Through the Trifocals

Illini spring football practice is now completed, and it has been a fun and interesting spring. There is new enthusiasm as Coach Ron Zook transforms the Illini into his own team. Illinisports evaluates the new coaches and the team's progress in this column.

I am tremendously excited by the future of Illini football. I believe we have a coaching staff in place that can redevelop the Illini football program to one that is competitive both within the Big 10 and nationally. This does not mean I expect us to go to a bowl game in Ron Zook's first year, although that is a possibility if everything falls into place. But it does bode well for our long-term future.

Coach Zook brings a great deal of enthusiasm and optimism back to Illini football, and he brings the likelihood of improved recruiting. He has hired an assistant coaching staff that is extremely impressive. They all appear to be excellent teachers and motivators. Most if not all of them have head coaching aspirations, and it is a breath of fresh air that Coach Zook is secure enough personally to seek actively assistants who may someday compete with him for recruits and victories. Combined, these coaches can help Illini football teams maximize their potential.

Of course, until the new staff can have 3-4 years to recruit top players, we will still need to win primarily with the players recruited by former coach Ron Turner. How well we do this fall is dependent primarily on their ability to make physical improvements through maturation and weight training while overcoming their memory of losing. There are signs this can occur, but it is far from guaranteed.

The Spring Scrimmage last Saturday added little to our previous knowledge of this year's team. The temperatures were in the 30's and the North wind was blustering up to 30 mph, forcing the Illini to limit their passing attack. And only a small fraction of the many offensive and defensive variations were utilized, in part to prevent curious scouts of next year's opponents from gaining too much knowledge about us until we play our early games.

But even then, there were signs of improvement over previous years, and the enthusiasm shown on both offense and defense would have been much more inspiring if only the fans who braved the frigid conditions could have been mentally free to focus solely on the game and could have removed their cold hands from their pockets long enough to clap for good play.

It was obvious that Illini players were tight to start the game. In fact, they have been practicing tight throughout the spring. They have been concerned about learning a new system and impressing the new coaching staff, so they have been thinking rather than just reacting instinctively. It was only in the last week of practice that the confident bounce we hope to see this fall began to show itself among some of the players. But the pressure of an important scrimmage attended by family, friends and fans, coupled with the conditions, caused a temporary reversion. Illini players began to play looser in the second half, but more than half of the fans had returned to warmer confines by then.

There will likely be many changes between now and the fall. Some players will make important improvements, some may sense a lack of future playing time and consider transfer, and we will add an influx of 20 new recruits come the fall. Coach Zook and his staff want to find competition at as many positions as possible, so decisions on fall starters will not be made until absolutely necessary to give all players the chance to prove their value. But we can begin to make some early evaluations.

Coach Zook's strength is defense, and I think he will bring an improved aggressiveness and enthusiam to the defense. He doesn't have the Paul Bunyon types who can physically dominate on the defensive front line. Nor does he have the Dick Butkus kind of linebackers or perhaps the Eugene Wilson caliber defensive backs. But he does have some decent athletes who have gained experience through the last couple years, and he has some youngsters with speed and athleticism. Some of the younger players may eventually evolve into the studs we need.

Mike Mallory, retained from the previous coaching staff at defensive coordinator, is in charge of a defense that is much different than last year. We now use a highly aggressive, attacking style that puts a premium on speed but may be vulnerable to a physically dominant power team. It will be fun to watch, and there will likely be an increase in quarterback sacks and interceptions from recent years. But we may have to gamble at times, making us vulnerable to giving up big plays. It will be improved, but there may be some bad with the good.

It is not easy to pinpoint positions and a depth chart on defense because so many different defensive schemes are being practiced. While we may start out in a 4-3 defense similar to last year for teams with a strong running game, we are not tied to that scheme. We may use three linemen, two or three linebackers and five or six defensive backs just as often. So we can talk about the players most likely to play, but their actual role may be difficult to define.

Tom Sims appears to be a quality teacher as defensive line coach, and spring practices have seen the defensive linemen make improvements day by day. There may not be a lot of quality depth at this time, but there are several players capable of making plays. And there are some rookies reporting this fall who may help as well.

Chris Norwell is back for his sophomore year at one tackle, and he looks like he could be a good one. He is large but agile, and he improved a great deal over the course of last season. He should have more confidence to go along with his stronger body. Right now, the other tackle is manned by senior Ryan Matha, with competition from Josh Norris, Adam Wilk and Arthur Boyd.

