Illinois football players were near exhaustion at the conclusion of a high-energy practice their first day at Camp Rantoul. That was especially true of the defense as coordinator Vic Koenning got their attention with a series of up-downs and running during the last segment of practice. It was a reminder of their need to play their absolute best at all times and to push through their misery.
A first look at the depth chart showed few surprises. Nathan Scheelhaase is of course the first string quarterback, with Chandler Whitmer, Miles Osei and occasionally Eddie McGee getting snaps. Whitmer is second string. The running backs are still operating by committee with five competing for playing time.
The offensive line starters were the usual Jeff Allen, Hugh Thornton (although Jack Cornell shared reps with him), Graham Pocic, Randall Hunt and Ryan Palmer. Illini coach Ron Zook complimented Palmer afterward, noting how hard he worked in the off season to improve.
The second string line is more in flux. Craig Wilson is at one tackle, but he's the only other tackle besides true freshmen Michael Heitz and Simon Cvijanovic. Both freshmen had opportunities with the second unit and showed promise, but depth at tackle is weakest of all Illini positions.
Cornell and Tyler Sands would have to be considered second string guards, but Anterio Jackson and Andrew Carter also saw time there. Jake Feldmeyer played second string center when Sands was at guard.
Defensively, Akeem Spence played alongside Corey Liuget at defensive tackle for the first unit, while Glenn Foster and Daryle Ballew manned the second positions. Whitney Mercilus backed up Clay Nurse at defensive end, while Michael Buchanan is still the clear leader over Nate Palmer at Bandit.
Martez Wilson and Ian Thomas are supported by Evan Frierson and Aaron Gress at the two inside linebacker spots, while Nate Bussey appears to have the advantage over Ashante Williams at outside linebacker.
Supo Sanni and Trulon Henry were the starting safeties, backed by Travon Bellamy and Joelil Thrash, with Walt Aikens also getting second team reps. Tavon Wilson and Terry Hawthorne are the starting corners, with Pat Nixon-Youman third in line. Antonio Gully was playing ahead of Miami Thomas, who still hasn't caught up physically.
Illini coaches were working newcomers into second string special teams. Freshman speedster Ryan Lankford was being tried at punt return, kickoff return and gunner on the punt team. Other punt returners were Terry Hawthorne, Jack Ramsey, and Troy Pollard.
Kick returners besides Lankford were Darius Millines, Justin Green, A.J. Jenkins, Hawthorne, Ramsey and Pollard. Some of the other newcomers getting opportunities with special teams included Brandon Denmark, Jay Prosch, and Evan Wilson.
Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino is working with the kickoff unit, and he brings his fiery personality to that work as well. At one point he admonished a blocker, 'Hit it like you've got a rocket up your (butt).'
In brief 7 on 7 action, Scheelhaase hit four of five passes, the fifth being dropped. The Illini were working on short routes and quick timing plays, and Scheelhaase knew to take off running the moment his second read was covered. He did this three times during this segment. Whitmer was 3 for 3, while Osei was one for two, his incompletion being deflected by Sanni.
No receiver caught more than one pass in the first segment, but senior Chris James pulled in three aerials during a second 7 on 7 segment. Hawthorne was credited with a pass breakup.
The Illini also saw some 11 on 11 action. Offensive highlights included Scheelhaase rolling out and hitting Jarred Fayson down the sideline; Scheelhaase enjoyed a long run on a rollout; Whitmer had similar success on the same play; McGee had a long run on his option specialty; and Mikel Leshoure had a quick hitter for good yardage.
Defensively, Martez Wilson stopped a Scheelhaase run for a short gain; Liuget and Buchanan convened to blow up a pass from Whitmer; and Nurse sacked Scheelhaase.
None of this was with full hitting. That will begin Tuesday. In the meantime, the Illini are studying their playbooks and regaining lost weight this evening in advance of Tuesday's practice.
The Illini had no injuries today, and the news has been especially void of problems to this point. But there was one sad note. Long-time Illini fan and supporter Bill Pinkstaff is missing his first Camp Rantoul.
After attending almost every game, home and away, throughout his adult life, and after bringing his binoculars to every practice permitted during that time, Pinkstaff died during an Illini basketball game at the Assembly Hall last winter. No one was a greater fan of the University of Illinois. He is missed.