Spring is the time for college football teams to train their young personnel for the rigors of the upcoming fall season. It is also the time for coaches to experiment with their players to discover their best talents and how to utilize those talents to help win games. Illini football coaches have used spring practice well for both these purposes.
There are few players so talented they can perform every task assigned to their position flawlessly and successfully. The key is to discover what talents each player has and how to define positive roles for them. Numerous position switches on the Illini team this spring have given coaches an excellent opportunity to do just that. John Mackovic won at Illinois with a philosophy of using large numbers of players in support roles, and it looks like Coach Ron Zook has that same opportunity this year.
Not everything can be finalized in the spring. There are still four months before the team reassembles in Camp Rantoul, and a bunch of promising rookies will join the team at that time. But there have been some interesting developments this spring that will have a definite bearing on the team's fortunes for the 2006 season. And for the most part, these developments have been encouraging.
The final spring scrimmage, held last Saturday at Memorial Stadium, gave fans a brief glimpse of what is to come, but it was a poor representation of what actually happened during a month of 15 practices. As usual, most offensive and defensive formations went unused as Coach Zook and staff tried to prevent opponents from scouting them successfully. The Illini offense is much more diverse than shown, and the Illini defense used few of the blitzes and stunts they have planned to spring on unsuspecting opponents. But the final scrimmage and its preceding practices have given us some idea of our potential for the fall.
Offensively, the biggest positive news is the condition of the offensive line. Leading the way in providing top quality play is Oklahoma transfer Akim Millington at left tackle. Akim is a huge man with strength, quickness, long arms and a determination to beat his man. He appears to be a leader, someone the other offensive linemen can turn to for guidance and consistent good play. And he has set an excellent example in workouts this spring by playing with pain as he continued to practice despite a badly sprained ankle. Just having Akim join the team gives renewed hope for an improved running game and more protection for the passing game.
But Akim is not the only reason for optimism on the line. Massive Chuck Myles has continued to show much promise at the right tackle position as he learns the offense better after switching from defense late last season. Like Millington, Chuck is also more athletic than the average tackle, a prerequisite for the tackle positions under Coach Zook. He and Akim are almost bookends on the line, and they improve the offense with their presence. Myles is still a rookie as an offensive player, so he will make mistakes on occasion. But his potential is obvious.
Matt Maddox is a three-year letterman who played center last year but has been moved back to his more comfortable right guard position. Matt did well there two years ago, and having him positioned adjacent to Myles will allow him to use his vast experience to help Chuck make the quick adjustments necessary on every play.
Martin O'Donnell will be in his second full year as a starter at left guard, and last year's right tackle Ryan McDonald has moved back to center, his normal position. This is the most experienced offensive line Illinois has had for some time, with all five starters having played major college football before. And there are now some experienced replacements should injuries occur.
Jim LaBonte, James Ryan, and J. J. Simmons have all started on the offensive line for Illinois in the past. They and Ben Amundsen have significant experience for second teamers. LaBonte was penciled in as a starter at right tackle last summer before back surgery limited his conditioning and effectiveness. Simmons started the last two years at left tackle, but major knee surgery and a subsequent post-surgical infection have prevented him from practicing this spring. Assuming he has no more physical problems and can regain his strength and conditioning, he will be an excellent back-up and may even compete for a starting role, perhaps at guard.
Eric Block is an aggressive battler who is running at second string center behind McDonald after getting some playing time as a raw freshman. He is not as tall as most of the other linemen, but he keeps his 290 pound frame low and balanced through the block. Eric has potential to help Illinois in the future, and perhaps even this year if needed. And Amundsen has cross trained as a center to provide further backup there.
Freshman William Bergen has much potential but had to sit out the spring with a disc problem. He and fellow freshmen Mike Nabolotny and Trevor Scott are all in need of more physical development but deserve mention. Scott was seen sharing second team reps at guard the last week of practice, so he may be just size and strength away. And mid-year enrollee Randall Hunt is a good-looking 6'-6", 295 pounder who has the same kind of athleticism as Millington and is a potential future star even if he is redshirted this year to preserve four years of eligibility.
