemed to walk okay, so hopefully his is a temporary issue. Scott McDowell took first team reps in his absence.
The Illini continue to spend extensive time with special teams, much more than previous years. This allows more attention to detail. For instance, kick returners were instructed to wait until the last moment before running up on shorter kicks, giving them momentum going forward at the catch. The proper catching technique is also stressed.
Field goal kickers had a tough day. Part of the problem may have been the fact the field goal and field goal block units were instructed to run quickly onto the field, as if to simulate a kick with time running out. Nick Immekus, Taylor Zalewski and Ryan Frain all had their chances from multiple distances. Immekus and Zalewski made 38 yarders, but Immekus missed from 30 and twice from 48 before he finally hit one from there.
There were several highlights from 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 action. Defensively, Jonathan Brown had a pass breakup and two tackles for loss. Terry Hawthorne intercepted a Reilly O'Toole pass and broke up a pass from Nathan Scheelhaase to Lankford. Michael Buchanan had another big day, getting two sacks and a tackle for loss. Nixon-Youman and Earnest Thomas both broke up passes.
The offense had its share of highlights also. Devin Church held onto a pass despite good coverage, as did Fritz Rock and Matt LaCosse. Ayoola demonstrated good hands and excellent quickness and cutting ability on a couple completions. He also made a quick cut on the outside for a big run down the sidelines.
Also, Scheelhaase and O'Toole both ran options and scrambles for good yardage. Miles Osei turned a short crossing pattern into a long gainer. Justin Hardee showed his speed after catching an O'Toole pass. Hardee later dove to grab a pass from Osei.
Kenny Knight was given the offensive award on the day after catching a long sideline toss from O'Toole and scoring a touchdown on a crossing pattern during red zone work. Osei scored on a quarterback draw, and he hit Church for a short touchdown.
Beckman said he would award scholarships to deserving walkons since the Illini are presently short of the 85 player limit. It remains to be seen who might be rewarded, but possibilities include Daniel Quintana, John Valentine, Beau Sullivan, Immekus, freshman out-of-state long snapper Zach Hirth, Tim Russell and Ben Mathis.
Beckman is highly organized; every detail is checked and double-checked. When describing what they must do as they move from Rantoul to campus, Beckman shared every little detail so there would be no slip-ups. If he wins, he will be praised for his ability to leave no stone unturned. If he loses, he will be blamed for micromanaging.
He has made one adjustment from his original thoughts. Rather than making all players travel by bus between the Stadium and the Hawthorne Suites, where they will be staying until school begins, Beckman will allow players to drive their own cars. But he guaranteed a suspension to anyone who went off campus in their car.
The Illini will do their team and individual photos Sunday afternoon prior to Fan Appreciation Day. Beckman reminded the players he wants them at their best for the team photo, claiming it would be their "Big 10 championship photo."
The Illini may not be in midseason form yet, but their goals remain unchanged.