A number of fans greeted the Illinois football team as the players and coaches made their way onto the Camp Rantoul practice field Monday afternoon. There seems to be a definite buzz among onlookers as a mature, physically strong group dedicates themselves to making up for their failings last season.
Among the visitors were Illini commitments C.J. Fiedorowicz, Michael Heitz and Chandler Whitmer. All three took in the action prior to beginning their own high school practices leading to their senior seasons.
Now that the entire team is practicing at the same time, lineups are becoming more apparent. The starting offense remains intact from the spring. Juice Williams is the clear number one quarterback, and the first three receivers are Arrelious Benn, Jarred Fayson and Jeff Cumberland. When a fourth was used, A.J. Jenkins joined them Monday.
Michael Hoomanawanui is the clear choice at tight end. The offensive line shows Jeff Allen, Randall Hunt, Eric Block, Jon Asamoah, and Ryan Palmer from left to right. Running back is the only position that doesn't have a clear starter, only because Daniel Dufrene, Jason Ford, Mikel Leshoure and Troy Pollard are likely considered equal at this point and are all starters.
The second unit has plenty of competition, although most positions appear secure at this early stage. Receivers Jenkins, Chris Duvalt, Fred Sykes, Cordale Scott, Jack Ramsey and Chris James are all getting reps as backups and are making plays. Freshman Steve Hull is also in the mix, and fellow rookie Terry Hawthorne will be once his broken hand is fully healed.
There is some uncertainty in the offensive line, but depth is developing there. Craig Wilson is second string left tackle, with Corey Lewis on the right side. Graham Pocic and Jack Cornell seem entrenched at the guard spots. Tyler Sands and Mike Garrity are rotating at second string center. Hubie Graham is the clear number two tight end, with Zach Becker backing him up and freshman Justin Lattimore getting reps.
Eddie McGee is the second team quarterback, and he appears much improved. Jacob Charest gets reps with the third unit and could push McGee but is still behind him. Freshmen running backs Justin Green and Bud Golden are getting a decent number of reps at the crowded running back position, and both could challenge.
Defensively, there are three top defensive ends and the same number of defensive tackles, so the real competition is for the fourth spot at each. Doug Pilcher, Antonio James and Clay Nurse are the top three ends and may rotate. The same is true for Josh Brent, Corey Liuget and Sirod Williams at tackle.
Right now, Whitney Mercilus, Glenn Foster and freshman Michael Buchanan are competing for the fourth end spot. Buchanan is slender but wiry and has impressed with his toughness and overall athletic ability.
At tackle, Rahkeem Smith is up to 293 pounds and may still be ahead of fast-improving redshirt freshman Ugo Uzodinma. And Daryle Ballew is making his presence felt after healing from shoulder surgery.
Martez Wilson and Ian Thomas are clear number 1's at the MIKE and SAM linebacker spots respectively. Russell Ellington and Nate Bussey appear to be rotating at the WILL spot. Evan Frierson is number two in the middle, while Aaron Gress, Justin Staples, Nate Palmer and Dustin Jefferson are competing for backup spots.
The Illini have four experienced cornerbacks in Dere Hicks, Tavon Wilson, Miami Thomas and Travon Bellamy. Donsay Hardeman and Bo Flowers are consistently with the first team defense at the safety spots. They are not extremely fast, but they understand the defense and are experienced. Garrett Edwards and Supo Sanni are backing them at this time. There is plenty of competition at all four defensive back positions as the third teamers also have ability.
It will be awhile before any decisions are made at running back. With Green and Golden each getting a chance, blocking may help decide how much they play. Both youngsters struggled early while trying to block linebackers off the edge.
But Green later warded off Ian Thomas' rush and sustained it long enough to land on top of him to the delight of teammates. Golden also caught on fast. Rookie fullback Greg Fuller has definite blocking ability and did well for the most part. But Martez Wilson blew by him before he could react. The top four running backs all look improved as blockers on pass protection.
In 7 on 7 action, Juice Williams completed 5 of 6 passes in one segment of situational drills. McGee was four for four and Charest two for two. Sykes made a nice comeback for a McGee toss over the middle, and Hoomanawanui dove to complete a Williams toss.
In a later 7 on 7 segment, Benn made a stretched-out grab of a bomb to help Williams complete 6 of 7 passes. McGee hit Hull on a beautiful down-and-out pattern, but Ramsey dropped a perfect McGee throw on a post route. Charest was 3 for 3, including completions to Graham, Scott and Lattimore, who added yards with a quick upfield burst.
There was no tackling during 11 on 11 action, so the running plays were not continued to completion. The offense had several nice plays in that segment. Williams and Charest both gained yardage multiple times on options. Benn had one quick burst for a big gain, and Green showed his sprinter speed on an outside ramble.
But the defense rose up a number of times as well. Williams completed a short pass to Scott, who was greeted hard by Bussey as the ball arrived. Scott kept hold of the ball, but Bussey was cheered by teammates. Buchanan forced Charest to throw the ball away with a quick pass rush. And Tavon Wilson was tight with Benn on a completion from McGee.
Afterward, Illinois coach Ron Zook had only positive things to say.
"I thought it was good. The attitude was good, the energy was good, the weather was good, so it was a good day."
Unlike last year, Zook plans to hold nothing back during Camp Rantoul. He wants his players accustomed to contact and thinking in physical terms.
"There will be a lot of contact. We will do the things you have to do to have a good program. We're not gonna worry about getting guys to the first game."