The Illinois football team held its last double session of Camp Rantoul Wednesday. Two spirited practices made for good plays on both offense and defense. It also led to a couple more skirmishes.
Former Illini line star Martin O'Donnell was pleased to hear there have been a few fights during practice. He realizes that teams focused on winning must play at a high level of intensity, and some disagreements are inevitable. He said the absence of skirmishes would be of more concern to him, implying the team wasn't ready for the season.
The evening practice was highlighted by the final 2-minute segment. Working with the first unit, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase threw downfield to Jarred Fayson. The ball tipped off his outstretched hands into the arms of safety Joelil Thrash, ending the after just one play.
Chandler Whitmer took over for the second unit. On first down, defensive tackle Corey Liuget flew into the backfield to sack Whitmer. On second and long and third and medium, Whitmer hit Steve Hull on sideline passes to stop the clock and leave fourth and short.
All defensive players not in the game began cheering for the unit on the field. They were doing their best to inspire a stop on fourth down. Whitmer went back to pass but found his short routes covered. Receiver Jack Ramsey cut off his sideline pattern to break downfield.
Whitmer threw the ball high and long, a pass that seemed to be a sure overthrow. Putting on the afterburners, Ramsey caught up to the ball enough to get his outstretched left hand onto the tip of the ball. He pulled it in and tip toed down the sideline while staying in bounds to complete the touchdown. All offensive players ran to the end zone to celebrate.
That was the best of several outstanding plays on the evening. Scheelhaase hit A.J. Jenkins for a long touchdown pass. Ramsey had a another touchdown reception.
Defensively, Miles Osei and Bud Golden flubbed a handoff and freshman Brandon Denmark picked up the ball and raced to the end zone. Linebacker Ian Thomas stuffed Ford for a loss on a running play. Defensive end Tim Kynard sacked Whitmer. And cornerback Miami Thomas smothered receiver Anthony Williams to prevent a completion in the corner of the end zone.
Coach Ron Zook made his players do wind sprints early in their morning session, likely to get their attention and keep focus at a high level. He's been pleased with the intensity.
"We've been very spirited the last four practices. It's been good. I think that's what makes you better and take it to another level. That's what they've done. They've competed against each other, and that's why I feel we've made a lot of progress. We've just got to keep pushing."
Playing without full pads, the Illini worked on fundamental skills before doing team work. Defensively, coordinator Vic Koenning spends a great deal of time giving encouragement to his players. He knows they need confidence to play their best, so he mixes his more volatile teaching moments with statements of support.
"You can reach all your goals if you want," Koenning reminds.
Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino is as fiery as can be on the field, pushing his players to be as perfect as possible. He also provides plenty of platitudes when deserved. And he is extremely positive with the media.
"We've had pretty good intensity from Saturday all the way through to today. Our kids are starting to understand how to play the game. If they have great intensity and great toughness, they can give themselves a chance to win.
"I think right now we've been improving each day. We've still got a long way to go, but I definitely feel confident. I think that guys are showing up, we're seeing weapons on the field, guys are playing with the right attitude, playing tough and making plays. We're developing confidence, and if we can keep doing that we're in good shape."
Safety Travon Bellamy was back on the field after sitting out Tuesday with illness. In one position change, defensive end Justin Staples was moved to Bandit. He has speed off the edge, and he has experience at linebacker.
The Illini continue their preparations for Missouri with a Thursday afternoon practice in Rantoul.