Illini Excited To Be Back On Football Field

New hope. Renewed optimism. Those were key thoughts coming from the first day of Fighting Illini football spring practice. New offensive and defensive coordinators have much to teach in a short amount of time, but the winter preparations went well and the players studied their play books. Overall, it was a good first day.

Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino is installing a new offense, and it takes time. But he was generally pleased.

"It went pretty good. It was the first day. You always think it can be better. Nothing is as good or as bad as it seems when you go watch the tape. I think everyone was flying around and giving great effort. The first day learning a new offense, there were some good things. We look forward to continuing to improve."

Likewise, defensive coordinator Vic Koenning has much work ahead of him, not only teaching his approach to defense but helping the players gain the confidence and intensity required. Three interceptions were dropped, which didn't sit well with him.

"They've all got a fresh beginning. I do see a lot of fundamental things I do think we can correct. That goes with having kind of a young group. There's things we know we need to do to get better."

Illini head coach Ron Zook and his staff have their work cut out for them to make a 3-9 team into a formidable force come fall 2010. New systems require personnel changes that might not be resolved right away. The team needs to learn and grow during the spring.

"The number one thing is we've got to get the guys in the right positions, especially on the defensive side," Zook explains. "The offensive side is pretty well set. We have to talk about personnel every single day to see if there needs to be any personnel changes.

"We want to be as good in all three phases as we can possibly be so we can come out of spring with a good idea where this football team is right now."

The biggest question offensively pertains to the quarterback position. Jacob Charest, Nathan Scheelhaase and Chandler Whitmer are competing for the starting role, and all had their moments Tuesday.

Charest seemed to release the ball quicker and with less hitch than last fall. Scheelhaase demonstrated his understanding of the offense, and Petrino praised Whitmer's fundamentally sound throwing motion. Zook is in no hurry to pick a leader.

"I think it would be nice to know who your quarterback was going to be (by the end of spring), but I don't think it's imperative. Jacob has a little bit of experience, Nathan has been here awhile now, and Chandler has come in and done an unbelieveable job with the classroom and football field as well. It'll be exciting to watch them."

Martez Wilson will not be permitted to have contact this spring due to neck surgery last fall, but he participated in all drills at middle linebacker. Zook said everyone was pleased to see Wilson running around making plays.

"Martez will go through everything but the actual contact stuff. He's excited about it. Not only is he excited, but the coaches are excited, and the players on the defensive side of the ball are excited to have him out here. He's doing everything, including everything in the weight room. It's just a precautionary thing. You want to make sure he's 100%."

Elsewhere on the injury front, Miami Thomas worked with Strength and Conditioning coach Lou Hernandez all practice as he recovers from his second major knee surgery in two years. Zook says Thomas may get some practice reps before the end of spring.

"Miami is wishing he could be out here. Miami is kind of week to week. Perhaps next week or the following week he might be able to go through drills."

In other personnel news, safety Garrett Edwards has decided to graduate and not take his redshirt senior season. Freshman tackle Leon Hill is not listed on the current roster. No explanation for his absense was given.

Freshman defensive back Tommie Hopkins is recovered from leg surgery but will not participate in spring drills while he works on his academics. Defensive tackle Josh Brent and former defensive end Jerry Brown both watched practice. Brent is expected back from Parkland College this summer.

Some personnel changes were noticeable during practice. Glenn Foster is now a defensive tackle. Junior walkon Wisdom Onyegbule may be a tackle now also as he's listed at 280 pounds. Freshman Tim Kynard participated in defensive end drills after sitting out last fall due to shoulder surgery.

Joelil Thrash is playing safety. Justin Staples is being tried at defensive end. And it appears both Michael Buchanan and Nate Palmer are working out at the new Bandit position.

Special teams will not have a specific coordinator this year. Departed defensive backfield coach Mike Woodford held that job last season. Zook said that that a different coach will work with each of the six special teams. He did not say who would do what, but dividing up the responsibilities may prove to be a sound decision as the workload will be balanced between the coaches.

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