The Illinois offense and defense are developing an intense competition on the field each day in practice. While the players must eventually come together as one to go into battle in the fall, right now it is important they learn to fight for their individual sides.
There was no tackling so everyone would be fresh for Saturday's 10:00am scrimmage. But Coach Zook and his staff want to make sure a fire burns in the players with every practice and every game.
"Yea, competition," Zook remarked. "You've got to compete. It's offense against defense the whole spring. Once we come together, they realize that we continue to improve and to do something."
The Illini reversed the practice schedule to keep things fresh. The two minute offense and 11 on 11 work were at the beginning of the practice, and individual position drills completed the practice. It didn't seem to matter to the players, as they competed with every drill.
There was continued emphasis on special teams. Results of the practice won't be known until the final spring scrimmage and into Camp Rantoul. But they are practicing each phase.
"It's something we've spent an awful lot of time on," Zook explains. The last half of the spring, we're working all 6 phases extremely hard. We've spent a lot of time on the punt and extra point protection as well as the actual kicking. We feel like we've got some athletes that can contribute. We've just go to continue to improve on it."
Zook reminds how one special teams breakdown can have a negative impact on player and fan memories.
"We had some issues (last fall), some things happened. If one play goes wrong, that's the play you remember. There's 30 or so special teams plays in a game, and that's the one you think about. It kind of puts a bad taste in your mouth. So we want to cut down on the errors and be more consistent."
The linebacker corps appears to be setting into a consistent playing pattern. There have been no changes in the three deep in several days. The first team shows Martez Wilson at MIKE, Ian Thomas at SAM, and Russ Ellington at WILL.
On the second time are Evan Friersen at MIKE, Justin Staples at SAM, and Nate Bussey at WILL. The third group includes Dustin Jefferson, Nate Palmer and Aaron Gress. Gress is learning a new system and is still behind after transferring from junior college.
Defensive highlights on the day included Bussey, who broke in front of Mikel Leshoure on the sideline to intercept a pass from Eddie McGee. Also, McGee threw a beautiful bomb that Jack Ramsey appeared to have in his grasp, but it popped out into the arms of walkon cornerback Nattiel Perkins.
In one-on-one drills between the offensive and defensive linemen, Ugo Uzodinma had the biggest reaction from his teammates when he grabbed and threw offensive guard Randall Hunt to the ground. Defensive end Doug Pilcher initiated offensive tackle Jeff Allen to the left side by bull rushing him back into the quarterback.
There were several recruits visiting practice. Among them was Channing Fugate, a 6'-1", 225 pound running back/linebacker from Breathitt County High School in Jackson, Kentucky. A big group of prospects will take in Saturday's scrimmage as part of a Junior Day.