The Fighting Illini football team donned the pads for the first time this spring Saturday. While tackling was still somewhat limited to prevent injury, the players enjoyed the chance to do some hitting.
We found ourselves drawn to the offensive line from the beginning as new coach Eric Wolford had his charges huddling together doing a loud group cheer. They repeated this cheer later in the practice. It was obvious Wolford is trying to instill teamwork and camaraderie. In fact, everything the linemen do is together. Over time, this will likely make for a close-knit unit where everyone helps each other.
The offensive line is an area of concern. Four starters return from last year, but they all need to improve. And the second team line is young and experienced. Building quality depth is one of Coach Wolford's biggest tasks, but there is some potential there. Especially when everyone is healthy.
Besides Akim Millington, sitting out after winter should surgery; Jon Asamoah and Trevor Scott were limited due to minor injury problems. Injuries plus experimentation allowed Randall Hunt to get repetitions at first string right guard, while Ben Amundsen and Dan Motuliak received second team opportunities at center and right guard, respectively.
Wolford is a fiery individual who teaches constantly. He appears to demand perfection, and there is much to learn. At one point, he had tackle Chuck Myles practice pass protection without his helmet, forcing him to keep his knees bent and his back arched as he deflected thrusts from the defender opposite him.
Thursday's practice showed some of the offensive linemen's weaknesses, but they asserted themselves better today. In their "Oklahoma" drill, where one offensive lineman tries to neutralize one defender within a confined space while a running back tries to get through, the offensive players won numerous battles.
Some of the highlights from our notes included Chuck Myles over Antonio James (twice), Will Bergen over Sirod Williams (twice), Martin O'Donnell over Rahkeem Smith and later over Anthony Thornhill, Xavier Fulton over Sam Carson and later over Will Davis, tight end Jeff Cumberland over Smith, walkon tight end Tom Sullivan over Smith, Ryan Palmer over Doug Pilcher, Randall Hunt over Carson, and Ryan McDonald split two encounters with Chris Norwell. The most praised block by the offense goes to Michael Hoomanawanui over Brit Miller.
Of course, a number of battles showed no true winner, and even many of those mentioned above are no reflection on any deficiency by the defenders. The Oklahoma drill is hard-hitting and is over in a couple seconds, so some of the results were reversed when repeated. But it was encouraging to see the offensive linemen show well against a stout and confident defensive team.
There were some defensive successes as well, and two of these were especially significant. On one play, newly-converted defensive tackle Anterio Jackson received praise for fighting through Will Bergen's block to make the tackle. And the biggest cheers of the day were saved for defensive end Jerry Brown, who threw an off-balance Martin O'Donnell aside and made a crushing tackle for no gain.
Quarterback depth became a concern Saturday as Eddie McGee was forced to the sidelines with the flu. Without him, only Juice Williams and walkon Mark Venegoni were available for all the throws that must be made each practice. This gave Williams more opportunity to practice his techniques, but it also made one wonder what might happen should Juice go down with injury.
Williams showed good accuracy during 11 on 11 practices, except for when he threw long with a strong wind at his back. He will need to learn to let up on his throws when there's a favoring wind. Unfortunately, the wide receivers had occasional drops on this day despite evidence of improvement in that area. Newcomer Arrelious Benn received some reps with the first team, but he also dropped three passes right into his hands. He will eventually relax and make those catches, but we now know he is human.
Overall, combining two different 11 on 11 segments, our notes showed Juice Williams completing 16 of 27 passes, with six balls dropped and one Brit Miller interception. DaJuan Warren caught a long bomb from Juice and would likely have scored had the play continued. Venegoni asserted himself well, especially in one hurry-up segment where he led the offense down the field and completed a short touchdown pass to Marques Wilkens. His biggest gain was a 30 yard pass to Greg McClendon. Overall, Venegoni was 7 for 12 in the two segments.
Rashard Mendenhall and his brother Walter both looked good running the ball, although the defense was not permitted to tackle and were thus not going 100% all the time. One can easily imagine a day when Illinois runs roughshod over some good teams with a diverse, explosive offense. Mixing long and short passes with a sound running game, all carried out by speedy and talented athletes will eventually be almost impossible to stop. Eventually. Antonio Gully made a couple excellent plays for the defense, creating a tackle for loss on one option pitch and breaking up a pass. Justin Harrison had two pass deflections, although we saw him seeking work after practice with the passing machine to improve his catching skills. The practice ended with walkon Jacob Hendee, a freshman from Easton, Kansas, kicking a 38-yard field goal.
There were numerous recruits visiting the practice, as well as a number of high school coaches left over from the UI's annual coaching clinic. One recruit in attendance was Jake Wieclaw, a kicker from Lincoln-Way Central. He had an excellent opportunity to see his potential future competition in action. More than likely, he was not frightened off by the encounter.
The Illini will benefit from an influx of new recruits next fall, especially at the running back and defensive tackle positions were they are presently thin. And they still have 12 more practices to enhance their performance. But overall, the first three days have been encouraging.