Massive Charles Myles did not practice this spring due to knee surgery, so he is way behind in understanding defensive technique. His body type, with long legs and short but massive upper body, reminds of former offensive lineman Tony Pashos, and it is questionable whether he can stay low enough to help on defense. At the least, he may need a redshirt year. Junior college transfer Ismail Abdunafi is expected to compete for a starting role in the fall, and freshmen Tremayne Walker and Immanuel Chu will be given the opportunity to play once fall practice begins.

Right now, the starting defensive ends are young but promising. Redshirt freshman Derek Walker and sophomore Xavier Fulton are both tall, rangy athletics with quickness and aggressiveness. They may not yet be strong enough to push aside 300-pound offensive linemen, but they may eventually have star potential. Right now, they are backed up by Scott Moss, Jay Ramshaw, James Stevenson, Cyrus Garrett and Jeff Sobol, but incoming freshmen Sirod Williams and Sam Porter will be given the chance to show off their rush speed, especially on passing downs.

Linebacker is difficult to evaluate because the Illini will need to rely on speed rather than size or strength to make plays. Illini coaches Dan Disch and Mike Mallory work with the linebackers, and they have their work cut out for them due to the youthfulness of the linebacker corps.

J Leman continues to get stronger and develop, and he will be one starter on the strong side against rushing teams. Although he was playing with the second team last Saturday, J made tackles all over the place and impressed everyone. Speedy Remond Willis III is now the starting middle linebacker, and it is hoped his quickness will counteract any lack of size and experience in the middle. Remond ran the 100 meter dash in the Missouri state track meet as a high school senior. Returning letterman Anthony Thornhill is a starter on the weakside, and quickness is his biggest asset as well.

The move of running backs Walter Mendenhall and Brian Grzelakowski to linebacker bolstered the unit this spring, and Mendenhall especially showed the speed and aggressiveness needed for the position. In fact, Coach Zook praised Walter by calling him a "rocket" due to his speed and explosiveness. Rookies Rodney Pittman and Rahkeem Smith will get a look come fall.

Defensive back coach Curt Mallory gets some help from Coach Zook with the defensive backs, and there are a decent number of prospects from which to choose. In fact, defensive back may be the most improved position on the team. Of course, much improvement was needed, but there is some potential. Alan Ball and Charles Bailey both look good as cover corners, and their quickness and consistency will be absolutely necessary with all the blitzing we will likely do.

James Cooper and Shariff Abdullah are upperclassmen who continue to improve and put pressure on the cornerback starters, and they will both get playing time in the nickel and dime packages. Anthony Brodnax is an improving redshirt freshman. And freshman Guesly Dervil is considered a likely candidate for playing time this fall, either at cornerback or receiver.

Travis Williams and Justin Harrison might have been listed as starters at safety this spring based on their past play, but both spent the spring recovering from offseason surgery and could not practice full time. Williams will definitely help, while Harrison still has much recovery time yet to endure. Given the competion and Harrison's body type, it wouldn't be totally surprising if Harrison is moved to linebacker this fall.

In their absence, senior speedster Morris Virgil, Kevin Mitchell, Jody Ellis and Kyle Kleckner have gotten reps with the first team. Virgil, Mitchell and Kleckner lettered last fall, and Ellis is a promising, hard-hitting redshirt freshman who could push the starters for playing time. Jarvis Newson and walk-on Brian Brosnan also made some plays in the Spring Game.

The punting is in the secure hands of Steve Weatherford. The heptathlete from the track team is one of the best athletes on the team, and he continues to improve what is already possibly the best punting leg ever at Illinois. He will likely also be given the chance to run some fakes as the Illini seek to put added pressure on opposing defenses. Assuming he stays healthy and has a consistent year, Weatherford may be one of the few punters nationwide who has a chance to be drafted by the NFL. He is potentially that good.

Jason Reda is our placekicker, and he is still quite young and inexperienced. Former coach Turner asked Reda last year to concentrate only on hitting his placekicks straight and not worry too much about distance. This helped him gain some confidence (except for his last kick at Northwestern), but it gave the impression he has no leg. Reda does have a strong leg and hits some of his kicks long and straight, but he is still inconsistent with it. To me, it seems like he is still struggling with kicking off the turf without a tee, and he will need to make improvement before this fall. If not, he will have to endure an emotional roller coaster of a season. At this time, Weatherford has concentrated on punting and kickoffs and is not competing with Reda for the place kicking job.

