Illinois practices appear to be getting more intense with each passing day. Illini coaches jump on every imperfection. Heat and hard work combine to make tempers short. And the Missouri opener keeps getting closer.
One player who stood out Thursday was middle linebacker Martez Wilson. He would have had a sack on Nathan Scheelhaase early had he not stopped to prevent injury to his quarterback. In a run offense drill without receivers or defensive backs, Wilson stuffed Jason Ford twice, once turning him upside down onto his head.
Wilson was also highly visible on punt coverage. Rushing from different positions, Wilson barely missed a punt block but caused an altered punt. On the next play, he sped up the middle and smothered the ball off Anthony Santella's foot. Freshman Houston Bates later blocked a punt by Brad Janitz.
Another linebacker who has asserted himself is freshman Jonathan Brown. Playing behind Ian Thomas and Aaron Gress, Brown has made several impressive plays the last two days. He seems especially adept at diagnosing run plays, closing holes quickly and meeting the ball carrier with force.
It remains to be seen whether Brown will play this year. But he seems the type of natural linebacker fans have hoped to see the Illini recruit.
Defensive end Clay Nurse made a couple big time plays against the run game, and starting defensive tackle Akeem Spence stopped Mikel Leshoure for no gain. Defensive end Whitney Mercilus did likewise with Troy Pollard.
Other defensive highlights included Antonio Gully intercepting a Chandler Whitmer pass in the end zone. Tackles Glenn Foster and Daryle Ballew diagnosed a Whitmer option for no gain. Safety Travon Bellamy made a couple big hits on running plays.
Freshman safety Earnest Thomas would have recorded a sack had the action been live. And Nurse intercepted a Scheelhaase pass tipped by Martez Wilson.
When the Illini went to 11 on 11 situations of down and distance, the offense gained first downs on most short yardage sorties. But tackle Corey Liuget threw Scheelhaase for a loss. Nathan Bussey stopped Jason Ford behind the line. And walkon linebacker Beau Sullivan did likewise to Justin Green.
The Illini offense struggled in its 2 minute drills. Scheelhaase got the first unit off to a good start with a lengthy scramble. He hit Jarred Fayson for a first down, and Jack Ramsey caught a pass for 8 more yards. From there, Jason Ford was asked to run the ball two straight times for little gain. Derek Dimke then pushed a 42 yard field goal attempt to the right after missing a 47 yarder to the left last night.
Whitmer started slowly on his turn with the offense, missing his first two passes. At this point, he teamed up with fellow freshman Evan Wilson. The impressive tight end caught three straight passes before having his fourth attempt broken up by Terry Hawthorne.
After Whitmer hit Green for a short gain, he was sacked by Justin Staples. Tavon Wilson and then Bellamy broke up Whitmer passes. On fourth down, Supo Sanni intercepted Whitmer to the delight of his fellow defenders to conclude practice.
The offense had its moments, but the defense asserted itself most of the practice. The Illini practice again Friday afternoon.