The Fighting Illini football team began the second half of its spring practices Tuesday, leading up to the annual Spring Game April 21. The players found temperatures in the 50's to their liking as last week's cold snap is finally abating.
Only four depth chart changes were noticable with the first units since last Saturday's scrimmage, and two of those were the result of injuries. Rashard Mendenhall is nursing a slight hamstring pull and was being withheld as a precaution. His brother Walter took his spot. And Martin O'Donnell was dressed but not participating with a minor problem, allowing Brandon Jordan to receive time with the starters at left guard. The versatile Jordan is getting practice at several positions, so he appears to be a valuable backup at this time.
Rodney Pittman saw time with the first unit at strongside linebacker. Usual first stringer Brit Miller was practicing today after missing a couple practices last week, but Pittman likely deserved the opportunity after playing well Saturday. And big Chuck Myles was back at his right tackle spot ahead of Ryan Palmer.
Thus, the offense saw Xavier Fulton at left tackle, Brandon Jordan at left guard, Ryan McDonald at center, Jon Asamoah at right guard, and Myles at right tackle. Michael Hoomanawanui has impressed as both a blocker and receiver, so he was getting first string reps at tight end. The receivers playing first string vary considerably from day to day, but today it appeared the top three were Kyle Hudson, Chris James and Joe Morgan. Of course, Rejus Benn, DaJuan Warren and others saw plenty of action. Juice Williams and Walter Mendenhall rounded out the unit, with Russ Weil getting opportunities when a fullback is needed.
The defensive front four remained unchanged and will likely continue to consist of Derek Walker, Chris Norwell, Dave Lindquist and Doug Pilcher despite some excellent competition. Pittman was joined by Sam Carson and Antonio Steele at linebacker, with Kevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison/Justin Sanders at safeties and Vontae Davis and Travon Bellamy at cornerback. Sanders is still protecting a surgically repaired shoulder, so his opportunities are limited to drills that do not require hitting.
Any fans wishing to attend practice will enjoy watching Coach Tom Sims put his defensive linemen through their paces. He works them hard, but he also has fun with them, and the players seem to love it. Sims uses innovative drills to mimic playing situations.
For example, two defensive lineman lie down on their backs, their helmets two strides apart facing one another. At the snap, each rolls over, stands up and approaches one another. One lineman then tries to tackle the other, who acts as a ball carrier. This drill reminds that defenders must not quit when down but arise quickly to make a tackle.
Sims' drills are too numerous to mention here, but it is common to see his charges flying around attacking tackling dummies. One drill today utilized a dummy with arms holding a football. Each lineman was to pursue, attack the ball to loosen it from the dummy and then grab the resulting fumble. And Sims puts his linemen through a variety of drills while crouched under heavy steel bars that rise no more than five feet off the ground. A defensive lineman who can stay low is hard to block.
Defensive linemen are also paired with offensive linemen, who then go one-on-one. Chuck Myles must compete against left defensive ends Derek Walker and Jerry Brown, and he likely has nightmares from some of these encounters. Myles is being given extra attention to match his potential with his actions on the field, and there is no better practice than to go against people the quality of Walker and Brown. These young men will be hard for any opponent to neutralize.
Jason Reda did not get any field goal work again today, but we now understand he is nursing a minor injury. In his absence, walkon Matt Brandabur continued to impress with his height, distance and accuracy. It will be interesting to get a direct comparison when Reda begins kicking again.
Punting is still a three-man race. Today, they were punting with a strong crosswind. Those fans who sit in the end zones during the season might find it fun to watch what happens to punts into crosswinds. No matter how straight a punt is to start, its trajectory soon resembles a pull hook or slice in golf. A punter under these conditions must kick the ball strongly to hold the ball against the wind. Otherwise, his punts can fly quickly out of bounds.
There were some recruits present, as is usually the case. One of those was Lamaar "Flash" Thomas, an all-purpose speed back out of Friendly high school in Fort Washington, Maryland.