There is much to be excited about. Eighteen returning starters plus experienced depth gives the Illini a look of confidence and maturity not seen in recent years. All those raw freshmen who learned through game action last fall now know what to expect. The game is slowing down for them, allowing them to relax and play their best. The improved confidence level and increased competition makes everyone better.
It is far too early to make any long-term judgments about individual players. But for those eager to hear about the newcomers, Arrelious Benn was prominent in his first taste of college ball. Benn combines size, strength, quickness and great hands into one special package. And better than that, he is a dominant athlete who has the potential to be a go-to receiver once he is comfortable with the offense. He is not yet a first-stringer, but he will soon be pressing the starters for playing time if first impressions are accurate. He looks and acts like an upperclassman already.
Rashard Mendenhall is now a junior, and he looks ready for a breakout season. With a severe shortage of running backs this spring, Rashard will be given the bulk of carries in practice. He seems to be even stronger than last fall, and he appears dedicated to holding the football high and tight against his chest to prevent fumbles. Rashard's brother Walter is his main competition, and he appears fully healthy after struggling with injuries last fall. But Rashard has a great opportunity this spring to develop into the back his high school promise predicted for him.
J. Leman will not participate this spring due to a minor foot surgery. He should be fully recovered by fall. Akim Millington, Justin Sanders and Clay Nurse are all participating in workouts, but they will not do contact work as they recover from offseason shoulder surgeries. Nurse is an intriguing prospect with size and quickness, and he is being tried at outside linebacker this spring.
In fact, there are a few intriguing position switches to report besides Nurse. Dere Hicks is now working out as a receiver, although he could go back to cornerback if needed. Anterio Jackson has moved from linebacker to defensive tackle, and Travon Bellamy was getting a look at cornerback. Letterman Xavier Fulton is being tried at left tackle after spending his first three years at defensive end. Fulton is undersized at 265, but he has above average quickness for the position. It will be interesting to see if he can learn this difficult position in time to help there this fall.
The offensive linemen are being shuffled around also to find their best positions. The first team on day 1 showed redshirt freshman Ryan Palmer at left tackle when Millington couldn't participate. The others included starters Chuck Myles, Martin O'Donnell and Ryan McDonald, all of whom played their usual positions. Right guard was filled by Jon Asamoah, and the redshirt freshman has the size and quickness to be a good one with time.
Besides Fulton, the second string line included Randall Hunt at left guard, Eric Block at center, Will Bergen at right guard and Brandon Jordan at right tackle. This line is extremely inexperienced, but it has some potential. It will be interesting to see how quickly these athletes improve with new offensive line coach Eric Wolford showing the way. Mark Jackson, one of Coach Zook's prized 2007 recruits, was on hand. He has completed his high school work and is in town getting in shape for the summer and fall. He is an impressive physical specimen at 6'-6" and 300 pounds.
The defense has a great deal of quality depth, and we will discuss them in more detail in a later summary. There is great hope the defense will be a team strength. After years of mediocrity, it is fun to watch the defenders fly around this spring. They have the size, strength and maturity to be an outstanding group come fall.
Most Illini fans are worried about the punting game, but it is much too soon to evaluate it. Both Kyle Yelton and Jared Bosch boomed a few punts. Although they are both still inconsistent, they look to be much more relaxed and confident than last fall.
Last but not least, both Juice Williams and Eddie McGee looked good running the offense. Juice is much more relaxed and confident than last fall. He is showing definite signs of leadership as his knowledge of the offense improves. And since he had a red shirt on and couldn't be tackled, he threw no bullets. His ball was much easier to catch than sometimes last fall because of this improved touch. Juice's challenge now will be to stay relaxed when a quality opponent blitzes him this fall.
McGee is still fairly slender, but he has a great deal of potential. He still has much to learn, but the spring is designed to teach fundamental skills. Eddie has a good arm and seems capable of making all his throws. And he shows excellent mobility on scrambles. His long stride can cover ground quickly.
These are a few first impressions. We will share more after each practice. In the meantime, we encourage all who are in the vicinity to attend practice. They are open to the public and can give you a glimpse of some great days to come. See you there.