Illinois head coach Ron Zook was both pleased and relieved that Pat Nixon-Youman gained his eligibility and began practicing with the team. The 5'-10", 165 pound cornerback from Middleburg High School in Jacksonville, Florida, was forced to withdraw from school last fall after practicing with the team in Camp Rantoul due to an academic deficiency.
He returned for second semester despite not yet being cleared by the NCAA. Fortunately, after a wait that seemed an eternity, Nixon-Youman finally gets to play the game he loves. And a position lacking in quality depth got stronger as a result. Nixon adds tremendous speed and savvy to the mix in the defensive backfield.
A large group of high school coaches descended onto campus to watch practice and take part in an annual coaching clinic put on by the Illinois coaching staff. They benefitted from watching the different drills the Illini go through to learn their positions. There were no pads, so there was no hitting. But the coaches enjoyed themselves before the rain came.
The coaches remaining through Saturday will be able to see the first practice in full pads. Coach Zook said there would be some light hitting, including the popular Oklahoma Drill which pits a blocker and tackler against one another. But Zook does not plan to pound them into the ground so early in the spring.
One high school coach was watching the receivers workout with Coach Jim Pry and commented that they looked like a major college receiver corps was supposed to look. He has attended a number of previous Illinois coaching clinics, and some groups seemed somewhat lacking comparatively.
He is absolutely correct. From the powerful bodies of Arrelious Benn, Jarred Fayson and Jeff Cumberland to the lithe, supple figures of speedsters like A.J. Jenkins, Cordale Scott, Jack Ramsey, Chris Duvalt, Fred Sykes and Chris James, the receivers are an obvious team strength.
Everyone knows what Benn can do, and he didn't disappoint as he scored a long touchdown on a post pattern thrown by Juice Williams. But fans will enjoy new additions Fayson and Ramsey. Both showed quick cuts on pass routes that left defenders in their dust, and their hands proved consistently reliable. Both were popular with the quarterbacks.
Redshirt freshman Cordale Scott has added upper body strength and is running with more confidence. Like all newcomers, he still has much to learn, but he has size all teams need in the receiver corps.
Cordale did get tangled with cornerback Tavon Wilson on one play, Tavon stripping the ball from Scott's grasp just as it arrived. Wilson also celebrated after breaking up a Juice pass intended for Benn. Arrelious had to reach back slightly for the ball, which helped Tavon break it up.
Running backs Jason Ford and Mikel Leshoure both look much quicker after getting in top shape. Ford has lost 17 pounds from last summer, and Leshoure has lightened his load by 15 pounds. Both ran hard.
They shared the position as senior starter Daniel Dufrene and redshirt sophomore Troy Pollard missed part or all of practice with injuries. Dufrene has a mild hamstring problem. Coach Zook said he could have gone today, but it wasn't necessary.
Pollard was looking great before he reinjured his surgically repaired knee. He was walking gingerly on it, but Zook was hopeful the problem was not a major one.
"It probably scared him more than anything. I'm gonna go in and make sure, but they felt like he was ok."
The linebacker corps is young, so there will undoubtedly be growing pains. It is easy to find fault, but it is also possible to see potential. Ian Thomas was the first string MIKE for the second straight day, and he was flanked by freshmen Russ Ellington and Justin Staples. They are all athletic for their positions.
Martez Wilson will be a starter eventually, but he is second string in the middle as he learns the position. Junior college transfer Aaron Gress and former safety Nate Bussey flank Martez. Bussey made a leaping deflection of a Jacob Charest pass. Zook feels Bussey is capable of becoming a quality linebacker.
"Nate's a guy, we've got to have him on the field. I told him, if it didn't work out at linebacker we would move him back to safety. He works his tail off, and I think he's got a pretty good chance of helping us. He likes to play football. He's always going 100 miles an hour. I think it will be a good thing."
Tavon Wilson and Dere Hicks are the starting corners at this time, but Travon Bellamy may be ready to challenge for playing time either at corner or nickel. Bellamy had two shoulder surgeries in 2007, and Zook now empathizes with the long recovery period after having shoulder surgery himself.
"I think (corner) is a little easier for him. Travon having shoulder surgery, I understand it a little better. Last year, he came off of two shoulders. That's tough. Now, he's excited and ready to go."
Line drills without pads are inconclusive, but a few one-on-one matchups proved interesting. Corey Lewis apppeared to win his battles, once against Antonio James and twice against Doug Pilcher; Craig Wilson had success against Whitney Mercilus and Jerry Brown; Randall Hunt won a battle with Anterio Jackson; Ryan Palmer overcame Jerry Brown; and Jeff Allen stopped Glenn Foster.
Good defensive plays were turned in by Mercilus, who sped by Craig Wilson; Anterio Jackson, up to 285 pounds, wrestled Graham Pocic to the ground; and Ugo Uzodinma, playing tackle at an undersized 260 pounds, had success first against Jack Cornell and later versus Tyler Sands.
The offense has had an early advantage over the defense. It will be interesting to see if that continues once the pads go on Saturday.