There wasn't much hitting, but there was a lot of action. Spring practices are generally 2.5 hours in length, and the players are on the go constantly. Any prospective recruit not wanting to work hard at his sport would not be a good candidate for a scholarship at Illinois.
There were 30 high school prospects visiting for Illinois' "Junior Day," a one-day opportunity to meet the coaches, tour the facilities and learn about the university. And there were 15 more who came in to watch practice. New Assistant Recruiting Coordinator Cathy Ludwig and her team of Volunteer Recruiters had their hands full.
Among the top 2009 recruits visiting were East St. Louis speedster Terry Hawthorne, Chicago Morgan Park defensive end Craig Drummond, linemen Mike Schofield from Orland Park (Carl Sandburg) and Dave Barrent of West Des Moines, Iowa (Valley), and Merrillville, Indiana kicker Nick Stokes.
Cornerbacks Derrick Thomas and Stephon Morris from Eleanor Roosevelt high school in Greenbelt, Maryland, made the long trip, as did Kansas City, Missouri (Rockhurst) quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. His mother said Scheelhaase would return for at least part of the Illini quarterback camp in June. Squadmen Brian Gamble, Marcus "Miami" Thomas and Mark Jackson showed their desire to return to good graces with their presence at the practice. And future teammates Jack Ramsey, Nate Palmer and Jason Ford visited as well. Ford said his academics were in order, and he hopes to arrive in Champaign-Urbana in early June.
Ford's running back position became temporarily shorter on able bodies as Mikel LeShoure withdrew to the Strength & Conditioning staff halfway through practice with a minor injury. In his absence, Darius Purcell was given some opportunities at running back. Having just moved to fullback yesterday, his head was spinning with all the changes. But he showed good hands on pass receptions and some quickness and moves in the open field.
The highlight of practice was undoubtedly the first Oklahoma drill of the spring. The only hitting of the day involved a blocker and tackler exploding on each other within a confined space while a runner tried to run to daylight. Recruits and fans alike circled the team as one gargantuan battle followed another.
Among the highlights were Sirod Williams dominating Eric Block, D'Angelo McCray over Mike Nabolotny, Josh Brent manhandling Jeff Allen, Reggie Ellis over Block, Bryant Whalen over Craig Wilson, and diminutive Will Judson over rookie Ashante Williams.
Other battles that showed at least minimal indication of a winner included Mike Hoomanawanui over Rodney Pittman, Randall Hunt over Brit Miller, Xavier Fulton over Doug Pilcher and splitting with Will Davis, Jack Cornell over Dave Lindquist and Reggie Ellis, Craig Wilson over Antonio James, Daryle Ballew over Jack Cornell and later Jeff Allen, Martez Wilson over Randall Hunt, and Clay Nurse over Ryan Palmer.
Hoomanawanui was such a dominant force against linebackers that Coach Zook substituted defensive end Will Davis to challenge him. Davis had a big initial push, but Hoomanawanui fought back, creating a stalemate. They continued to wrestle long after the running back had run to daylight, exciting players and fans. The Illini appear to be maintaining the aggressive intensity that served them so well last year.
The kicking specialists got opportunities as well. Anthony Santella was the most consistent punter. He shows the confidence created by a year as the starter and success in the Rose Bowl. The indoor facility roof is too low to see how far booming punts travel, but every one of Santella's punts hit the roof with good spirals.
Matt Brandabur, Mike Cklamovski and Matt Eller all got chances to placekick from short distances. All of them have strong legs, but Brandabur was the only one to make all his attempts. Eller missed one, and two of Cklamovski's three tries were either barely in or barely out. No one was asked to kick from farther than 30 yards, but their legs are much stronger than that. Tad Keely is an excellent long snapper, and Jared Bosch held the ball for most of the kicks while Chris James learned the technique.
The last half of the practice was filled with 7 on 7 and 11 on 11 opportunities without tackling. In one segment of 11 on 11 against the first team defense, Juice Williams completed successive passes to Chris James, Jeff Cumberland, Rahkeem Smith, Alex Reavy, and Daniel Dufrene. Juice also completed two passes each to Cumberland and Chris Duvalt in a 2-minute drill before running out of downs.
All the receivers showed inconsistencies. Cumberland is definitely catching the ball better, but he still juggles some balls. Duvalt and rookie Fred Sykes both made outstanding catches on long balls and then dropped easier, shorter ones. Marquis Wilkins made a leaping catch but also needs more consistency. All the receivers should look better as the spring evolves.
The day ended on a good note. Running a 2-minute drill with the second team offense, quarterback Eddie McGee drove his team for a touchdown in two plays. After scrambling for yardage on first down, McGee tossed a perfect strike to Will Judson in between two closing defenders, and Judson outsped everyone to the end zone.
Coach Zook was not overly impressed with his charges on this day.
"Things were sloppy today. I told the team we weren't going to use the excuse of this being the first day in pads. We've said all along we have a long way to go, and we're going to push them as hard as we can push them. It's a great group of guys, they know what we can do, and we just have to continue to improve."