Bear with me here, as I promise I'll have posts on every Big Ten practice before the season. Up next are the Illinois Fighting Illini, who recently hosted the Big Ten Network preseason tour for two practices. I've reviewed the show, and here are some notes and observations.
The Big Ten Network crew of Dave Revsine, Gerry DiNardo and Howard Griffith all agreed that the new coaches, particularly coordinators Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning, have helped change the attitude at Illinois after two subpar seasons. "This team is working harder than I've seen it work," said DiNardo, who also noted that the team isn't as talented as in years past. Petrino was mic'd up for one segment of the show, and his high-energy style came through. Illinois head coach Ron Zook also pointed out a difference among players. "The players are kind of taking over," Zook said. "Not that we didn't have leadership before, but these guys, particularly the upper-class guys, have kind of taken over.”
Redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase looked very good in drills, and those of who who haven't seen before likely came away impressed with his performance during the BTN interview. Although known for his running ability, Scheelhaase fired a bullet to Jarred Fayson in team drills. True freshman quarterback Chandler Whitmer also had a nice throw to Fred Sykes. "They're two-deep there," DiNardo said of the quarterback spot.
Scheelhaase talked about how he has been able to gain respect on the team despite his age. "I’m around a bunch of great guys, guys who are willing to give me the respect," he said.
Martez Wilson always has had an All-American's body, but he seemed to be backing it up with his play in practice as well. Wilson filled his gaps nicely during a 7-on-7 drill, and he made a really nice stop against Jason Ford during the team portion.
DiNardo and Griffith both talked about how Illinois likely will use a lot of stunts and twists on defense to compensate for its lack of size up front. We saw this a bit from Glenn Foster, a 260-pound defensive tackle. Defensive lineman Corey Liuget looks leaner than he did a year ago, and DiNardo "liked the way he moved around." There also was a pretty good battle between Clay Nurse and weak-side offensive tackle Jeff Allen during a drill.
The wide receivers looked very good in drills, although the defensive backs seemed to struggle with the exception of physical corner Terry Hawthorne, who Griffith called "a special player." Fayson, Sykes and Chris James all had very good practices. The BTN crew also liked what they saw from Eddie McGee, who we saw working at both receiver and cornerback. If Fayson can stay healthy, he'll form a nice 1-2 receiver combination with A.J. Jenkins.
Running back Mikel Leshoure looked strong and a bit leaner than last year. Remember this is a guy listed at 240 pounds as a freshman who now checks in at 224. DiNardo said Leshoure has separated himself from the other backs, and Zook basically admitted it, too. "Right now, Mikel probably is the starter," Zook said. "I like his work ethic. He's so much different." Ford also looked good during the practice, cutting back nicely on one play.
The offense seemed to have the edge in this practice, although Zook noted that Petrino's scheme throws a lot at an opposing defense. The BTN analysts think the new system will not only help Illinois' offensive players but provide the defense with looks other than the spread in practice. Petrino will use plenty of tight ends and fullbacks this year.
Petrino also explained the strong-side/weak-side philosophy, which puts the offense's strongest players against the defense's weak spots.
Freshman tight end Evan Wilson is an impressive-looking player, and DiNardo tabbed Wilson as his top newcomer. Petrino also said, "We’ve got a true freshman at tight end that's going to be a really good player." With Zach Becker (foot) out for a while, Wilson should see increased time. Griffith identified wideout Darius Millines as his top newcomer. McGee and rush end Michael Buchanan were the picks for under-the-radar players.