Head Coach Ron Zook confirmed the enthusiasm.
"Coaches are always excited about it, but the good thing is the players were excited about it. It was a pretty good first day. I think back to four years ago, our first spring here, and even last spring. It's a big, big change. I told the guys we have 14 more of these, and we've got to continue to do it like we've done today."
Several prospective high school recruits, numerous media and curious fans received an opportunity to see the improvements made in the players through winter conditioning, and they came away impressed. Most of the Illini were bulked up and in top condition, a tribute to their continued hard work.
Senior defensive end Will Davis' upper arms are significantly thicker than last year. It appeared his weight gain from 250 last fall to 267 now seemed predominantly in his upper body. This increased strength, combined with his speed off the corner will terrorize opposing quarterbacks.
In fact, the whole defensive line appeared stronger and better built than last fall. Players like Josh Brent, Sirod Williams, Dave Lindquist, Derek Walker, D'Angelo McCray, Anterio Jackson and Clay Nurse all made noticeable improvements in their bodies. The combination of experience, depth, strength and mobility will make Illinois' defensive line difficult for any opposing team to block.
The players who line up as first stringers for spring practice are often different than those who will emerge as starters in the fall. And any discussion of a depth chart at this early stage is subject to change at a moment's notice. But the first day lineups do reflect who the coaches feel deserve first chance to prove themselves and were predictably filled with upperclassmen.
Defensively, Davis and Doug Pilcher continue to share one end spot, although Davis was also seen playing opposite Pilcher in one alignment. Senior rock Derek Walker manned the other end, and the tackles were seniors Sirod Williams and Dave Lindquist. Their backups included ends Clay Nurse and Antonio James and tackles Josh Brent and Anterio Jackson. McCray is not fully recovered from minor knee surgery, and youngsters Reggie Ellis (tackle) and Whitney Mercilus (end) received backup reps as they break into the system. Mercilus is just size and strength away from competing for playing time.
The starting linebackers were Brit Miller in the middle, Rodney Pittman at SAM and Martez Wilson at WILL. Pittman looked confident and aggressive, like an upcoming senior with experience should look. Their backups included Sam Carson at MIKE, redshirt freshman Ian Thomas at SAM and Dustin Jefferson at WILL.
The defensive backfield included Vontae Davis and Dere Hicks at cornerback and Bo Flowers and Nate Bussey at safety. Travon Bellamy, Garrett Edwards and Darius Purcell backed up the safeties, although Bellamy was forced to stand aside after he insisted on diving on his surgically repaired shoulders.
Antonio Gully and Tolono walkon Cody Stunkard held down second team status at the corner spots, although late arriving newcomer Ashante Williams shared time with Stunkard near the end of practice.
The offensive line is always in a state of flux as coach Eric Wolford mixes and matches to find the right combinations. Three year starting center Ryan McDonald doesn't need to prove himself, so he watched as Eric Block took his place. Mike Nabolotny and redshirt freshman Mike Garrity shared time behind Block. The quick-footed Garrity is up to 289 pounds, but he is still behind his teammates in terms of size and strength.
Joining Block with the first team offensive line were guards Randall Hunt and Jon Asamoah and tackles Xavier Fulton and Ryan Palmer. Hunt looked more confident than in the past and appears ready to compete for a starting spot, especially with Brandon Jordan sidelined to work on his academics. Fulton is up to 295 and yet continues to impress with his quickness. On one play, Xavier escorted running back Daniel Dufrene more than 20 yards downfield, running stride for stride with the speedster.
Second string guards were redshirt freshman Jack Cornell on the left side and true freshman Jeff Allen on the right. Allen is raw and inexperienced, but he showed excellent potential in a pass blocking one-on-one drill against a defensive lineman. Asamoah gave him a low five for his effort. Redshirt freshman Craig Wilson continues to back up Fulton, while true freshman Graham Pocic is getting a chance to shine while backing up Palmer at right tackle. Pocic also asserted himself in the pass protection drill.
Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui is even more pumped up than last year, but he still has his quickness. He has no real challenger for his starting spot this spring, although walkon letterman Tom Sullivan is a capable blocker. Quarterbacks continue to be Juice Williams and Eddie McGee, while Rahkeem Smith is backed up by walkon Nick LeVanti at fullback.
Dufrene looked strong and confident at running back now that he knows he is the main guy. The numerous reps he's receiving this spring will undoubtedly accelerate his progress. His lone backup, with Troy Pollard still several weeks away from full recovery from knee surgery, is true freshman Mikel LeShoure. It was easy to see why the coaches raved about him in winter conditioning. The new number 5 is in outstanding shape at 238 pounds and showed both quickness and strength. He has a chance to be a good one.
The receiving positions are also in a state of flux. Jeff Cumberland proved himself late last fall as an outside receiver. Chris James has been moved to the outside after recovering from fall knee surgery. Former defensive back Chris Duvalt is one of the fastest players on the team, so it was good to see him demonstrate good hands as a wide receiver. Newcomer Fred Sykes is just learning the system, but he is an excellent athlete who looks like a natural at the position. Kyle Hudson played baseball on this day.
The starting slot receiver was Marquis Wilkins, with Will Judson backing him up. Of course, Arrelious Benn is still being withheld after his shoulder surgery, and Brian Gamble is making up some classroom work. Florida transfer Jarred Fayson will likely play there also once he gains eligibility, but he is somewhat nicked up and spent time with Coach Lou Hernandez and his training staff. However, Fayson was seen receiving punts along with Benn and Duvalt.
Football teams make some of their best progress in the spring, and no doubt the Illini will make major improvements prior to the final spring game April 19. But the advanced starting point bodes well for the future.
"We're rusty as you would expect us to be, but I'm very impressed with the tempo and the carryover," enthused Coach Zook. "The great thing was, it's been a couple months since we've been out here, yet once we got going everyone knew what to do and where to go. It just makes it a lot more fun."