Illinois coach Ron Zook continues to enjoy the enthusiasm of players and coaches as preparations for the fall season continue. Everyone seemed attentive to perfect techniques and learn assignments.
Depth charts are still in flux, but some consistency is being established at most positions. The first string offensive line included tackles Jeff Allen and Corey Lewis, guards Hugh Thornton and Randall Hunt, and center Tyler Sands. Tackle Ryan Palmer, guard Jack Cornell and centers Graham Pocic and Ryan Sedlacek are among those battling for playing time.
London Davis was receiving first team reps at tight end. Receivers Jarred Fayson, A.J. Jenkins and Eddie McGee worked with the first unit, but they have plenty of competition from Jack Ramsey, Fred Sykes, Chris James and Steve Hull. Greg Fuller is the only full-time fullback as Zach Becker splits time between fullback and tight end. Becker was getting plenty of reps at fullback in a late 11 on 11 drill.
Mikel Leshoure worked with the first unit at running back. Jason Ford was back at practice after tweaking an ankle Tuesday. Troy Pollard, Justin Green and Bud Golden all had good moments in the backfield. Quarterback remains a battle between Jacob Charest, Nathan Scheelhaase and Chandler Whitmer.
Martez Wilson and Ian Thomas operated out of the two inside linebacker spots. Nathan Bussey was the SAM, backed by Ashante Williams. Supo Sanni was one safety, and Travon Bellamy and Walt Aikens shared the other spot. Terry Hawthorne and Tavon Wilson were the cornerbacks.
Hawthorne made his presence felt late in the day. As dusk settled on the field, reducing visibility, Charest threw a ball that Hawthorne leaped forward to grab near the sideline. Charest's next pass was tipped by McGee into the arms of Tavon Wilson, and his third was grabbed by Hawthorne again, this time a leaping catch on the opposite side.
Afterward, Zook was unconcerned about Charest's uncharacteristic inefficiency.
"You know, all those guys are competing, and a lot of things are happening. Once they put the pads on, the linemen can't just break through and be around them all the time. I don't worry about that. That will be solved."
Hawthorne showed good speed as a rookie last fall, but he appears quicker and more decisive this spring. The value of experience and improved confidence can never be underestimated. Of course, Hawthorne has all the natural gifts for the position according to Zook.
"He's very athletic, he's instinctive, he has great acceleration and great hand-eye coordination. He has a nose for the ball. He's tough, he likes contact."
Offensive Coordinator Paul Petrino's impact on the receivers and running backs is obvious. He emphasizes yards after a catch for receivers and yards after a hit for every ball carrier. It is enjoyable watching them all sprint 40 yards downfield on every play.
In one case, the ball carrier fell, got up and sprinted. He could not have advanced the ball in a game, but if they all get used to the extra running now, it will be instinctive this fall.
Tight end Davis appears improved this spring. He's transformed his body and is in better condition. He is seeing the ball into his hands and showing better speed after the catch. He, Justin Lattimore and Becker all saw the ball frequently in 11 on 11 action.
Other offensive highlights included Golden making a diving catch of a Charest toss on the sideline. Ramsey made a good reaching grab of a Scheelhaase pass.
Zook said afterward one of the placekickers, either Derek Dimke or Matt Eller, would be the backup punter should something happen to Anthony Santella. However, two newcomers will be joining the competition this summer.
Friday will be the first day in pads, and the Oklahoma Drill will be the only true contact. All players seem to enjoy the one-on-one competition and the chance to hit someone after several months with no contact. Saturday's practice will include a scrimmage of around 40-50 plays.