Illinois football coach Ron Zook now has several injuries to contend with as the Illini worked through a productive but disconcerting day at Camp Rantoul. Most prominent is the offensive line.
Senior guard Jon Asamoah, arguably the squad's best lineman, missed his second straight day with an undisclosed illness. Zook is uncertain what the problem is and how long he will be out, but he believes Asamoah has the experience necessary to perform well despite missing practice time.
"It's some kind of virus. They're gonna do more tests, so we'll just have to wait until he's all right. You don't like to have anyone not practicing, but Jon is a senior and he's played an awful lot of football. You'd rather it be him than anybody."
With Asamoah out, sophomore Jack Cornell played with the first teamers. However, late in practice he was carted off the field with an ice pack on his lower right leg and ankle. Zook is also unsure about the severity of Cornell's injury.
"It's his lower leg. We'll have to see how bad it is. Hopefully, it's not too bad."
It is possible left guard Graham Pocic will now be moved to right guard to replace Asamoah and Cornell. Other backups are uncertain. It is always possible someone like right tackle Corey Lewis could play inside.
However, tackle depth was a concern Tuesday also as starting left tackle Jeff Allen was dressed but did not practice for an undisclosed reason. Craig Wilson replaced him. So right now Randall Hunt, Eric Block and Ryan Palmer are the lone starters practicing with the first unit. If these problems are not corrected soon, there could be depth issues in the offensive line for the start of the season.
Perhaps the worst injury of the day occurred when Miami Thomas injured his left knee. He was carted off in pain. Thomas had surgery on his right knee and shoulder over the winter. Zook must wait and see before knowing the extent of Thomas' injury.
"Miami just came down wrong on his leg. We'll have to wait and see. It was one of those freak things. I hope he's all right."
Thomas is a natural cornerback when healthy, and he was providing good depth and competition at the position. But Zook is pleased with the quality available at the two cornerback positions even in Thomas' absence. Illinois' outstanding receiver corps is providing excellent learning opportunities for them.
"I really believe when you're going against better people, you get better. Our secondary's gotten better. We have some safeties that don't have a lot of experience, but we have some corners who can play. Tavon Wilson is a completely different guy this year. Travon Bellamy is back to his old self. I think Dere Hicks is pretty healthy now, and I think he feels pretty good about it. We've just got to keep getting better."
In other news, junior Anterio Jackson has been moved from defensive tackle to offensive line. He has no background for the position, so it will take him awhile to catch on. But he was unable to break into the playing rotation on defense.
Juice Williams was completely relaxed in passing opportunities Tuesday. In both 7 on 7 and 11 on 11 situations, he completed a high percentage. However, there were times when he had to throw the ball away as the defensive secondary covered his receivers too well.
In fact, the defense continues to stand up to the offense and give as much as it gets. In the defensive backfield, Bellamy made a nice interception while Hicks, Tavon Wilson (2), Miami Thomas, and linebacker Evan Frierson all broke up passes on the day.
Martez Wilson had a big sack, and the center of the defensive line made several excellent penetrations to stop running plays in redzone work. Defensive tackle Sirod Williams also recorded a sack. Near the end of practice, the offense and defense took turns cheering for their successes, a sign both sides of the ball are making plays with frequency.
Daniel Dufrene made a nice slashing run for a touchdown. There was no tackling, but it was clear he would have scored regardless. Quarterback Jacob Charest made an excellent ball fake, allowing him a big opening on an option run against the third team defense. And Jason Ford, Mikel Leshoure and rookie Justin Green also showed their talent at times.
A.J. Jenkins made several nice catches on the day, one where he sped up to nail a long sideline bomb from Juice Williams. Freshman Terry Hawthorne still wears a red shirt to protect his hand, but he demonstrated his fluid running style in turning a short reception into a long gain.
Also, Cordale Scott made an outstanding one hand grab for a touchdown. Chris Duvalt made two beautiful catches, including out jumping Thomas in the end zone on the play where Thomas injured himself. Freshman tight end Justin Lattimore caught a TD pass from Charest.
Jeff Cumberland continued his improvement on lob passes by making a brilliant grab of a Juice Williams pass. Unfortunately, he came down out of bounds. But he has made remarkable progress with the lob since last year.