Illinois coach Ron Zook says the old days of working teams hard in frequent double sessions has been reduced considerably by NCAA edict.
"I really don't think the two-a-days are as demanding as the one-a-days. The bad thing is they've got to get up early in the morning. But we give them plenty of time, plenty of rest.
"Even when I was in the NFL, it's probably been since 1994 that I had two-a-days two days in a row. It gives them a chance to stay fresh and not be completely worn out. You're only allowed a certain number of practices before your first game."
The morning session was typical of past years, except more fans turned out than usual for 8:00am. The team did a lot of work on their offensive and defensive playbooks. There was some 7 on 7 and 11 on 11 without hitting.
Former Illini quarterback Jon Beutjer took in the action. He played in an Arena League last year, but it went bankrupt. So he is now the quarterback coach at North Central College in Naperville.
There were some adjustments in the depth chart. Travon Bellamy had some reps with the first team at nickel and also some at cornerback. Nate Bussey appeared to play every snap with the first team defense at the WILL linebacker spot.
Numerous other players took reps with the second units. Among them were Aaron Gress at SAM, Whitney Mercilus, Glenn Foster, Rahkeem Smith, Ugo Uzodinma, Walter Aikens, Ashante Williams and Patrick Nixon-Youman. Ryan Sedlecek had some early reps with the second offense at center, and he shared time with Mike Garrity and Tyler Sands.
Freshman Terry Hawthorne still has his right hand heavily padded, but he was allowed to catch balls for the second day. He appeared to have no problems holding onto the ball. And he has been added to the mix at punt return. He wore a red shirt to prevent contact, but he has a fluidity and quickness that are ideal for the role.
Bo Flowers grabbed his second interception in two days by being in the right spot and anticipating the action. Freshman defensive end Michael Buchanan continues to be noticeable, this time with a fumble recovery and some good work in one on one drills with offensive linemen.
The evening session produced some mild skirmishes between offensive and defensive players, a sign the Illini are itching for some hitting and are intense and competitive. There was only brief hitting, but the pads were popping in those sessions.
On the anniversary of his torn knee ligament, senior defensive tackle Sirod Williams celebrated his return to health with a block of a Matt Eller field goal attempt. Eller made his other three kicks. Backup Derek Dimke was even more impressive, booming five through the uprights with excellent height and distance.
There was one brief period where pass drops appeared contagious. The normally sure-handed Illini dropped five of six consecutive passes in one 7 on 7 segment. But normalcy was restored shortly thereafter.
It appeared the defense had the better of the evening competition. Redshirt freshman Whitney Mercilus, competing for a second string berth at defensive end, dropped into the flat, intercepted a swing pass and returned it to the endzone. He also made a big hit for no gain on a red zone running play.
Middle linebacker Martez Wilson made his presence felt in red zone action, stuffing the running backs for no gain on several occasions. And he ended the evening with an interception of a Juice Williams pass which he returned for a touchdown. It wouldn't have counted as Williams was touched for a sack a split second before he threw it, but Wilson's play inspired his teammates nonetheless.
The defense is not intimidated by what should be an outstanding Illinois offense. At one point, they were yelling on the sideline to disrupt play calling in one 11 on 11 segment. And they made numerous big plays all evening.
Nate Bussey joined Nate Palmer in putting a big hit on a running back. Safety Supo Sanni had an excellent pass breakup. Josh Brent had at least one sack, and he and his defensive line mates put pressure on the quarterbacks all evening.
There were a few big plays by the offense. Receiver Chris James ddn't see much action last fall because he was still slowed by knee surgery from the previous year. But Illinois coach Ron Zook has seen definite positive signs lately, including an outstanding one hand catch in the end zone.
"He's done about three or four things in the last two days. I told him on the field he's caught my eye. He's excited and has worked extremely hard in the offseason. He wants an opportunity to get back out on the field. He knows he wasn't 100% last year, and it was frustrating. He's gonna help this football team."
Other offensive highlights included receiver Jarred Fayson making several tough grabs including a leaping two-handed catch in the end zone. Also, running back Troy Pollard made a tough grab along the sideline despite tight defensive pressure. And receiver Jeff Cumberland finally made an alley oop reception for a touchdown. Despite his size and leaping ability, this was one of the first such grabs Cumberland has made in his career.
Freshman running back Justin Green made an exceptionally quick cutback on a sweep, gaining extra yardage and drawing praise from his teammates and coaches. In fact, there are a number of excellent freshmen, but fewer of them will be expected to play than in the past. This means there is quality depth ahead of them, allowing them to develop at their own pace according to Zook.
"For the most part, the freshmen are all just trying to keep their heads above water. That's the way it should be. Hopefully, each year it's gonna be harder and harder for freshmen because your football team becomes better. That's what you want."
A good crowd watched the evening session as well. A large contingent of Pee Wee football players engulfed Illini players as they walked off the field. It was a good night for autographs.