First Hitting Highlights Rantoul Camp

A brief shower nutured the grass fields of Camp Rantoul, ending just in time for the Fighting Illini to hold a mid morning practice Tuesday. Meeting in the morning to avoid the high heat expected in the afternoon, the Illini continued their preparations for the season. Full pads guaranteed the first live hitting of the fall.

Cloud cover obscured the hot sun for awhile, and practice was moved to the morning, but Illinois football players played the last part of the practice in high humidity anyway. It wasn't intolerable, but it was enough to force the players to endure beyond their preferred comfort levels.

As was true yesterday, the coaches insisted on an up tempo approach to practice. Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino was fiery with every misstep, pushing his guys to move quicker and concentrate more. Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning was drenched from the beginning of practice on as he jumped on mistakes.

There is no time for the faint of heart. The Illini need players who will give 100% effort when the pressure is highest. Adversity must not be allowed to conquer the mind and body. Illini coaches continue to push and push their players beyond their limits.

During the last segment of practice, the offense ran 2-minute drills up and down the field, with an emphasis on getting back to the line quickly to get off the next play. Considering how tired they were from practice, this may have been their most difficult segment even though the defense wasn't present.

The defense had its own obstacles to overcome. Koenning had them doing up-downs again, one for each mistake on the day. While it might appear to be punishment, it is in reality an exercise of will, moving beyond exhaustion and pain to finish the job. It is also an exercise in discipline, with each player required to obey. In the long run, the defense will be undeterred by any circumstances.

Illinois coach Ron Zook was pleased to get the practice in during the morning to avoid dangerous heat indexes. He is convinced his players are capable of working through the heat due to the aid of head trainer Nick Ritchey and his staff plus the preparation done by the Strength & Conditioning people.

"Nick will take care of them, and you can't say enough about the job Lou (Hernandez) and his staff did this summer."

The Oklahoma Drill was the highlight of the first day in pads. With the players crowding around, it was impossible to see all the action. Some of the apparent winners on offense included Graham Pocic over Glenn Foster; Chris James over Terry Hawthorne; Andrew Carter over Aaron Gress; Jeff Allen over Clay Nurse; and London Davis over Earnest Thomas.

While their opponents were obscured, Zach Becker, Craig Wilson, Evan Wilson and Greg Fuller also won battles in the trenches.

Defensively, Whitney Mercilus enjoyed victories over Allen and walkon lineman Edward VanderLinden; Justin Staples recorded triumphs over Michael Heitz and Craig Wilson, with the Heitz dominance especially impressive; and Tim Kynard gained an advantage over Allen and Simon Cvijanovic.

Also, Akeem Spence won over Tyler Sands; Evan Frierson held an advantage over Pocic; and Jonathan Brown won a battle with Shawn Afryl. Martez Wilson dominated his opponent.

Nathan Scheelhaase was 5 for 6 passing in 7 on 7 action. Jarred Fayson was his target on three occasions. Scheelhaase also had three scrambles, a sign the defensive coverage was good on those plays.

Eddie McGee was 2 of 3, completing passes to Justin Lattimore and Spencer Harris but seeing his other pass dropped on a difficult attempt. Chandler Whitmer and Miles Osei completed passes to Jack Ramsey and Chris James respectively.

While there was no tackling, there was an extended 11 on 11 period as the Illini worked on situations of various down and distance. Among the highlights, Scheelhaase hit Jenkins on a crossing route, and Jenkins gained good yardage after the catch. Osei hit McGee for a good gain. McGee hit James on a short pattern James turned into a long gainer. Whitmer ran well on a quarterback draw.

Mikel Leshoure had a couple of good runs, including one where he used his patented quick lateral step to reach the hole. Troy Pollard had a couple good runs, including one where he used power to burst through the middle. Bud Golden showed a quick burst on two sorties. Ramsey had a long run on an outside option. And Justin Green ended the segment with a long run.

Defensively, Mike Buchanan had a couple sacks, one on Scheelhaase and one on Whitmer.

Some players are being moved around as coaches seek to find depth everywhere. And there are some depth chart changes as well. Zook said afterward the lineups won't begin to take shape until after Saturday.

"Until we get into the first scrimmage, I don't put a lot of stock in it. I think everybody has their own ideas on who's gonna do what. We'll really get zeroed in after that first scrimmage."

Illini continue with morning and evening practices Wednesday.

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