Illinois Coach Ron Zook checked the weather radar, saw storms brewing for late afternoon and changed his schedule for Wednesday. It worked out perfectly except for those who didn't hear about the change and arrived late. But the practice was the most important thing, and it was completed without incident.
"We projected the storms for around 4:00-4:30pm, and it looks like we were pretty close," Zook related after practice. "This allows us to move up their rest time tonight. We got everything done, we just had to change the schedule around a little bit."
The Big Ten Network's Dave Revsine, Gerry DiNardo and former Illini Howard Griffiths continued their tour of Big Ten programs with a stop in Rantoul Wednesday. They taped their evening broadcast and added interviews with Zook, Juice Williams and Arrelious Benn. It is their job to state the positive for all schools, so expect a favorable report.
There was both bad and good news on the injury front. While it isn't confirmed yet, Zook anticipates a season-ending knee surgery for cornerback Miami Thomas.
"Miami had an MRI this afternoon. We'll find out more whenever they read it tonight or tomorrow morning. We don't know for sure his status, but it is probably an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament tear). I'm hoping and praying it's not.
"He's in good spirits. I talked to him this morning. We had our shoulders operated on together in December, and I told him if, God forbid it was a knee, he would have to do it on his own. I'm not gonna go through that again."
Thomas would be sitting out his second straight year, a terrible blow to a quality young man and excellent football player. While it is still a long way down the road, Zook confirmed Thomas' situation could eventually result in the NCAA rewarding him with a sixth year of eligibility if desired.
"Absolutely. But we won't even address it until his fifth year."
Offensive guard Jack Cornell may need 2-3 weeks or more to recover from his injury, but at least nothing was broken.
"Jack Cornell has a bad ankle sprain. The funny thing is, both things happened with non contact situations. Miami's was just the way he came down. There was no contact. And on Jack, he was turning upfield and his ankle just rolled over."
Zook also had a favorable report on the illness plaguing offensive guard Jon Asamoah.
"I told them to keep him in the training room. That way nobody's asking about him. Hopefully, it is a sinus infection. He was in walk-throughs, meetings and all that. I hope it's not a big deal. It's important we get him over it and get him back out here."
Offensive tackle Jeff Allen was back out working with the first unit after missing yesterday. But with Asamoah and Cornell both sidelined, several line adjustments were necessary.
Graham Pocic worked with the first unit at right guard after spending spring and the early part of fall camp at left guard. Tyler Sands and Ryan Sedlacek each took turns at second string center, a position hit especially hard since Asamoah is Eric Block's backup.
Craig Wilson and Corey Lewis resumed their familiar roles as second string tackles, but two new names popped up at guard, Mike Garrity and Anterio Jackson. It appears the Illini coaches are not yet willing to move a freshman onto the second string, so players like Sands, Sedlacek, Garrity and Jackson have a chance to show what they can do.
Jackson is especially intriguing because he has spent only two days on offense after toiling on the defensive side of the ball his first three years.
"We moved Anterio Jackson over to offensive guard for a couple days now, and I've been kind of impressed with him," Zook stated. "Joe (Gilbert) told me that he's trying and doing a good job."
With a couple other regulars dressed but not participating due to minor ailments, there were several other depth chart adjustments. Both Daryle Ballew and Ugo Uzodinma enjoyed reps at second string defensive tackle, while Whitney Mercilus and Michael Buchanan had opportunities at the ends on the second unit.
Also, freshman Joelil Thrash got some second team reps at cornerback. Dere Hicks was back on the first unit, especially when Travon Bellamy worked at nickel. Garrett Edwards lined up both at first string safety and second nickel, with Ashante Williams alternating at second nickelback. When Edwards went to nickel, Supo Sanni took his spot at safety.
WILL linebacker Nate Bussey saw time with the first unit. Cornerback Antonio Gully spent time with the second unit also. Offensively, A.J. Jenkins, Jack Ramsey, Chris James and freshmen Terry Hawthorne and Steve Hull got more opportunities.
There was no full contact, but there was still plenty of competition in 7 on 7 and 11 on 11 situations. In an early 7 on 7, Eddie McGee hit Hawthorne on a long slant pattern over the middle, and the quick rookie turned it into a touchdown.
Hawthorne later made a diving catch of a low throw, and he made a beautiful over-the-shoulder grab in the end zone with his toes barely in bounds. In the latter case, Jacob Charest barely got the ball off before Ballew ran him over. Hawthorne still wears a red shirt, but most of the padding is now off his hand.
Other offensive highlights included James catching a touchdown pass from Williams; Charest hit tight end Hubie Graham for a TD after a nice ball fake left him wide open; Jason Ford veered off right tackle for a big run down the sideline; Williams hit Ramsey on a slant for a touchdown; and both Mikel Leshoure and McGee made impressive runs, the latter for a TD.
There were a number of defensive highlights as well. Cornerback Tavon Wilson intercepted a Williams pass in the endzone when Ramsey didn't come back for the ball as expected. Safety Donsay Hardeman did likewise with a McGee attempt. Linebacker Ian Thomas and walkon cornerback Nattiel Perkins broke up pass attempts. And Clay Nurse, Rahkeem Smith, and Corey Liuget all had tackles for loss.
At the conclusion of practice, the first string offense had five tries to score a two point conversion against the first string defense. It became a heated, evenly fought battle that had everyone cheering for their side.
On the first play, Bussey flew in on a blitz and forced Williams to throw incomplete. On the second try, Williams hit Benn in the endzone. Nurse threw Benn down behind the line on the third attempt. And Williams hit Graham for two points to even the match at two apiece.
Zook made a special effort to get the adrenalin flowing by emphasizing the fifth try would be the winner. It was then Williams used his senior savvy to save the day for the offense. Faking a handoff to Benn going to his right, Williams kept the ball and sped untouched into the left corner of the end zone.
It was a fun conclusion to another productive day at Camp Rantoul.