Defense Shines In Thursday Rantoul Practice

The heat returned to Camp Rantoul as the Fighting Illini football team continued preparations for the season Thursday. With monotony a possibility, head coach Ron Zook reversed the order of practice. Scrimmage periods were at the beginning and drills at the end. With coaches getting both groups to a fever pitch, the defense appeared to win the day.

Illinois coach Ron Zook was extremely intense during warmups. He pushed his players to be motivated from the start of practice on. Repeatedly, he urged his guys to move faster and do everything with extra energy. By singling out Martez Wilson for not warming up with enough enthusiasm, he set the tone for everyone.

The Illini began practice with their 2-minute drill, normally the last phase of each practice. Zook kept yelling, 'This is for everything.' The first team offense garnered a couple first downs before Derek Dimke was called upon to kick a field goal. Dimke had been perfect in a brief special team segment earlier, but he pushed the kick to the right.

Buoyed by that success and with alternates yelling encouragement from the sideline, the defense gave no ground against the second string offense. Freshman Miles Osei was given a chance with the second unit, but he had minimal success. His drive was stopped shortly after it began as he was sacked by Michael Buchanan.

In later 9 on 7, 11 on 11 and 7 on 7 segments, the offense generated some quality plays. But all three quarterbacks were less accurate on their passes than usual, in part due to the aggressiveness of the defense. It was perhaps the best day of Camp Rantoul for the defense.

Situational drills included a number of third and long plays. The offense found the going difficult most of the time. On one play, Nathan Scheelhaase rolled left. Finding no one open, he threw the ball away. While that may be a good play in some situations, Offensive Coordinator Paul Petrino was boiling mad.

In no uncertain terms, Petrino said the throwaway was not the right play because it was third and long and the team needed a first down. He explained that the longer Scheelhaase delays his decision, the more difficult it is for the cornerback to choose run or pass. If the quarterback had waited longer, he could either have found the receiver open at the last second, or he could have tried to run for the first down.

In another instance Osei's pass was at the feet of his intended receiver. Petrino yelled at Osei, 'Don't throw the ball into the ground. Care about not punting!'

The Illini work on every imaginable situation for a reason. As should be obvious, there are exceptions to every rule. In all cases, decisions should be based on what is best for the team at that moment. Sometimes that means doing the opposite of normal.

The offensive and defensive lines go against each other daily. In one pass protect/rush drill, they line up as a group and then one defender goes against one offensive lineman at the snap. In many cases, the offensive lineman holds off penetrations long enough for the quarterback to throw his pass but is otherwise neutralized by the defender. But at times one player gains an advantage.

On this day, defensive end Whitney Mercilus ran past Ryan Palmer; defensive tackle Corey Liuget did likewise to Jack Cornell; defensive tackle Austin Teitsma dominated first Andrew Carter then Shawn Afryl; and Wisdom Onyegbule had his way with Alex Hill and Simon Cvijanovic.

In addition, Buchanan gained an advantage over walkon Edward VanderHeyden; Tim Kynard had a good effort against Michael Heitz; Glenn Foster ran past Alex Hill; Jake Howe pushed past Anterio Jackson; and Justin Staples had a good effort against Heitz.

Offensively, Craig Wilson held his own against Kynard; Jeff Allen did likewise with both Mercilus and Buchanan; Randall Hunt held serve against both Foster and Akeem Spence; Carter held back D.J. Woods; and Afryl did the same with Howe.

The special teams are taking shape, although there are depth issues in spots. Anthony Santella is booming his punts better than ever. But freshman backup Brad Janitz is inconsistent, especially in the face of a stiff rush. He has to learn to get his kicks off quicker while still maintaining technique.

Zak Pedersen is another in a long line of Illini long snappers. This will be his first year snapping in games, but he appears capable. However, his lone backup right now is Abraham Oliver, and Oliver lacks both the accuracy and velocity of the starter.

Field goals are in the usually capable hands of Dimke, and backup Matt Eller hit 10 of 15 as a redshirt freshman in 2007. However, Dimke has struggled at times with accuracy this fall, likely due to thinking about it too much and trying too hard. Unfortunately, Eller is discouraged that he is the backup and has also struggled. He hit only one of four Thursday. Dimke will likely get things together by the start of the season.

Kickoff returners Thursday were Justin Green and freshman Darius Millines. Both are fast and hit their holes quickly. Jack Ramsey and Terry Hawthorne are both getting reps at punt return. Both appear good at seeing angles of attack quickly upon looking up field, and they have the quickness to burst through the first line of defense.

Practice continues Friday afternoon.

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