1,809 Words On One Football Practice March 31, 2012
With the high school coaching clinic in town, last night’s practice was open to the media. Thankfully, “media” in this sense includes “bearded bloggers with a serious Illini Football obsession”, so I bailed out on work early and drove up to Champaign.
And I wasn’t kidding before when I said that it’s my favorite thing on earth. Some people like standing in the middle of the Snake River with a fly rod in hand. Some save their money to go to Comic-Con every year. Me – put me inside Memorial Stadium with Illini Football practice going on. I’m excited right not thinking about the fact that I had the opportunity to go up there yesterday. That’s my team. Those are my guys.
As usual, I won’t tell you anything about formations or schemes. I’d never include a single word here that could be used by Brady Hoke or Urban Meyer in scheming against us. Which is why I wouldn’t say anything like “Ian Thomas struggles in pass coverage against quick tight ends” either. I’ll simply tell you the players I liked and the depth chart movement I see and latest developments with ball-on-a-stick. I’m so glad ball-on-a-stick was there last night. Everything was new, but at least one old friend showed up.
OK, thoughts on the practice. With little plus signs:
+ First, some depth chart stuff. Please keep in mind that none of this is set. It’s one practice, so if this guy was running with the ones or that guy was demoted to the twos, it might just be a one practice thing. Same goes with players trying certain positions. They might want to give Player X a few reps at free safety just to see how well he performs there, but then move him back to linebacker next week.
Coach Beckman said after practice that there were two players held out for injury: Supo Sanni is out for the rest of the spring (although he was there last night doing some light workouts). Donovonn Young is still out with an injury, but they’re hopeful he will be back by the spring game so he can get a few reps in the new offense.
With Sanni out, Earnest Thomas was running with the ones at safety (I believe he was at free safety and STEVEHULL was at strong safety). Thomas was a Busseybacker last year, and he’s still listed at linebacker on the roster, but at least for last night, he was a free safety. He also looked like he had lost a little bulk since Rantoul last year, so maybe we’ve moved him there permanently. We certainly need safeties.
Teddy Karras was running with the first string at right guard as well. The first string o-line last night was Simon Cvijanovic at left tackle, Hugh Thornton (who looked fantastic in one on one drills) at left guard, Graham Pocic at center, Teddy Karras (redshirt freshman) at right guard, and Michael Heitz at right tackle. Again, could have just been a one night thing (senior Tyler Sands was the second string guy at right guard and rs-soph Alex Hill was the second string left guard), but that’s how the line was setting up. I’d love for Karras to win the job – we need interior guys ready to step up with Pocic, Thornton, and Sands all graduating.
The most surprising position change I saw last night: true freshman tight end Daniel Rhodes was being tried at… defensive tackle. Might just be a one-practice thing, but he’s a big kid who I thought would eventually be an offensive tackle. Looks like his first shot is at DT.
The other roster thing that I really liked: Both Mike Buchanan and Justin Staples were the starters at defensive end. With the “bandit” scheme a thing of the past, I was hoping that they would be ready to play in a standard weak/strong defensive end, and it looks like they are. The only thing that was missing: I was hoping for a little “left side! strong side!” Julius/Bertier from them, but I didn’t get it. Maybe in the spring game.
Other interesting depth chart things I saw: Scott McDowell was working at left tackle while Pat Flavin was working at right tackle (both second string). Jack Ramsey was working as a backup cornerback (he’s switched back and forth between corner and safety since his move to defense). True freshman (early enrollee) TaJarvis Fuller was working at the “Star” position (Beckman’s name for Koenning’s Busseybacker position), and he looked pretty impressive. Shawn Afryl was being tried at right tackle. Brandon Denmark was at defensive end. Houston Bates at the Will and Jonathan Brown at MLB, with Ashante Williams playing the “star” position. Backing them up were Henry Dickinson (WLB) and Ralph Cooper (MLB). And my boy walkon Ben Mathis was second string safety – I still say he contributes this fall and then starts in 2013.
Again, all of this was just one practice. It might look completely different by the fall (and in the spring game). But that’s where these guys were working last night.
+ Players who stuck out (again, just one practice):
Glenn Foster – Two years ago right now, my friend Adam and I were discussing how his high pad-level will never let him excel beyond back-up defensive lineman. But last night, in the one-on-one drills, he was the most disruptive defensive lineman we had. The interior offensive linemen really struggled to contain him.
