Illinois football coach Ron Zook continues to put his charges through their paces at Camp Rantoul despite the warm, humid conditions. With all the experience on the team, the transition from one drill to another is fast-paced. This allows for more practice opportunities in the alloted time.
The first true hitting of the fall came when the Oklahoma drill was called. An offensive and defensive player butt heads while a ball carrier runs to daylight within a confined space. There was some major pad popping as everyone except the quarterbacks had at least one opportunity in the spotlight.
With the players on the second field far away from onlookers, and with players crowding around to observe the action, it became difficult to see the action. But some results of the pairings include the following:
The offensive winners included Mikel Leshoure over Bo Flowers, meaning the runner got past the defender without being stopped; Tyler Sands over Anterio Jackson; Craig Wilson split a pair with Glenn Foster; Hubie Graham over Aaron Gress twice; Randall Hunt over Akeem Spence; Jeff Allen over Ugo Uzodinma; London Davis over Nate Palmer; Leon Hill over Michael Buchanan; and Andrew Carter over Eric Watts.
Defenders who asserted themselves and either made the tackle or dominated their man included Russell Ellington over Jack Cornell; Daryle Ballew over Mike Garrity; Corey Liuget over Cornell; Rahkeem Smith over Graham Pocic; and Justin Staples over Eddie Viliunas, the walkon who has been moved from quarterback to tight end. Ian Thomas, Dustin Jefferson and Walter Aikens all won individual battles during the drill.
Receiver Jeff Cumberland manhandled his defensive back opponent and drew perhaps the biggest cheer from the offensive players. On the next play, cornerback Dere Hicks won big over Cordale Scott, and the defenders went overboard to congratulate him. In what will likely be a persistent theme throughout fall practice, the defense is unwilling to take a back seat to the offense, producing intensity and spirited play on both sides.
Both Matt Eller and Derek Dimke booted successful field goals from several distances. Eller is the leader there and has more confidence than last year, but Dimke is proving an excellent backup and provides significant competition. Anthony Santella boomed a few good punts.
Punt returners so far have included Jarred Fayson, the likely starter, Jack Ramsey, and Dere Hicks. Kickoff return men so far have included Arrelious Benn, A.J. Jenkins, Chris Duvalt and Troy Pollard.
In personnel situations, Andrew Carter is one of six snappers for the six quarterbacks, but he is learning the trade primarily as an emergency backup. Line coach Joe Gilbert is playing him at guard in the offense with fellow freshman Jake Feldmeyer at center. Carter has the size and quickness to be good one day. Feldmeyer is undersized right now but has an excellent mind for the center position.
A brief pop-up shower brought cooling relief to the players halfway through practice, but it appeared to disrupt the passing offense in early 7 on 7 work. More passes were either thrown poorly or dropped than normal.
But on the positive side, Benn caught a long sideline toss in stride as he sped between defenders Antonio Gully and Garrett Edwards for an apparent touchdown. Chris James made a good leaping catch. Quarterback Jacob Charest led Chris Duvalt perfectly for a long gainer on a swing pass. Defensively, Bo Flowers anticipated a Juice Williams pass, stepping in front of the receiver for an interception.
The Illini later renewed their 7 on 7 work, facing 1st and ten, 2nd and five, 3rd and seven and 3rd and nine situations. Williams hit Fayson and then Cumberland twice on his first three throws. He later hit Graham and Cumberland again, ending up with 5 for 8 with one ball dropped.
Eddie McGee hit Jason Ford, Fayson and James consecutively before throwing an incomplete pass on 3rd and nine. Charest hit James, who made a brilliant left-handed catch of a slant over the middle. However, the redshirt freshman quarterback also threw an interception to Miami Thomas on the sideline, one of his two picks on the day.
The Illini then did some extended 11 on 11 work without tackling to end the day's work. Unlike the spring, the option was used frequently. This allowed the quarterbacks to show their full potential and put tremendous pressure on the defense. It was clear, for those who may have forgotten, that Williams is one of the best option quarterbacks in the nation.
Williams and McGee also used planned draws to good effect. Without tackling, it was hard to tell how much yardage the quarterbacks actually gained. But they frequently passed the first down marker before being whistled to a stop.
Some of the other offensive highlights included Ford taking a flat pass from McGee and speeding down the sideline for a big gain. Williams hit tight end Michael Hoomanawanui over the middle, and the big senior rambled forward for more yardage. Fayson turned a short toss from Charest into a big gain. And Duvalt made an excellent catch on another Charest toss.
Defensively, Ian Thomas stuffed Daniel Dufrene for minimal gain. Defensive tackle Josh Brent met Dufrene at the line of scrimmage for no gain. Defensive end Glenn Foster and rookie weakside linebacker Eric Watts combined for a tackle for loss on a Duvalt sweep. And safety Supo Sanni recovered an errant McGee pitch.
Overall, the squad is relatively injury free. Freshman receiver Terry Hawthorne ran routes but still had heavy padding on his surgically repaired hand. Fellow freshman Tommie Hopkins is not yet involved fully due to a summer accident. And freshman defensive end Tim Kynard spent most of the day in the weight room strengthening his surgically repaired shoulder.
The Illini hold their first of three double sessions Wednesday.