Big Ten: Bo Flowers
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
RANTOUL, Ill. -- We saw a little bit of everything during Illinois' practice Tuesday afternoon.
There was sunshine, and there was rain with drops the size of quarters (not joking). There was an appearance by Chicago Bears general manager Jerry Angelo. And I saw Juice Williams' little daughter, LaChez, steering a golf cart with the help of her mother. Very cute and slightly scary.
Oh, yeah, and there were a ton of long passes thrown.
Before I head back to Chicago, a few observations from Illinois' practice:
- As I expected, this wide receiving corps is absolutely stacked. I don't see another group in the Big Ten that comes close in terms of talent and especially depth. Arrelious Benn made his share of plays and so did Jarred Fayson, but I was most impressed by the number of guys making tough catches. Big man Jeff Cumberland caught several downfield bombs, and Chris James, Cordale Scott, Terry Hawthorne and Chris Duvalt all made nice grabs.
- It wasn't all good for the passing attack, as the defensive backs made their presence known. Safety Bo Flowers picked off Williams and safety Garrett Edwards squeezed an Eddie McGee pass. Cornerback Miami Thomas, who doesn't lack confidence, had two picks, bringing his camp total to five. Thomas told me he expects to have 10 picks by the end of camp.
- Illinois is lining up with two tight ends a lot more this summer than last year. Senior Michael Hoomanawanui is the starter, but Hubie Graham and Zach Becker are both on the field for a lot of snaps.
- Sophomore running back Jason Ford took most of the reps with the first-team offense, though senior Daniel Dufrene and sophomore Mikel LeShoure are both in the mix for the top job. Ford picked up a huge gain on a screen pass from McGee, thanks to a nice block from Fayson. He also was dropped for a loss by safety Supo Sanni.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Last season, Illinois fans got a taste of good Juice (total offense records in three stadiums, including the Big House) and bad Juice (nine interceptions in the last five games).
Those in attendance Wednesday at a blustery Memorial Stadium for Illinois' full-pads scrimmage saw both sides of Juice Williams but left with a slightly sour taste about the Illini senior quarterback.
Williams looked solid in 7-on-7 red zone drills, firing touchdowns to Jeff Cumberland and dynamic Florida transfer Jarred Fayson. But Williams threw at least four interceptions, two of which went to cornerback Travon Bellamy, who appeared to injure his neck after making a pick in the end zone. Walk-on cornerback Nattiel Perkins also picked off a Williams pass.
"We got the best of him out there," cornerback Tavon Wilson said with a smile. "We compete like that every day, though."
Illini fans shouldn't be too concerned about Williams, who has loads of experience and a ton of weapons at his disposal. But seeing that limiting turnovers was one of head coach Ron Zook's top two goals for spring ball -- limiting big plays on defense was the other -- Wednesday's mistakes shouldn't become a habit.
There were several bright spots at the practice, and here are my other observations.
- Illinois' rushing game will be much better in 2009, and Williams shouldn't have to carry such a large load as a runner. Sophomore backs Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure both performed well in the scrimmage, delivering just as many hits as they took. The physical development of both players is obvious -- more on that in the coming days -- and as bigger backs, they can do some damage this fall. Ford broke free for a big gain late in the scrimmage, and LeShoure rocked Patrick Nixon-Youman after catching a screen pass.
- Ford and LeShoure rotated with both the first- and second-team offense because both Daniel Dufrene and Troy Pollard are banged up. Don't be surprised, though, if the two sophomores are Illinois' primary backs this fall.
- The Illini should have the Big Ten's top wide receiver corps this fall. Even without All-America candidate Arrelious Benn, who had class Wednesday and missed practice, the Illini receivers showed plenty of promise. The 6-5 Cumberland is a huge target, and Fayson already looks like one of Williams' favorite targets.
- Former NFL coaches Jim Haslett and Rick Venturi attended practice for the second straight day. Haslett, the former Saints and Rams coach, will coach the Orlando franchise in the newly formed United Football League. They were in town to see Zook, their former colleague from the New Orleans Saints, and the three spent a lot of time breaking down film.
- Several Illinois coaches raved about Tavon Wilson's progress when we talked earlier in the day, and he didn't disappoint. The sophomore defended a screen well during the red zone portion and rocked LeShoure on a run, eliciting cheers from his fellow defenders.
- After playing two years at outside linebacker, junior Martez Wilson worked mainly in the middle on Wednesday. It makes sense since he's by far the team's most experienced linebacker. Wilson, who has recovered from a stabbing incident in December, still looks huge at 6-4 and 240 pounds. He had some good and bad moments during practice but teamed with Rahkeem Smith to drop LeShoure for a loss.
- I was impressed with third-string quarterback Jacob Charest, who made several nice throws to Cordale Scott.
- Suspended defensive tackle Josh Brent was at practice, watching from the sideline and hanging out with several recent Illini players, including former defensive lineman David Lindquist. The feeling is that Brent is expected to rejoin the team at some point.
- The first-team offense: Williams at quarterback, LeShoure and Ford at running back, wide receiver Cumberland, wide receiver Chris Duvalt, wide receiver Fayson, tight end Hubie Graham, offensive lineman Corey Lewis, offensive lineman Jeff Allen, offensive lineman Eric Block, offensive lineman Jon Asamoah.
- The first-team defense: defensive lineman Rahkeem Smith, defensive lineman Antonio James, defensive lineman Clay Nurse, defensive lineman Corey Liuget, linebacker Martez Wilson, linebacker Russell Ellington, linebacker Ian Thomas, cornerback Tavon Wilson, cornerback Patrick Nixon-Youman, safety Bo Flowers, safety Garrett Edwards.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
I didn't get a chance to have the regular Friday mailbag, so here are a few items before the early kickoffs.