Coach Zook's offensive style is fun to watch. Fans should definitely get their money's worth. Our offense will put a great deal of pressure on opposing defenses by spreading them out, limiting their substitution options by quick, no-huddle play-calling, and mixing a wide variety of formations and options off those formations to attack any and all vulnerabilities. And in stark contrast to previous seasons, a majority of completed passes last Saturday were on plays over the middle.

Zook says he wants an offense he would have trouble defending, and he will have it. We will use a great deal of shotgun, incorporating three wide receivers plus a tight end flexed apart from the offensive line. But we may also use as many as five wide receivers at a time. The running game will not be forgotten either. We will use some two-back, I-formation plays as well as some triple option. Opponents will have to prepare for everything, and they may need to make adjustments faster than they prefer since we may be varying our plays at a speed faster than they are accustomed to seeing.

The quarterback makes our offense go, and that position remains a question mark at this time. Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley says the quarterback just needs to be consistent and avoid mistakes and doesn't need to be a star. But playmaking ability is essential in our quarterbacks nonetheless. All our quarterbacks are still learning this new offense, so it is far too early to pick a starter for the fall.

I am really impressed with our new quarterback coach Ed Zaunbracher. He has a vast amount of experience and has trained some top NFL quarterbacks. He is an authoritative figure on the practice field and commands respect from the players. All our quarterbacks will continue to improve with his tutelage. I expect more improvement between now and the end of the fall season than we have seen from our quarterbacks in the past several seasons combined.

In the meantime, there is still much to learn. Both junior Tim Brasic and freshman Kisan Flakes played a spread offense in high school, so they have adapted the quickest to our new style. Brasic has the edge in maturity and experience, while Flakes has the edge in both arm strength and quickness running the ball and avoiding the rush. Brasic is leading at this time and appears to be an intelligent leader on the field, but Flakes will likely get a chance to overtake him.

Brasic was the clear leader on the field last Saturday. He completed a high percentage of his passes, made few mistakes, and showed the maturity necessary to lead the team. Flakes had the disadvantage of playing against the first team defense and throwing against the strong wind throughout the first quarter, limiting his passing effectiveness. Kisan's running ability was impressive, but he will be a better quarterback when he can look pass first and run only when absolutely necessary.

Chris Pazan has the most experience among the quarterbacks, but his lack of foot quickness has been a hinderance. He has a strong arm, although I still wonder about his ability to throw long passes with accuracy. But he did do a fine job leading the 2nd team offense to a touchdown against the wind and the first team defense near the end of Saturday's scrimmage. Freshman Billy Garza is still confidence away from showing all he can do. Incoming freshman Paul Blalock may be given a look due to his powerful arm and running speed, although he will have to be a quick learner to win the job in his first year.

Running back is a team strength, and coach Reggie Mitchell has even more depth when we play only one back at a time. Fullback Jason Davis is a strong runner and pass catcher who has impressed the coaches. But he now is in competition with running backs E. B. Halsey, Pierre Thomas, Marcus Mason and Rashard Mendenhall for playing time. Davis will play as both a running back and fullback, but he will have much competition for playing time.

Pierre Thomas impressed many Illini fans with his tackle-breaking runs last season, and he returns for his junior season. There is still some concern about his physical health, especially the leg that was damaged a couple years ago. He is missing some muscle bundles due to surgery, and his extra effort on the field exposes him to more injuries. But there is no doubt about his drive to excel and his uncanny ability to get extra yards after contact.

Halsey is one of the most complete backs and players ever seen at the UI, and he will give Thomas all the competition he can handle. Halsey has value on many formations for his versatility as well as his leadership on the field. And despite protestations from many fans believing that Halsey should be moved to a slot receiver to make way for Thomas, Halsey is seen as a running back as much by the new coaching staff as the old.

Rashard Mendenhall, younger brother of Walter, is a true freshman who graduated early from high school to get an early start with the Illini. As a consensus high school All-American, Rashard is possibly the highest rated running back recruited by Illinois in many years. He has the build of a star, and he has the speed of a star. All he needs is some experience and time, and perhaps he can become a star. He may be worked into the lineup slowly, with kickoff returns an early option to gain confidence.

Mason has long been in the shadows of Thomas and Halsey, but he is difficult to tackle due to his low center of gravity and powerful legs. And like all our other running backs, he has pass-catching skill as well. Russ Weil looks like a natural fullback after switching from linebacker, and his aggressive blocking and ability on swing passes will give him the chance for quality playing time.

Receivers coach Dino Dawson has a large number of prospects to choose from, including five walk-ons, but there is a need for an even larger number of receivers in this new offense. Locksley's offense may need as many as 7-8 receivers that he can rely upon, two for each of four positions, in order to keep everyone fresh. Right now, we may still be looking for more speed at a couple of the positions, and we definitely need our present receivers to relax in the new offense so they can start catching passes more consistently.

