Illini Hold Closed Scrimmage On Day 9

The Fighting Illini held another scrimmage as part of their ninth day of spring practice. This time, it was away from the prying eye of the media and public as the Illini worked on wrinkles of the offense and defense it would like to keep secret prior to the Missouri game. But the coaches provided plenty of material afterwards.

Illinois allowed the media to attend the first hour of drill work before going into Memorial Stadium for their scrimmage. A number of recruits including members of the Champaign Central team were permitted to watch the scrimmage.

One recruit in attendance was Christian Suntrup, a good looking 3-star quarterback from St. Louis Chaminade. He is being recruited by a number of top programs. Also present were Barrington brothers Peter and Ron Cobb.

Jack Cornell continued to operate with the first string at guard and is much improved. Joelil Thrash has been moved back to cornerback and was backing up Tavon Wilson with Pat Nixon-Youman and Antonio Gully competing with Terry Hawthorne on the other side.

Defensive backs wer practicing an interesting ball-strip drill. They were double teaming the ball carrier. The first defender on the scene tackled the side of the body opposite the ball location. Then the second player went for the strip.

This might be an effective tool as no brain can concentrate on two different parts of the body simultaneously. A hit on one side might occasionally force the ball carrier to loosen his grip on the opposite side.

Receivers were also involved with an interesting drill. They were doing crossing patterns and practicing reaching back for a poorly thrown ball. The real key to the drill was for them to do a 360 spin, going with the momentum of the catch, so they would still be moving forward once they secured the ball. Petrino is big on yards after catch, and this is a technique that might free them once in awhile.

After the scrimmage, Illinois coach Ron Zook showed his sensitivity to fan and media needs while explaining the closed portion of practice. It is obviously a difficult juggling act for him.

"People are gonna watch tape, and they're gonna speculate. You want the Illini fans to know what's going on. It's important to them. I've said it many times it's their program.

"At the same time, they don't want anyone out there. We've got some wrinkles that we worked on today that we think can help us down the road as well."

Inside linebacker coach Dan Disch agreed there is no way to keep everything under wraps.

"There aren't any secrets out here now. We're just trying to get better. We've put in a new system, and we hope to learn it."

Some might think Disch would find the adjustment to a new defense difficult after serving as co-coordinator the last few years. But he seems encouraged by the changes taking place. He was asked how he is adjusting.

"Good. I like the new stuff. It's exciting."

Disch described the progress of his linebackers.

"Martez (Wilson) is doing most things, but he's not doing full contact yet. I think he's really improved a lot. He's chomping at the bit to get going. At the WILL right now is Ian Thomas, and obviously he's got a lot of snaps now after last year.

"I'm excited about those two guys, but I think we've got a little bit of depth. Evan Frierson's playing a lot at MIKE, and Aaron Gress, Russ Ellington and Dustin Jefferson are running in a lot and have been here a long time."

Disch also provided details on several other positions on the defense.

"Corey Liuget is doing some good things. Akeem Spence has made a lot of improvement. We've moved linebackers (Justin) Staples and (Nate) Palmer to the Bandit and strongside end."

How about the safeties? Travon Bellamy is smiling again as he is performing well on the field after two difficult years.

"A lot of competition. Travon's getting a bunch of reps with the ones. Supo Sanni's working hard, and then you've got Walt Aikens who's had experience in there. And Trulon Henry is there. So we've got four guys who are really working hard. Right now it's full-on competition trying to win the job. It's gonna make it a lot better."

How is cornerback Terry Hawthorne progressing?

"He's gonna be a good player, and he's really worked to improve. He's better at his technique and has become more of a student of the game. He's made some good strides."

Overall, Disch is enjoying the process while recognizing the need for continued improvement.

"That's why I love spring. Everyone's excited, they're learning some new stuff which is good and keeps them interested. So it's been good. But we've got to finish these last two weeks and make some progress. We're not where we need to be. I think we've made good strides."

The only known casualty recently is Offensive Coordinator Paul Petrino, who is walking with a noticeable limp after damaging his left knee. He pretended to be in no pain, but he admitted there may be a problem that might require repair. He won't have it checked until after spring ball.

Petrino described the work of the offense in the scrimmage.

"It was pretty good. It was better on Saturday. The first drive I liked to see us execute the passing game. We went down the field with Nathan (Scheelhaase) and executed our passing game real well and got it in the end zone. The second time we went down there with that group and just missed a touchdown pass in the back of the end zone and settled for a field goal.

"Overall, I don't know if I was as happy with the intensity of the whole group, all 11 guys. I think the overall intensity can improve.

"You want it to be there every day. Sometimes it does go up and down. Really, you want both sides to get up for each other. At times, I think we did some things better. We were better at the two-minute at the end. We did better on a couple drives with our passing game. I don't think we ran the ball as well today as we have been.

"We did good on third downs. Our redzone wasn't good enough. And we did a better job, for us, on the two-minute."

Why is there a problem in the two-minute offense?

"I just think that's a case where you've got to throw the ball every single down. And one of our strengths right now is the ability to run the ball, play-action, moving, doing different things.

"When you get in two-minute drill, you're basically throwing drop-back every play. That's something we've got to continue to improve on. Today we tried to narrow down what we did in two-minute, and we executed it better."

Both Petrino and Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning are intense guys who expect that same level of energy on the field. Both men compete with each other, and both mete out punishment if their players fail to compete at the top level every day in practice.

"You're always competing against the defense," Petrino reminds. "We've always tried to be as intense as anyone is on offense. I think every day you line up and compete against whoever you play against. They're doing a lot of stuff on defense, and we're doing a lot of stuff, so that makes a big learning curve.

"Definitely, every day, that's where you become a special team when both sides are the most competitive and intense, and it brings out the best in each other. That's something you've got to keep building on.

"We've just got to keep grinding. That's something we keep talking about. We have to come out here with a great attitude, bust your butt and get better."

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