February signee Nathan Scheelhaase made the trek from Kansas City and spent time with the quarterbacks. There was an open house for prospective football recruits this afternoon, and a number of them showed up to watch Illinois go through its 6th spring practice. Strong north winds pushed the practice inside, but conditions are predicted to be more favorable Saturday for the scrimmage.
There were no new injuries to report, and a couple players returned to full drills. Travon Bellamy was back 100% after landing hard on his head Wednesday. Running back Daniel Dufrene practiced, his hamstring fully healed. Defensive tackle Sirod Williams took part in some of the line drills but is being introduced to the work slowly after knee surgery last fall.
Safety Donsay Hardeman demonstrated leadership while watching from the sidelines. He helped encourage and fire up his fellow defenders. He proved his value extends beyond his play on the field. Hopefully, he will be healthy enough and confident enough to play this fall after neck surgery threatened to end his career.
In a couple position changes Friday, Ryan Palmer was the first string right tackle ahead of Jeff Allen. And Antonio James has now played both defensive end positions and one defensive tackle spot. He appears to be the line's utility player, capable of helping out wherever needed.
The Illini are practicing a new punt formation. They use two gunners on the same side of the ball (Arrelious Benn, Jarred Fayson and Jeff Cumberland were all tried there). Their five linemen are lined up with three men on the opposite side of the center from the gunners and one more split out from the center on the gunner side.
This provides openings for a strong rush, but three more players are stationed in the backfield in front of the punter. The punter then kicks to the side of the gunners. No punts were blocked in the practice session.
Early on, the pass offense appeared to dominate in both 7 on 7 and 11 on 11 drills. In one segment, the quarterbacks were all on fire, hitting one open receiver after another. Eddie McGee found Cumberland on a deep sideline pattern, and Jeff carried it the rest of the way into the end zone. Jake Charest threw a beautiful spiral on a timing pattern along the sideline to Chris Duvalt, who swung out from the backfield. The fleet receiver caught it at full speed, and no one could catch him.
Later on, A.J. Jenkins made a beautiful grab in the corner of the end zone, his toe touching down just before flying out of bounds. Jack Ramsey and Duvalt (twice) also made excellent endzone catches in red zone work.
There was more passing than running practice on this day, but Benn had one quick burst off left tackle that might have gone the distance had it not been stopped by a quick whistle. And Juice Williams had a big smile on his face several times after using his speed on scrambles and options for big gains. The defense seemed to turn the tables near the end of practice.
Coach Zook explained his choice of venues for the Chicago area scrimmage and the amount of cooperation required.
"Homewood-Flossmoor is where we originally wanted to go. We did everything we could, but they have track meets. We tried, we really did. They have a nice facility. Coach (Kenneth) Smith even called me and suggested other areas. He was trying to help us.
"It's unbelieveable the number of people it takes to put this thing on. When I first thought about it, I just thought we'd get on a bus and go. But a lot of people have to do an awful lot of work to make this thing happen."
Zook has several players from Homewood-Flossmore, and they were disappointed it couldn't be held there. But Zook sees several advantages to making a trip north each spring.
"It gives recruits a chance to see it and be part of it. It's good for a lot of things. It'll be only our seventh day, so it will be more of a situational scrimmage. But we'll get after it."