Illinois coach Ron Zook let up on his men Saturday, ending practice before the scheduled time. It was another productive day of split squad action, and he wants them as fresh as possible for Camp Rantoul, which begins in earnest Monday.
The overall attitude and approach of the Illini team is the biggest news of fall camp so far. To a man, they all say they are thinking team first. What is best for the team is best for the individuals. That unselfishness, coupled with a hunger and dedication to make up for last season, are extremely impressive.
Illini coach Ron Zook was referring to the large and talented receiving corps, but it applies equally to the whole team.
"It's like Rejus (Arrelious Benn). Those guys want to win. It's important to them. It doesn't matter who does it, just so somebody does it. I think it's exciting, the attitude of this football team right now."
Running back competition is sharing the limelight with receiver competition at this early stage. There are six players at the position, and all are talented. The top four of senior Daniel Dufrene, redshirt sophomore Troy Pollard and sophomores Jason Ford and Mikel Leshoure are all good enough to help the Illini win.
"Once you get into scrimmages, you'll learn a little more about where they are," Zook stated. "We know we've got four guys who can win for us. That's key.
"As an offensive staff and a football team, we're not saying we'll have a guy that's THE guy. More and more, that's rare to have every down, every day backs. I think it keeps you fresh that way (having multiple backs), as long as you've got enough of them.
"Four of those guys I think have a chance. And those two freshmen these first few days have been very impressive also. I think it'll sort itself out. It's not something we even have to be concerned about right now."
"The athleticism they've shown. When we get to Rantoul and continue to add offenses and defenses, it'll begin to get muddy for them a little. But we'll scrimmage the 11th practice, which is later than normal, so hopefully they'll be able to do everything.
"I was kidding Jason Ford, 'It's a lot easier this year, isn't it?' The first year, things are coming fast. We're not slowing down. We're installing at a fast pace, and their heads are swimming. They may walk out of the meeting room knowing what's going on, but when things start going fast and you put the 25 second clock on them, it goes fast."
The defense appears to be holding its own with the offense. We will find out more once the hitting begins, but the defensive players are performing with aggressiveness and confidence. In fact, the defenders have a chip on their shoulders, tired of hearing they are the team's weak spot. They are determined to prove everyone wrong.
Different players stood out at different times. Clay Nurse disrupted a play in the backfield with his quickness. Anterio Jackson was playing defensive end. He caught a tipped pass and rambled downfield to the delight of teammates. Rahkeem Smith, Doug Pilcher, Josh Brent, Corey Liuget, and Antonio James all made plays along the line. Safety Bo Flowers and cornerback Travon Bellamy both intercepted passes.
Freshman cornerback Joelil Thrash did a good job of breaking up a pass attempt. He is a rangy young man with excellent potential. Freshman safety Walter Aikens appeared at times to be making calls in the defensive backfield. He is athletic and aware.
Offensively, the tight end spot is becoming increasingly important. And the players are excited about the increased role new Offensive Coordinator Mike Schultz plans for them.
Michael Hoomanawanui has NFL potential and is the clear starter. Sophomore Hubie Graham has reduced body fat from 15% to 9% and is much more relaxed and confident with a year under his belt. He will provide excellent support on the two-tight end plays. Converted fullback Zach Becker adds depth, as does redshirt freshman London Davis.
Freshman Justin Lattimore is tall and rangy and caught a couple nice balls, including one down the field. He has the frame to put on more strength and weight without losing his speed.
Both placekickers showed strong, accurate legs in field goal drills. With the wind at their backs, Matt Eller and Derek Dimke kicked balls onto the roof of the first level of the indoor facility. Eller will be hard to beat out, but Dimke is much improved. He has worked hard in the weight room, and he is now getting more air under his kicks.
It was also interesting to see the Illini coaches making good on their preseason prediction of freshman Steve Hull taking over the placement holder job. He was seen holding for Eller, while punter Anthony Santella held for Dimke. Hull has the confidence and hands to do the job and may be the favorite. Especially since that might free Santella to concentrate solely on punting.
It will be interesting to see how the East practice fields look once the Illini return from Camp Rantoul. Reseeded in June after half the field failed to recover from the winter, it is still spotty in places. It is the type of grass that needs 90+ degree conditions, and the summer has not provided much of that. With temperatures on the rise, it is thought the grass will be more entrenched by then.