After the first fall practice on the field East of Memorial Stadium, Illinois coach Ron Zook expressed pleasure with the results.
"We're way ahead of where we were, and that's the good thing. You can tell we have some experience out here. You see the older guys coaching the young guys. They're competing, they're learning, the coaches are doing a great job of coaching, teaching and demanding. It's as good a first day as you could possibly ask for."
Many of the players showed obvious strength work in the offseason. Strongside linebacker Ian Thomas almost ripped through his practice jersey, it was so tight on him. Running back Daniel Dufrene's biceps are beginning to look like those of former Illini star Rashard Mendenhall. The same is true of running back Jason Ford. Ugo Uzodinma is starting to look like a defensive tackle, without the fat.
The running back group made a big impression the first day. Dufrene is running with speed and confidence. Ford and fellow sophomore Mikel Leshoure have transformed fat into muscle and are running quicker and with more confidence. Troy Pollard is back to full health and is shiftier than ever. And freshmen Justin Green and Bud Golden had good moments as well.
Green is an interesting study. Listed at 178 pounds based on his high school weight, the 5'-11" Kentuckian has worked hard in the weight room and now weighs a tightly compact 195. And he showed outstanding speed and good hands. The Kentucky 100 meter dash champ will have every opportunity to see playing time this fall.
It is a little early to judge the freshmen, but as a group they look excellent. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is also up to 195 pounds. According to his father Nate Creer, Nathan has an amazingly low 3.9% body fat. He throws a catchable ball and is exceptionally quick. Scheelhaase has studied the playbook diligently and is ahead of expectations. His family has now moved from Kansas City to Champaign.
Receivers Terry Hawthorne and Steve Hull both showed positive signs in their first action. Hawthorne has protective padding on his wrist and hand to prevent recurrence of a previous injury, but he showed some good route running ability. Hull is a fluid athlete with great athleticism and good hands.
Fullback Greg Fuller and tight end Justin Lattimore will get a chance at early playing time. Fuller is competing with walkon sophomore Zach Becker for the starting fullback job, and they are the only two fullbacks on the squad. Lattimore is a rangy athlete who could assist the passing game.
Among the offensive linemen, Hugh Thornton appeared to be operating at the important left tackle spot. He has outstanding quickness and maneuverability for a large athlete. Andrew Carter will get a crack at center. He is also one of the team's fastest offensive linemen, but he must pass three squadmen for playing time. Jake Feldmeyer needs to bulk up before he can show his full potential.
Offensive lineman Leon Hill deserves special mention. Early this summer, there was a question whether he would be able to practice full-time with the team this fall.
He was considerably overweight, and Strength & Conditioning coach Lou Hernandez had to work with him separately because he couldn't handle the workouts of the other players. While he could still stand to lose some weight, Hill is now able to engage in full workouts and has obviously worked extremely hard this summer.
Hill's Chicago Leo teammate Lendale Buckner has one of the widest shoulders ever seen on the UI campus. He is listed at 340 pounds, and he could be a little heavier than that. But both he and fellow defensive tackle Akeem Spence have potential. Tim Kynard is a good athlete who may outgrow defensive end in favor of tackle. Mike Buchanan is a slender, 6'-6" defensive end, but he was seen batting down a pass with his long reach.
Eric Watts looks more like a defensive back than a linebacker, but he is quick for his position. Walt Aikens, Joelil Thrash and Tommie Hopkins show potential at defensive back. Aikens especially has the body and quickness to be a standout with time.
Former Illini defensive back/fullback Darius Purcell is back on the team after a year's absence. It is not known whether or not he is on scholarship, but he has returned to his familiar safety position.
It was encouraging to see the entire squad healthy and dressed on the first day. Sirod Williams, Donsay Hardeman, Miami Thomas and Josh Brent all missed part or all of spring ball, but they were all bouncing around enthusiastically Thursday. Zook agreed the players were all happy to be back out on the field playing the game they love.
"Absolutely. Not only are they happy to be back, we're happy to have them back. They're obviously a little bit rusty. All of them are a little rusty; we haven't played for awhile. They're excited, and our other players are excited. We've got to keep on going now."
Brent's situation is still not totally resolved, but he is no longer suspended from the team, and he has fulfilled his legal obligations. Zook wouldn't talk about any additional penalties for Brent, but he sounded a conciliatory tone.
"How much more does he have to do? There comes a time when you're trying to help guys, you're not trying to hurt them. Let's just see how he does. He's had an unbelieveable last month and a half. He's been unbelieveable around the team and in the workouts."
The Illini will continue with split squad workouts Friday and Saturday. Media will have a chance to interview players and coaches Sunday before they check into Camp Rantoul, where practice continues Monday.