Running back is another strength for this team. Pierre Thomas and EB Halsey are beginning their fourth seasons and have a wealth of experience. Pierre was not used a lot this spring to keep him healthy and give others a chance to show their stuff. But he is one of the hardest runners in Illinois history. He isn't a burner and still struggles with pass protection, but his powerful leg drive gives him extra yardage on almost every play. Halsey is an intelligent, versatile leader who catches as well as he runs and provides excellent depth. He is also a top punt return prospect.
One of the most improved Illini is Rashard Mendenhall. A high school All-American, Rashard ran tight last fall as nervousness and lack of understanding of the offense took their toll. But he has the extra burst that gives him an edge on his competitors. Rashard is consistency away from being a dominant running back, and the coaches will likely give him many opportunities to demonstrate his skills.
And as shown during the spring game, Rashard's brother Walter Mendenhall looked impressive both running and receiving. Moved to fullback to start the spring, Walter also received practice time at running back and was perhaps the brightest offensive star last Saturday. He is a hard runner with strength and speed, so he can be effective from either position. Even ultra quick cornerback Will Judson couldn't gain ground on Walter as he rumbled to paydirt after grabbing a screen pass Saturday.
Fullback will likely play a bigger role this year than last. In part, this is due to a need for more blocking on runs and protection on passes, perhaps in lieu of using one or two tight ends. But it is also true that Illinois has some players there with potential. Russ Weil is rapidly becoming one of the best fullback blockers the Illini have had in recent years. The former state champion wrestler has pumped up to 240 pounds and appears to relish his role. Walter Mendenhall must still be considered for the fullback spot to get him on the field while his brother Rashard, Pierre Thomas and EB Halsey play running back. And converted linebacker Sam Porter has the body and athleticism to be an excellent prospect down the road. Sam is already showing signs of being a powerful blocker.
The Illini need to stabilize the tight end position. A combination of early graduation, injury and mediocre past recruiting make the position thin and vulnerable. This spring, the only tight end on scholarship was J. R. Kraemer. J. R. has some athleticism and above average speed for the position, but he is still looking for the elusive consistency and has not yet distanced himself from non scholarship tight ends Tom Sullivan and Jay Ramshaw. Kraemer appears to have difficulty gaining weight, so his line blocking can suffer on occasion.
Kraemer began to make some plays in the passing game near the end of spring, so hopefully the light bulb has begun to shine within. But even if he provides good play at the position, fall enrollees Michael Hoomanawanui and Jeff Cumberland will likely be needed to provide depth as well as improved play. Either could end up as a starter. And one of the fullbacks, possibly Porter, will likely play the H-back position when an extra blocker is needed on power-running plays.
Illinois has a large number of wide receivers including a few walkons, but Illini coaches still hope to upgrade the position through recruiting. On many plays, four receivers are used at the same time, so eight players are required to make a two-deep lineup chart. The position is so important in the Zook offense that more speed and more size will always be needed.
Kyle Hudson, DaJuan Warren, Jody Ellis and Derrick McPhearson were the starters most of the spring. However, walkon junior college transfer Jacob Willis, younger brother of former Illini receiver Lenny Willis Jr., gave McPhearson significant competition for their position. Willis is not extremely fast, but he runs precise routes and catches everything thrown his way. Hudson and McPhearson are speed guys, and Warren and Ellis are experienced and consistent.
Other receivers who may receive playing time this fall include Frank Lenti, Spencer Jensen, Greg McClendon, Marquis Wilkins, Charles Bailey, Bryant Creamer and Will Judson. Lenti and Jensen are walkons who continue to impress with their consistency in spring drills but have not yet carried that over to the fall. McClendon is a big receiver with a running back's mentality with the ball. He is young and not the fastest receiver, but he can play a valuable role in certain situations.
Marquis Wilkins is a midyear enrollee who needed most of the spring to get his confidence up after trying to learn the massive play book while competing with his more experienced teammates. He will likely show more of his speed and maneuverability this fall due to the experience he has gained this spring. Charles Bailey knows even less offense than Wilkins as he was moved from defensive back with two weeks to go in the spring. He has outstanding speed, but it remains to be seen whether he can be productive on offense. Bryant Creamer spent most of the spring on the sideline with a hamstring injury, which did little to help him show needed improvement.
