Illinois football coach Tim Beckman was pleased his players could wear shoulder pads Wednesday at Camp Rantoul. There still wasn't full contact, but the pads were definitely popping as Illini players renewed ancient hitting rituals they live to execute.
"That's what football is all about. It's good to have those shoulder pads on. The team was more physical today."
Football is also about playing in the elements. While Rantoul has been extremely hot to date, that changed in the afternoon session when a front came through and cooled things off considerably. It also brought a short but intense rainfall. The Illini played through part of it, but lightning forced a ten minute retreat to the locker room.
"I wanted to make sure our kids were safe. There were a couple strikes, and we wanted to get inside."
The creative Beckman found a way to make lemonade out of lemons. He saw a parallel he could use as a teaching moment.
"What we did do was have a little halftime. And that's what I told this football team, to come back out and be ready to perform. We went right to a 7-on-7 competition, so it was just like a football game."
While we will learn more about the new freshmen once full pads are in place, we can begin to recognize tendencies. Several newcomers will undoubtedly play this year, but more seem capable of helping as they mature and gain experience. Beckman singled out several for praise after three days.
"I think Dami (Ayoola) and LaKeith (Walls), both running backs, (Devin) Church has made some great catches, (Justin) Hardee made a couple good catches. Joe Spencer on the offensive line the first day, although he hasn't been out in pads yet, so we'll see how he goes."
Beckman seemed especially pleased with the running backs, who may both be needed this year for depth purposes. Ayoola shows the confidence and maturity of having played with national powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas squad out of Florida. He has the ability to make quick inside cuts, and he has power despite his short stature. Walls is a tall, upright runner with outstanding speed, and he can catch the ball as well.
"We've got to make sure LaKeith and Ayoola are doing what they need to do to give us a chance. They're doing really well. They've got great talent; they were definitely guys we wanted to recruit to help us out."
Beckman expanded on quick-footed receiver Church as well.
"He's a scat-type guy. We've got him in there at the 'H' position, which is kind of like that slot position. We can utilize him in motion and going into the backfield."
Spencer and Robbie Bain both have potential as a center and guard respectively. Both will likely need to redshirt to get stronger and learn the offense.
Beckman also praised several defensive newcomers.
"Defensively, Tommy Davis has stepped up. V'Angelo Bentley and Jevaris Little are guys. It's so early, but I'm proud of the way those kids have come in and competed."
Bentley and Little are speedy cornerbacks. Bentley is strong despite his short stature, and he has excellent quickness and play-making ability. Little also has good speed.
B.J. Bello is rangy and could develop into a powerful Star as he gets stronger. Safety Taylor Barton has the size and instincts for safety. Davis played safety at NIU for four years before transferring to the UI.
Defensive linemen Vontrell Williams and Teko Powell are a little lost at the moment, but they both look like good prospects. As they catch onto the defense and gain confidence, they will challenge for playing time, possibly as early as this season. Defensive tackle Daniel Rhodes is a freshman who was on campus last semester. Like the others, he still has much to learn.
Linebacker coach Mike Ward seems pleased with his three linebackers T.J. Neal, Mason Monheim and Mike Svetina. All three have the instincts for the position. They may all play special teams and compete for linebacker backups their freshman year.
"Svetina had a big pick (Tuesday) for a touchdown. That was a great play by him. You see Neal get better, you see Mason Monheim get better. Those guys will have to get better. We will continue to give them reps so we can use those guys on special teams."
Of course, Ta'Jarvis Fuller proved to be an excellent prospect at Star this spring. Another mid-year enrollee, he appears to have taken another step forward so far. Freshman kicker Ryan Frain has a powerful leg. He is probably more likely to help with field goals than punts this year. He is in a good battle with three squadmen for the field goal job.
In the Wednesday morning session, quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase and Miles Osei were both accurate and poised. Scheelhaase completed 8 of 10 passes and Osei 5 of 7 in a 7-on-7 drill. Going 11-on-11, Scheelhaase hit 7 of 9 tosses, while Osei was a perfect 4 for 4.
Highlights of the sessions included Hayden Daniels speeding by Terry Hawthorne down the sideline. Also, Walls caught a short pass from Osei and raced past defenders for a long gain. Tight end Justin Lattimore made a nice catch over the middle between defenders on a pass from Osei.
Tight end Jon Davis had probably the best catch of the day, a leaping sideline grab over the top of two defenders draped all over him. He lost his helmet on the play, and he might have landed out of bounds, but it was a super play nonetheless.
Defensively, end Justin Staples raced past Ryan Nowicki to sack Scheelhaase. Linebacker Houston Bates was also credited with a sack of Scheelhaase, as was defensive tackle Akeem Spence. Hawthorne and safety Ben Mathis each broke up passes.
In the afternoon, the defense dominated. Sophomore quarterback Reilly O'Toole hit five of his first six passes in a 7-on-7 drill, but he then missed his next six tosses. He missed his first four passes in 11-on-11 before hitting his next two. In fairness, he had several passes dropped. Chase Haslett completed 2 of 6 passes in combined drills. Walkon Sean McGushin had a good day, completing four of five throws.
Tight end Matt LaCosse caught a tough pass in traffic over the middle. Receiver Kenny Knight caught two long sideline bombs from McGushin, the second one producing a touchdown. He also held onto a third ball despite being sandwiched by defenders. But for the most part, it was the defense that shone brightly.
Walkon Star Daniel Quintana was one of the defensive heroes. He broke up a Haslett pass, and he intercepted O'Toole on the last play of the day. Pat Nixon-Youman had a great day as well. He intercepted a pass from O'Toole that tipped off the hands of receiver Nelson Lugo. He also had two pass breakups.
Safety Nick North almost intercepted an O'Toole pass. Eaton Spence, Jevaris Little and Zeph Grimes all broke up passes. DeJazz Woods, Henry Dickinson and Darrius Caldwell had sacks. And the defense was credited with a team coverage sack on Haslett.
The Illini reunite Thursday for a morning practice that will run an hour longer than the split sessions. Beckman has been generally pleased with the first three days, but he is looking forward to putting everyone together.
"No question. We've gotten a bunch of reps; these practices have been fast. That's exactly what you want to get done these first three practices."