At present, there are only two quarterbacks practicing with the Illini. Fortunately, the main two of Juice Williams and Eddie McGee still hold down the fort. But walkon Ryan Baise, the fourth and final member of the quarterback corps, decided to leave the team. Redshirt freshman Phil Haig has not yet practiced with the team, and Coach Ron Zook's explanation is necessarily vague as Phil makes a decision about his future.
"Right now, it depends a little bit on Phil. He's still got baseball. I'm not going to rule Phil out. I know Phil's sister is coming over this weekend, and his mom and dad want him here. It's the same thing but a little bit later than a bunch of them went through.
"He was in baseball, and a lot of things hit him fast. What I was told by Coach (Hartlieb), they were probably going to redshirt him in baseball anyway. So he might as well go through spring and see what he can do, and go from there.
"Right now he's with us. He's missed the two days, but it's been more baseball than anything. Like I explained to him, when you're a quarterback in particular, as a freshman you're going to go through with football your first spring and then do like what we've done with Kyle (Hudson). And that's fine. But quarterback's a little different. There's a lot of things to learn and do. So he's just got to make sure that's what he wants to do."
So while Haig decides if he wants to devote his spring to learning the complexities of quarterback, Juice and Eddie are throwing even more passes than usual and have little time to rest. They both wear red shirts so they won't get hit, but keeping them healthy is imperative. Freshman Jacob Charest will join them in the fall, but there is no question the Illini are short in quarterback numbers.
On the positive side, a number of handsome recruits visited practice. Offensive line coach Eric Wolford was seen walking with outstanding line prospects Chris Watt from Glenbard West and Corey Linsley from Youngstown, Ohio (Boardman). Both appeared to be guard/center types. Bartlett linebacker Kyle Zelinski and Indianapolis lineman Kyle Koehne were among those present, as was 2008 walkon kicker Derek Dimke.
Several wide receivers began to show their abilities as they see opportunities for playing time. Marquis Wilkins is beginning to play with confidence at a slot receiver, catching most of his pass opportunities and showing excellent quickness on a reverse. Greg McClendon and walkon Alex Reavy backed him up on this day. Slots Arrelious Benn and Jarred Fayson looked like well-built bookends as they watched most of practice while recuperating from injuries.
Jeff Cumberland and Chris James continue to line up with the first team at wide receiver, but former defensive back Chris Duvalt made his presence felt. He still has much to learn, but he as great speed and quickness, and he showed good hands repeatedly. He made two diving catches on the day, and he drew praise for his instincts.
Will Judson is also at wide receiver, and it is fun watching him speed around end on reverses. Perhaps it is just because he has short legs, but he appears to be moving faster than the others. If he ever gets into the open field, look out. Freshman Fred Sykes is still in a learning process, but he definitely has ability.
Redshirt freshman Darius Purcell received an indoctrination at the fullback spot today. Coach Zook explained the move from safety and the shortage of fullbacks.
"We've got Rahkeem (Smith) there. We're going to take a look at Darius Purcell over there. He's a football player, and we need to get him on the field. Right now, that looks like the quickest place to get him on. Not that he can't be the starting safety for that matter. But Reggie's talked to him, we've talked to him, and he wants to maybe take a look at the fullback spot. Rahkeem right now is the only other guy we've got."
Defensively, Travon Bellamy and Garrett Edwards both secured interceptions as they compete with starters Bo Flowers and Nate Bussey at the safety spots. The defensive line remains a team strength as Coach Tom Sims puts his strong and athletic charges through their paces.
"Tom's done a great job with them," compliments Zook. "But when you've got the same guys doing the same things, you're going to get better and better. And there has been improvement. They're athletic guys, guys that can run. He's got them playing hard, which is very important in the defensive line. He's got them playing smart. Every year they've gotten better, and they have a chance to be even better this year."
Coach Zook also commented on the stablity of his coaching staff and the reasons he continues to enjoy the same high quality assistants he had last year.
"Football is a very humbling game. The second you relax, you're in trouble. We're still on the way up. It says a lot when your athletic director knows the importance of keeping the staff intact. And just as important, the coaches see where it is going.
"The families love living in Champaign, they know it is a great university, and it's a positive when you've got something like that going. We just need to keep it going."
The Illini hold their next practice Saturday afternoon at 2:00pm.