Hugh Thornton – Mentioned this above, but in those same one-on-one drills, he looked the best of the offensive linemen. Dave Diehl was there last night observing practice next to his old buddy Luke Butkus, and Diehl was pretty fired up about some of the blocks that Thornton was making.
As an aside, it was great to see Diehl chatting up our young offensive tackled Michael Heitz and Simon Cvijanovic. Their offseason development is probably the single thing that could help this offense improve next year (no pressure, guys), so I think it’s great to see a Super Bowl champion left tackle encouraging them on the sideline.
Nathan Scheehaase – Maybe it’s because he doesn’t have an NFL arm, so any comments about Nathan’s throwing ability are drowned out by “doesn’t have a big arm”, but Nathan Scheelhaase’s touch is seriously undervalued. There were two throws he made last night – long throws – that were stunningly right on the money, in stride. One was a bomb to Ryan Lankford, and the other was a deep crossing pattern to a tight end. Both with just the right amount of air under the ball. Here’s hoping he improves his decision making in the pocket and lets a few of those fly.
Justin Green – I think I’m ready to declare him our most under-appreciated player for 2012 already. Maybe he was overshadowed by Hawthorne and Wilson last year, or maybe it’s the fact that he started as a running back. But this kid has ridiculous closing ability once the ball is in the air. Of all the players we’ll miss in 2013, our two starting corners might be #1 and #2.
+ I know many are probably wondering how much different a Beckman practice is than a Zook practice. I can’t go into detail – again, I don’t want to give a single thing away – but I have to say that they’re fairly similar. Position work here, full scrimmage with no tackling there, individual defensive units rotating through the same drills, etc.
I will say one thing that was the most different – kickoff drills. Zook’s team always seemed to work on special teams as a unit – take your coverage team and your return team and practice 8 consecutive kickoffs. Last night the special teams work was all individual drills (how to take on/avoid blockers and such). That was very encouraging to see.
+ If you’ve read anything I’ve written about Illini football practice before, you know that I have a soft spot for walkons. These guy are out there every practice busting their butts, and the vast majority of them will never get a chance to play. So when I see a walkon looking like he’s hanging with the starters at practice, I always write about it.
I’ve spoken for a long time about Ben Mathis, a walkon safety who I think deserves playing time. I first pointed him out after Camp Rantoul in 2010. The kid just never misses a tackle. He’s not as crazy athletic as the scholarship guys, but at safety, if you can stay in position and make every tackle, I don’t think you have to be. I really hope he gets a chance to be our fourth safety this fall (and start next year after Supo and PNY are gone).
The other guy who keeps catching my eye is redshirt-freshman walkon WR Peter Bonahoom. He was a teammate of Mile Osei at Prospect HS and then walked on here last summer. I think I mentioned him back in the summer, but he caught my eye again last night. I’m not saying he’ll be on the field next fall, and it’s probably crazy to hope he becomes a big-time contributor like Wisconsin walkons Luke Swan and Jared Abbrederis, but I’m thinking he contributes before he graduates. He works as hard as anyone at practice.
+ I loved the vibe of the whole practice with over 1,000 high school coaches in attendance. Line up your DL and your OL, have them get after each other in pass rushing drills, circle 300 high school coaches around the drill, wait for the first real battle that has everyone talking, and you can almost smell the intensity. Add in a Super Bowl champion left tackle cheering on the offensive linemen, and Keith Gilmore, ball-on-a-stick in hand, screaming for his defensive guys, and the buzz was palpable.
If you thought the defensive intensity of Illini football practices would fall off with Vic Koenning gone, you were wrong. The first string and the second string defense won both two-minute drills, stopping the offense on 4th down each time, and the sideline was alive with last years’ “HOOO-AHH (hooo-ahh) HOOO-AHH (hooo-ahh)” call and response. At least for this practice, the defense lost Big Whit, Ian, and Trulon, but they haven’t missed a beat.
Which is why I left the practice fairly excited for the season. Season ticket renewals are due Tuesday, and I’m hoping that our fans are renewing. This new era of Illini Football has me pretty excited, and whenever I’m in that mood, standing in Memorial Stadium, under the lights, during an intense practice, with players screaming and whistles blowing, I always close my eyes and imagine a packed house in September as we take apart Penn State.
Is it weird that I get chills as I type that? It is? Don’t care. Go Illini.