Senior Kendrick Jones has the quickness and athleticism to excel, but he will need to regain the concentration he showed throughout the past season. Of course, some drops this spring can be anticipated by everyone due to confusion over the new offense. But Jones is consistency away from stardom.

Other receivers competing for playing time include DaJuan Warren, Frank Lenti Jr., Franklin Payne, Lonnie Hurst, Andre Young, Jeff Stroud, Bryant Creamer, and Spencer Jensen. Jones, Warren and Lenti started the Spring game. Payne and Jensen were slowed with minor injuries this spring, delaying their development, but both showed some promise last year. Young, Stroud and Creamer are just freshmen, so they all would benefit from some additional maturity and confidence.

Incoming rookies Derrick McPhearson, Kyle Hudson and possibly Guesly Dervil will get early looks this fall, with the top-rated McPhearson likely to get significant playing time due to his impressive combination of size, speed and running skill.

Tight end has little depth at this time. But Melvin Bryant has impressed the new coaching staff with his ability, hard work and dedication. After having some problems that caused the previous staff to limit his playing time, Bryant appears to be in great shape and has shown a total dedication to doing what the coaches tell him to do. While still slender at 235 pounds and therefore not a powerful blocker, Bryant will be a valued receiver in the new offense if he keeps up his good work.

Right now, only freshman J. R. Kraemer and walk-on Bryon Waller are playing the tight end position, and neither has shown a readiness for Big 10 play as yet. Kraemer is tall and has some speed, but he has not yet shown a consistent comfort level with the offense. Zach Gray had surgery and was not on the field this spring, so it is unknown at this time whether he will be able to help this fall. Two athletic freshmen will be given every opportunity to receive playing time at tight end. Both William Davis and Greg McClendon have excellent potential, so it is hoped one or both will grow into the offense quickly.

The offensive line has some quality on the first unit, although depth is a concern. Coach Zook and his offensive line coach Ed Warriner are looking for quickness at all line positions and especially at tackle. This may require several years of recruiting a different type of line candidate. But in the meantime, we will adapt and use what we have.

Junior Matt Maddox was moved from guard to center, and he appears to be an excellent anchor for the new line. With two years of experience under his belt, Maddox combines the blocking, long-snapping and leadership necessary to be a stalwart. Kyle Schnettgoecke backs him up, although Maddox will play most of the snaps if healthy.

Sophomore Martin O'Donnell got significant playing time last year, and he returns at left guard. He sprained his ankle and missed a couple weeks of spring practice, but he will be a quality four-year regular if not eventually a star. Right guard is anchored right now by converted tackle James Ryan, and he is getting some competition from fellow sophomore Ben Amundsen. Amundsen may be the first replacement at either guard position. Kevin Gage and Brian Truttling are other guard candidates, and Truttling especially may be of some help once he learns the techniques after his recent move from defense.

Junior J. J. Simmons returns as a starter at left tackle, and he appears to be improved over last season. His former backup, sophomore Jim LaBonte, is now the starting right tackle, and his combination of size and quickness is along the lines of what Illini coaches want at the position. Ryan McDonald is the second string left tackle, and he is athletic. But as a redshirt freshman, Ryan may still be about 20 pounds of strength away from competing against top Big 10 defensive lines. Right tackle substitutes are Andrew Burk and Kam Buckner. Both are converted defenders, with Burk being switched last fall, but both are still learning line techniques. Buckner especially has some foot speed, but his contributions will be sometime down the road.

Overall, this Illini team continues to show a progression of improvement from previous years, and this improvement will continue at a faster pace as Coach Zook and his coaching staff's recruiting prowess and teaching ability takes hold. I believe we will be fun to watch and competitive with most of the teams on our schedule. We cannot expect to defeat the top 2-3 teams in the Big 10 just yet, but we might just surprise some people.

Regardless of our win total this fall, anyone who follows the Illini has to believe we are on the road back to respectability. We are far from perfect, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. And there is room in that tunnel for as many fans willing to forget the past and hitch a ride on a rising star. I have a feeling it will be an exciting ride.

It is a marathon and not a sprint, of course, but the ups will exceed the downs, in my humble opinion. I look forward to this fall, and I hope to see you all at Memorial Stadium so we can be the important "12th man" that might just help this young but improving team experience a winning season and receive a bowl bid.

Go Illini!!!


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