"They're excited. I don't know if I've ever seen them as excited as they are. They've been in our offices more than us all summer. These guys are really into it.
"It's like waking up on Christmas morning. You know there will be presents, but you don't know what they'll be. I don't know what it's gonna be, but it's shiny. I'm excited to get the things opened up, and let's go."
With the exception of two players hurt late in spring ball who required surgery, everyone is healthy. And there appear to be no eligibility questions.
"Everybody has a clean bill of health except Corey Lewis (knee) and Russell (Ellington, shoulder). They're still rehabbing and doing okay. Everybody's here, everybody's cleared by the Clearinghouse. We have no issues."
Walt Aikens participated. The sophomore safety spent a few days in jail and must yet pass muster with the University of Illinois. If his situation falls within UI guidelines, he will be allowed to rejoin the team. Until then, he is considered suspended from game activity.
Martez Wilson returned to full activity after a year off to recuperate from neck surgery. Zook doesn't believe the injury will have any lasting impact, physically or psychologically.
"He's never shied away from contact. He likes contact. He's not afraid to stick it in there, even in the spring. We didn't want him taking any chances, so we constantly had to get after him about staying out of it, staying out of it.
"I think that helps make him the type of player we think he can be. I can't wait to see him get going. He's where we expected him to be last year."
Nathan Scheelhaase spent his first full day as the designated first string quarterback.
"I've probably been excited to see this day since he was here in camp before he committed. There's something about the guy. I don't know what it is. I don't want any pressure on him. I just want him to be himself."
Scheelhaase has a mental strength far beyond his years. He played like a veteran.
"For a first time, I thought even he was a little nervous," Zook surmised. "But I thought he handled himself extremely well. He was poised."
Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning may have been simply exhausted after working in the heat for the full two sessions. But he seemed peaceful and positive afterward. While he will no doubt have issues with the team as the camp progresses, it was a good starting point.
The same was true for Offensive Coordinator Paul Petrino. He couldn't contain a smile afterward.
"That was pretty exciting. I was happy for the most part. There were mistakes on the first day we've got to clean up. But guys were flying around, and we made some catches we probably didn't make all spring. We made some tough catches when they were covered. I thought our backs looked fast.
"It felt good. It felt like everybody understood the system a little bit better. Just walking off the field, I thought it was a good first day."
Several new freshmen had good days. Bandit Brandon Denmark has slender legs, but he is rangy and athletic and was being given a good introduction to the position. Defensive lineman Austin Teitsma, bulked up considerably, was quick and aggressive for a first day. Safety Fritz Rock appeared in top shape and had a strong burst returning punts. Even his brother was surprised.
Offensively, quarterback Miles Osei has a strong arm and is faster than Chandler Whitmer. Whitmer has a better grasp of the offense and appeared able to hit his receivers on the mark a little better. It should be a good battle for second string.
All four freshman receivers showed promise. Ryan Lankford and Darius Millines are the speedsters. Lankford is extremely skinny, but he is fast and shifty. He and Whitmer completed a good play near the end of practice. Lankford was racing with Pat Nixon-Youman down the sidelines when Whitmer's pass held up into the wind. Lankford came back and caught the pass.
Millines seems to have an extra burst when he needs to catch up to a ball, and he has good hands. Anthony Williams is tall and slender, but he also showed excellent hands and good quickness. Spencer Harris is really quick into and out of his cuts.
Petrino was pleased about Harris's ability to make moves to free himself for extra yardage after the catch. Tight end Evan Wilson is not real fast, but at 6'-6" he makes an excellent target.
Many Illini showed the effects of a hard summer of weight training. Nixon-Youman is no 90 pound weakling any longer. His biceps were noticeable from the opposite side of the field. Defensive end Whitney Mercilus is beginning to remind of former Illinois defensive end Will Davis in the upper body. He will give Clay Nurse good competition at that position.
Maine South offensive lineman Victor Nelson, fully recovered from previous injury and ready for a breakout senior season, visited campus today with his mother and sister. He is definitely still considering the Illini regardless of what other recent reports might have suggested.
It was a good start. But like today, tomorrow and Saturday will prove little. Full pads at Camp Rantoul will decide the fate of this team.