CHAMPAIGN -- Monday marked the first practice in full pads for the Illini football team at training camp.
It was another step closer towards game week that looms three weeks away. Illinois head coach Lovie Smith has emphasized controlled aggression on the practice field, while promoting competition and opportunity to improve each day.
"We're getting better. Again, we're not Murray State ready," Smith said. "Every day, there is a teaching situation that comes up. And that's what we're doing."
The Illini implemented the two-minute drill at the end of practice, as the first-team offense drove up the field. Senior quarterback Wes Lunt hit Malik Turner on a back-shoulder fade for a sizeable gain. Lunt followed with back to back tosses to tight end Ainslie Johnson. The Illinois defense stood up after that, though, forcing the offense to settle for a field goal.
"You're still putting in different situations each day. Two-minute today, so that's always different," Smith said. "Full pads. Of course, you've got to still teach the guys how to practice in full pads too, which we're doing. We're making progress."
Competition was certainly ratcheted up with the players in full gear. There were battles at the line of scrimmage. There were 1-on-1 battles on the interior and at the skill positions.
"The energy has been great throughout," Smith said. "It's a grind. Training camp is no fun. But it's a grind -- you get through it. And since you have to be out here, you might as well enjoy it. And that's how our players have done it. Competition normally kind of brings out the best in you."
- As expected, the fiercest battles came between the offensive and defensive lines. Those were spotlighted in 1-on-1 drills between the two units. The "Rush Men" made their presence felt. Graduate transfer defensive end Gimel President took offensive tackles to school with his dip and rip through on the edge. Carroll Phillips showcased a nice spin move to break free from blockers. NFL Draft prospect Dawuane Smoot was clinical with his variety of speed moves. Sophomore defensive end Tito Odenigbo put a strong showing on film throughout the day. He shedded blockers with relative ease on the outside during drills, and he was often found in the backfield during the team session. Smith said after practice that the defensive line is certainly the "strength of our team", and that has shown with their ability to control the edge and force pressure.
- Senior defensive tackle Rob Bain was a force on the inside. He put interior linemen on their heels with his strength and explosion through the line. Bain was impressive with his relentless motor at each blow of the whistle during drills. He engaged in good battles with senior center Joe Spencer, but Bain won the majority of the exchanges in the 1-on-1 drills.
- President was having one of the best days of the bunch, but during the two-minute drill at the end of practice, he went down with a left ankle injury. He was helped off the field by trainers before limping over to the training table on his own power. The extent of his injury was not specified, although Smith said there were no major injuries. President hobbled to the locker room before practice concluded.
- In April, Illini wide receiver Mikey Dudek and running back Dre Brown both suffered torn ACLs. Both suffered the same fate before last season as well. On Monday, the two players got some work in with short running stints on a separate field.
- Junior running back Kendrick Foster stood out on Monday with a handful of productive carries. The competition is heating up behind Ke'Shawn Vaughn, as redshirt freshman Reggie Corbin drew attention on Sunday with some big plays. But this was Foster's turn and he delivered. He spelled Vaughn on the first team during the team sessions. Foster looked agile with some quick cuts to find the seam in the defense. His best run of the day came on a zone run, as he cut back to the left and broke away to go the distance.
- The linebacker corp has been a point of focus in training camp. Graduate transfer Hardy Nickerson brings experience and leadership -- along with plenty of playmaking ability in the middle -- to a unit that is filled with youth. He showed discipline with his reads on Monday -- filling the gaps against the run and flying around after pass completions. Sophomore outside linebacker Julian Jones is in line to start alongside Nickerson. He looks the part with his athleticism and physicality. Jones still has plenty to learn, though, after playing mostly on special teams last year.
- Redshirt freshman quarterback Jimmy Fitzgerald was absent from practice again on Monday, and his status has not changed. Meanwhile, fellow redshirt freshman quarterback Jeff George Jr. is assuming all of the third-team snaps. George had a much better day on Monday, and he showed off his arm talent and ball placement in 1-on-1 drills. George floated a beautifully-placed fade to Dionte Taylor for a score on the outside.
- Taylor is an intriguing weapon with his speed and quickness. The question is what the Illini can do to get the ball in the senior's hands. Taylor will be in the receiver rotation, and he could be effective in the slot. He played in 11 games last season, including three starts. Taylor also took reps as a punt returner on Monday. He has big-play ability in the open field.