Illinois football players were in shorts Friday afternoon in what was basically a dress rehearsal for their annual Spring Game that concludes spring practices for 2010. But the practice was lively as offense and defense went at it. They will both be fired up tomorrow in what should be an entertaining game.
Several future Illini and a number of parents were on hand. Among the entering freshmen in attendance were Georgian Evan Wilson, Floridian Darius Millines, and offensive linemen Simon Cvijanovic from Ohio and Michael Heitz from Vermont, Illinois.
The parents of several Illini players were noticeable including those for Derek Dimke, Andrew Carter and Zach Becker. And all three quarterbacks were represented by their parents. They are developing a good relationship.
Now is a good time to discuss who might win the Most Improved Awards for spring. Illinois coach Ron Zook chimed in with his thoughts on who has made strong progress this spring.
"We've had guys on both sides of the football that have stepped up. Moving Graham Pocic to center, he's a big force in there and he'll do a nice job. I'm really happy with the way Graham has progressed this spring.
"A.J. Jenkins, we all knew he was a very talented guy. More than anything, A.J. matured. He grew up. A.J.'s become a receiver we all felt like he could become. We're very pleased with him.
"Zach Becker is working two different positions and is getting better and better. He didn't go through the winter program because he had stress fractures in both feet and had surgery on both of those.
"On defense, we're very pleased and happy with the way Glenn Foster and Akeem Spence have progressed. Glenn has a little different motor in there which is hard sometimes for offensive guys to block. Sometimes he's going the right way, sometimes he's not. He's had an awfully good spring.
"Akeem is a big body, great big body. I've been very impressed with him, as with Daryle Ballew. Daryle Ballew has made a lot of progress this spring.
"At the linebacker position, Aaron Gress probably made the most improvement on either side of the football in the scrimmage last Saturday. We kept talking last year about how he and Nate Bussey were probably the best on special teams. Aaron's got some football saavy when he's not thinking. We're excited he turned it loose and did a nice job.
"Tavon Wilson had a great spring. Last year he got the hardest worker on the defensive side of the ball. I'm really impressed with the way he's going."
Leaving out the quarterback battle, other players who will be in the mix for the offensive player award besides Pocic, Jenkins and Becker include Jarred Fayson, Jack Ramsey, Jack Cornell, and Corey Lewis. Becker may win the award since he has bolstered a tight end position considered iffy going into spring, but he has definite competition there.
Defensively, Zook showed he might be leaning toward Gress for most improved. But Foster, Spence, Ballew and Tavon Wilson will be considered, as will Corey Liuget, Whitney Mercilus, Michael Buchanan, Nate Palmer, Evan Frierson, Bussey, Pat Nixon-Youman, Supo Sanni and Travon Bellamy. Bellamy has made tremendous progress after two difficult years.
The special teams award may go to any number of players who have caught the eye of coaches in practice. That is more difficult to analyze for outsiders. But one who will definitely be considered is long snapper Zac Pedersen.
While punters and kickers have said Pedersen may not get the ball back quite as fast as Tad Keely last year, he is amazingly accurate with his snaps. Zook has confirmed Pedersen can be counted on at that important position.
The Spring Game begins at 1:00pm Saturday in Memorial Stadium. The coaches will then be on the road evaluating high school talent the next four weeks.