Monday evening at Camp Rantoul ended the way it began for the Illinois football team, with a threat of rain storms. But in between, the Illini got in a lot of productive work.
With several pro scouts looking on, including representatives from Houston, Detroit and Miami, the Illinois football team woke up at the crack of dawn for a two hour workout. The Illini began their workout a little early, trying to beat a rain shower that dissipated before it arrived.
In one depth chart change of note, cornerback Travon Bellamy was moved ahead of veteran Dere Hicks at one cornerback spot. Hicks is recovering from two groin surgeries and has not been as sharp as expected. And Bellamy appears to be regaining his swagger after a difficult two years. It remains to be seen whether this is a permanent change.
Fifth year seniors Sirod Williams and Doug Pilcher stayed in the weight room for the morning session, a concession well deserved. In their absence, Ugo Uzodinma, Whitney Mercilus and freshman Michael Buchanan received some second team reps. Freshman cornerback Joelil Thrash shared second team duties as well.
Also, Jack Cornell was back with the first string at right guard as Jon Asamoah took the morning off with a minor ailment. Tight end London Davis was back practicing with his teammates after sitting three days with a mild concussion.
The Illini spent a great deal of time on fundamentals and position drills in the morning. It is enjoyable to watch big freshmen defensive tackles Akeem Spence and Lendale Buckner motor through the blocking dummies. For huge men, Spence weighs 300 while Buckner is a massive 340, they are amazingly quick.
Defensive line coach Keith Gilmore has high hopes for both.
"Spence may be a little ahead, but Buckner is so powerful. Once he gets it, he's a massive young man. He's got good feet, he's a good athlete. He's gonna be a great player I think. It's just a matter of time.
"Sometimes with young guys, you've just got to coach them through the basic techniques. Playing with the elbows and not knowing how to use the hands is the biggest obstacle to overcome. We're working on that. They do have some athleticism though, to be as big as they are."
Gilmore also praised freshman defensive end Michael Buchanan. He looks like he may see some action as a rookie if he keeps improving.
"At this point, he's a pass rusher. But my hope is that he can be an every down player. He's got a lot of skills, he's a rangy kid and can put on some weight. He's put on maybe 25 pounds since he's been here this summer, and he's gonna keep gaining and getting stronger and getting better. He's got a great upside."
When asked who on the defensive line showed improvement at the Saturday scrimmage, Gilmore brought up a name often overlooked.
"Daryle Ballew showed up. He wasn't here in the spring because he was overcoming shoulder surgery. He made some plays and has caught my attention."
The evening session got off to a dubious beginning. Just after the Illini began their prepractice routines, lightning in the vicinity brought the team back to the locker room. The players were protected while Coach Ron Zook stood outside watching for more lightning. After a 50 minute delay, the Illini took to the field.
A light rain continued throughout the rest of the evening. A planned half hour of individual drills was deleted from the schedule, and the practice ended 25 minutes early as more bad weather appeared imminent. But the team went through some 7 on 7 and 11 on 11 sessions before calling a halt to the action.
After practice, Offensive Coordinator Mike Schultz discussed his evaluation of the offense from the Saturday evening scrimmage.
"We're not ready to play. We did some good things, and we did some bad things. I'm gonna echo what Coach Zook said. We had way too many penalties. We have to reduce them, as well as missed assignments.
"When we got down inside the 5, we mishandled the snap. We're disappointed in that. And we put one down on the ground down there. But we also went back down and punched one in. So if we execute, we've got a chance.
"It was a first scrimmage, and there hasn't been a lot of contact, so we'll be okay."
Practice resumes Tuesday afternoon.