The diminutive Judson was moved to cornerback the last week of spring to find more ways of using his great quickness. He will likely compete for punt and kickoff returner while also being considered for a limited offensive role on plays where he can be isolated in the open field. Judson is a good example of the kind of roll player Illinois might utilize effectively this fall. He is a threat to go all the way to paydirt on every play where he can receive the ball in the open field. The Illini coaches are also looking forward to working freshmen Chris James and the fleet Joe Morgan into the receiver mix when fall practice begins.
Quarterback is possibly the most important position on the team since a mature, experienced quarterback can keep even mediocre teams in the running for big wins. But it is mentioned last here because it is uncertain whether Illinois has such a quarterback on their roster at this time.
Theoretically, Tim Brasic should be poised for a big improvement in his second year as a starter. And he did look improved at times this spring. But he still has trouble throwing deep routes, especially when throwing into the teeth of a strong wind. He is also still struggling to learn how to make his reads and get rid of the ball quicker. Missing the first week of practice due to a suspension for academic inadequacies was not a good way to demonstrate leadership and hunger for success.
Brasic can help make Illinois competitive by limiting mistakes, doing much film study to recognize opponent tendencies, and getting the ball into the hands of his playmakers. But it is not yet certain Brasic will be the answer to Illini prayers at quarterback.
Billy Garza, Paul Blalock and Kisan Flakes all had their moments this spring, but they were not able to put competitive pressure on Brasic for his starting spot. Flakes had a sore shoulder for the last couple of weeks of spring practice, so it is unknown at this time what Illini coaches think of him. He played second string part of the time when healthy, although his tendency to irritate coaches by throwing into coverage might in part be the result of his inability to see over large linemen to find open receivers. Blalock and Garza shared second team responsibilities when Flakes was injured but also had mixed results. Garza helped lead his team to victory in the spring game, but it remains to be seen whether he is a Big Ten caliber quarterback since he was working against Illinois' second team defense.
True freshmen Isiah Williams and Eddie McGee will be arriving this fall with glowing press credentials, and many feel one of these two young men might get a chance at significant playing time. To his credit, "Juice" Williams visited a number of practices this spring to get a head start on learning the offense. There is no doubt he wants to compete for playing time as a raw freshman. Unfortunately, Big Ten defenses lick their chops at rookie quarterbacks, so Williams or McGee will have to be extremely mature and talented to overcome the obstacles likely to face them this fall.
Place kicking will still be in the hands of upcoming junior Jason Reda, and he has a strong leg for the role. Fans and coaches were frustrated the last two years by his inconsistency, but he is an upperclassman now and may be showing signs of being the kind of kicker Illinois needs. Reda will also be doing the kickoffs, and he kicked off into the endzone both with the wind and against the wind Saturday.
Midyear enrollee Kyle Yelton has the unenviable task of replacing the Illini's great punter Steve Weatherford. Kyle is young and inexperienced, so he will have some bad moments at times. But he does have a strong leg and can get good hang time when he hits the ball properly. Fans who attended the spring game may now distrust Yelton as he showed signs of nervousness and appeared to drop the ball onto his foot inconsistently. But he will go into the fall much smarter on how to approach playing in a big stadium with a large crowd and swirling winds after the experience he gained this spring. Practices have shown him to be a battler who bounces back after difficult times, so it is hoped he will use these experiences to be a more mature punter this fall.
Overall, the offense will be improved over last year. Just the fact everyone is in the second year of the new coaching regime will make everything work smoother this year than last. If Illinois can get consistent quarterbacking and blend passing and running to keep defenses off balance, they can score a lot of points. Given Illinois' defensive shortcomings of the recent past, it is hoped the offense will be able to outscore some opponents. At the least, it should be able to give the defense more rest, no small factor in helping the defense play better when on the field.
Spring Football Review: The Offense
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