Several Illinois football players are nursing mild injuries and sat out the practice. But it was good to see safety Donsay Hardeman dressed and participating in exercises with the Strength and Conditioning staff. No decision has been made on his future after neck surgery, but his dressing was an encouraging sign.
Also present was Michael Hoomanawanui, who missed Saturday's practice. He looked good catching passes with the first unit. Troy Pollard was still sidelined with a knee strain, but he is recooperating rapidly. He and Daniel Dufrene should rejoin the battle for playing time at running back in the near future.
There was more special team work today. There were a couple interesting developments. Matt Eller is still booming high, straight field goals. But Derek Dimke is pushing him as he has begun to get better elevation on his field goals. Both have strong legs, but Dimke now has less chance of getting his kicks blocked than last fall.
Also, the Illini have been using a different punt formation so far this spring. They are now dropping 3 blockers into the backfield to protect the punter. Sometimes, they will line up with fewer linemen than the opponent but trust the final three blockers to do their jobs. It appeared effective, except for one time when Martez Wilson broke through, blocked the punt and recovered it in time to score.
In addition, Arrelious Benn is now working as a gunner on punts, giving rise to speculation he may be used on the punt team rather than the punt return team. And punter Anthony Santella once threw a perfect spiral to Jarred Fayson off punt formation. The threat of a punt fake might help reduce an opponent's aggressiveness with their rush.
In red zone work, the starting defense distinguished itself by stuffing the offense frequently with little or no gain. Corey Liuget was especially conspicuous pushing centers Eric Block and Tyler Sands deep into the backfield. If he didn't make the play himself, he provided a clear path for Martez Wilson to get the kill. Wilson had several stops without gain.
The defensive secondary held its own with the receiver corps most of the time. Ashante Williams had an interception, and Travon Bellamy grabbed two balls. Both of Travon's interceptions came off tips, first a tip off Cordale Scott on a pass from Jacob Charest, and second a tip off Jeff Cumberland on a Juice Williams pass.
The offense had some good moments also. Running back Mikel Leshoure turned a sweep into a 15 yard gain. Juice faked out cornerback Tavon Wilson in the backfield and scampered forward for a big sideline run. Charest picked up an errant snap and fired a long bomb to Jack Ramsey, who sped into the endzone untouched. Charest also had a couple nice runs on inside options.
Juice Williams led the first team offense to a touchdown in a two minute drill to end the day. He fired short sideline passes to Jarred Fayson and Arrelious Benn to gain a first down. After one incompletion and two throwaways made it fourth and 10, Juice unloaded a long bomb to Cumberland past the defense of Pat Nixon-Youman and Supo Sanni.
Charest completed a long strike to Fred Sykes in his 2 minute drill but was otherwise ineffective against the first team defense. Pilcher sacked him on one play.
Practice observers included Gerry DiNardo, the former Indiana and LSU head coach who now works for the Big Ten Network. And pro coaches Jim Haslett and Rick Venturi took in the action.
Haslett, formerly the head coach at New Orleans, is good friends with Ron Zook and agreed to an interview. He explained his reason for visiting.
"This is my first chance to watch Coach Zook as a head coach. Coach Venturi and I drove up, and we'll be here a couple days."
Haslett is known as a defensive coach, but he had a different reason for observing practice.
"Actually, I came up to watch some of the offense. I know the defense because it's our stuff. But I wanted to observe the option. They look like they've got great skill players, receivers. That kind of thing stands out. And obviously Juice running around."
Coaches Zook and Haslett have known each other a long time.
"We first worked together in 1999 with the (Pittsburgh) Steelers when I was the defensive coordinator. I helped him get a job as a secondary coach with Kansas City. And then when I was head coach of the Saints, I brought him in as offensive coordinator. He did a great job for us. We won a lot of games in New Orleans and made the first playoff game ever when he was running the defense."
Haslett is not surprised with Zook's success of reaching the Rose Bowl in his third year at Illinois.
"He's a tireless worker. He's a heck of a football coach and unbelieveable recruiter. Kids like to play for him. And he has great facilities from everything I've seen so far at the University."
He was asked for a story about Zook's work habits.
"We used to hang out together. I drove to work with him, and one time he was shaving, he had a cup of coffee and cereal at the same time while he was driving. The cereal was between his legs."