The Illinois football team was met by several hundred football coaches and a strong and cold North wind Thursday afternoon. The sudden temperature drop forced most high school coaches to leave early, but the Illini completed another high-energy practice without incident.
It is interesting watching the receivers being put through their paces by Paul Petrino. Besides working on their footwork for pass routes and techniques for breaking free from press coverage, they also work extensively with the Jugs machine.
Most if not all receiver coaches use the automated passing machine as a tool to practice catching technique. In the past, the Illini receivers stood approximately 8-10 yards from the machine and caught balls. Petrino makes it more complicated.
Starting around 8 yards away, the receivers step closer to the machine with each rapid-fire catch. By the time they catch ten in a row, they are no more than 3-4 yards from it. Considering how hard and fast the machine spits out balls, the receivers are improving their hand-eye coordination. And to a man, they are nearly flawless.
They also run short routes back and forth in front of the machine. This was also done in past years, but the receivers are now much closer to the balls' release point. The ball is on them before they can think, but again they do a good job securing the ball.
The defense is playing with intensity and doing a good job. In the two-minute drill late in practice, Travon Bellamy intercepted a Nathan Scheelhaase pass and the whole defense ran onto the field to celebrate with Bellamy.
Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning demands group celebration rather than individual showboating. While going onto the field would cause a penalty in a real game, the group effort was a positive sign.
Despite encouraging signs by the defense all spring, Koenning sounded a warning note.
"I'm concerned about depth with the whole defense. Every position. Right now I don't think we have enough depth."
This is especially noticeable at the two cornerback positions. Terry Hawthorne is still playing behind Pat Nixon-Youman on one side while Tavon Wilson mans the other. Senior squadman Antonio Gully plays behind Wilson, but his previous experience has been limited to special teams. Koenning discussed the situation, including the fact no corners will be joining the team come fall.
"We've got Marcus Thomas coming back, and the thought was maybe the (Tommie) Hopkins kid might get it and give us some depth. The thought was to have a spot for him, so that was a guy you couldn't sign because you had to cap that scholarship.
"So there was a reason we didn't just take anybody. Toward the end of recruiting, there were a couple guys we kind of liked. One kid kind of did the okey-doke on us. That happens."
The Illini must hope to avoid injuries, at cornerback and a number of other positions. But the first two defensive units are performing more and more aggressively as they gain confidence in their assignments.
When the first string offensive line went against the first string defensive line in one-on-one drills, each offensive lineman held off the challenge long enough to allow a quarterback to release a pass. However, the defense held the upper ground with several subs.
Corey Liuget ran past Anterio Jackson, Nate Palmer used his quickness on Nate Swanson, Daryle Ballew bulled his way past Ryan Sedlacek, and Tim Kynard overcame Shawn Afryl. The highlight of the action was Justin Staples, who found Corey Lewis off balance and threw him to the ground. Whether he could have reached the quarterback in time remains to be seen, but the throw-down was impressive.
In 11 on 11 action near the end of practice, Scheelhaase hit Jarred Fayson and Steve Hull, and Jacob Charest threw a bullet to Chris James, all on intermediate patterns over the middle. Opening the middle of the field for air strikes is a welcome addition from previous seasons. A.J. Jenkins made a brilliant diving grab of a Chandler Whitmer pass.
Troy Pollard is beginning to get his quickness back after a mild injury scare last Saturday. In red zone action, Jason Ford and Bud Golden scampered for touchdowns. And Charest hit James for a TD. Justin Lattimore later made a nice grab of a Charest pass in 2-minute offense.
Another visitor to campus was former Ohio State kicker Tim Williams, who is a personal coach for Derek Dimke. Besides bragging about how well Dimke is booting the ball, he also discussed a punter he told Ron Zook about.
Brad Janitz is a 6'-5" former successful soccer goalie out of Walnut Ridge High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. He has only been punting for one year, but Williams is amazed at how quickly he has developed. In a recent practice, Janitz achieved hang times in the 4.8 to 5.1 range, outstanding at any level.
The intelligent Janitz had several scholarship offers from smaller schools, but a two-day visit to the Illini campus convinced him to walk on for a year to serve as emergency backup for Anthony Santella. The idea is to compete for a scholarship next year.
Former Illini offensive guard Jon Asamoah had his personal Pro Timing Day for pro scouts this afternoon. He has recently been cleared for full activity after recovering from a fractured shoulder, and the pro scouts needed to see what he could do.
Asamoah was measured at 6'-4", 308 pounds. He did 22 reps of a 225 pound bench press despite being unable to lift weights while his shoulder healed. His vertical leap was 27.5 inches, and his 40 yard dash time was an outstanding 5.04 seconds.
Afterward, Asamoah had a big smile on his face. He was amazed with his performance.
"I ran faster than I ever thought I could."
He said the scouts kept him far longer than he thought as they worked on every little detail with him in drill work. More than likely, their close inspection was necessary as he will likely be a high draft pick, and they want to be sure they are getting their money's worth.