Andy from Grand Rapids, Mich., writes: Michigan has a very capable running back in Sam McGuffie who I think will be the future of the position. However, we have seen Brandon Minor break several large runs this year and Carlos Brown has also exhibited great speed. Why is Rich Rod not giving our veteran running backs a little better look out there? Do you think he should be working them into the slot position, direct snaps, etc...? It seems like a bit of a waste of talent. Thanks!
Adam Rittenberg: Rodriguez saw last week the benefit of having multiple running backs in the game. Junior Kevin Grady provided a big lift in short-yardage situations, and Minor had the big touchdown run in the fourth quarter. Brown won't be available today with a sprained foot, but Minor, Grady and Michael Shaw should see time alongside McGuffie. You're absolutely right. Michigan needs its veteran running backs in the game, even if McGuffie is the future. Both Brown and Minor have value, and they both should be used more as the season progresses.
Brian from Baltimore writes: How arrogant is Beanie Wells that he could even think for a minute that he can win the Heisman? Even in the games he's played in, he hasn't posted Heisman worthy numbers.
Adam Rittenberg: Wells might come off that way, but I see it as confidence more than anything, which is never bad. He wants to carry the load for this team, and quite frankly, Ohio State needed someone to step up after the first few games. It will be nearly impossible for Wells to even be in the Heisman discussion, but he still believes he's one of the best players int the country, and more important, so do his teammates. Beanie Wells is the best leader on that team, not the seniors.
Bob from Parts Unknown writes: Adam As you cover the Big 10 - doesnt the completion percentage of Brian Hoyer depend on the receivers helping catch balls in the game. I have watched all the games and certainly there are incomplete passes....but also too many drops from a young receiving corps - something the media all questioned going into the season. So isn't Hoyer overall performance a bit better than his stats show.
Adam Rittenberg: Dropped passes are definitely a factor for Michigan State and several other teams (Wisconsin), but it would take an awful lot of drops to put the completion percentage at 46.5 percent. To his credit, Hoyer hasn't made a lot of mistakes, just two interceptions in 157 pass attempts, but I just can't see Michigan State making a serious run at the Big Ten title without its quarterback completing better than 50 percent of his passes. Hoyer manages a game very well, but he's got to make more plays. Mark Dell and B.J. Cunningham are solid receivers and should be used more.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
I didn't get around to breaking down every depth chart released Monday, so let's do it. Wisconsin's and Iowa's came out last week, and there were no major changes there. Still waiting for Michigan State and Minnesota (Purdue doesn't play until Week 2).
- As stated earlier, quarterbacks Daryll Clark and Pat Devlin are both listed as potential starters.
- Andrew Quarless is listed as the third-string tight end behind Mickey Shuler and Andrew Szczerba. Quarless, a former starter, was suspended for spring practice following a DUI arrest and has had several off-field problems at Penn State.
- Cornerback Tony Davis secured a starting job, and the other cornerback spot will go to Lydell Sargeant or A.J. Wallace. Sargeant started the first 10 games at cornerback last year and looked to be the starter with Wallace, instead of competing against him.
- Sophomores Ollie Ogbu and Abe Koroma are listed as the starters at the defensive tackle spot, which was thinned by two dismissals and an injury to Devon Still. Junior Jared Odrick is listed as Koroma's backup and likely will play plenty this fall.
- Tyrell Sales and Bani Gbadyu are listed as the starting outside linebackers, with Josh Hull in the middle. Promising sophomore Chris Colasanti is listed as Hull's backup.
- Evan Royster remains the top running back with speedy redshirt freshman Stephfon Green behind him.
- Junior Dennis Landolt is listed as both the starting right tackle and the backup left tackle behind Gerald Cadogan.
- As expected, junior Daniel Dufrene is listed as the starting running back ahead of Troy Pollard. Freshmen Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure continue to compete for the third-string spot.
- Junior Chris Duvalt and sophomore Chris James have joined Arrelious Benn as starters at wide receiver. Sophomore walk-on Alex Reavy is listed as Benn's backup, and freshmen Fred Sykes, Cordale Scott and A.J. Jenkins all are on the two-deep.
- A bit of a surprise as both Doug Pilcher and Derek Walker are listed as starters at defensive end opposite Will Davis. The "OR" designation is common for depth charts, but you don't usually see "AND" separating two possible starters. Walker has started the last three seasons but could play less with Pilcher's emergence and greater depth on the line.
- Sophomores Bo Flowers and Travon Bellamy secured the starting safety spots. Bellamy was a shoo-in, but Fowers beat out Nate Bussey and Donsay Hardeman for the job.
- Sophomore Josh Brent will start at defensive tackle following Sirod Williams' season-ending knee injury. Freshman Cory Liuget is listed as the backup at the other tackle spot.
- Four players remain in the mix for the starting place-kicker spot, with freshman Derek Dimke listed first.
There were a couple of notes from Wisconsin's news conference Monday.
- Cornerback Aaron Henry (knee) will miss the opener against Akron, and freshman linebacker Kevin Rouse will miss the majority of the season following shoulder surgery. Tight end Travis Beckum (hamstring), linebacker Jonathan Casillas (knee), fullback Chris Pressley (thumb) and cornerback Antonio Fenelus (ankle) could play Saturday and will be evaluated later in the week.
- Offensive linemen Jake Current and Kevin Zeitler, running back Bradie Ewing, tight end Jake Byrne, defensive end Brendan Kelly, punter Brad Nortman and defensive back Kevin Claxton are the freshmen expected to play this fall.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
One week away. 'Nuff said.
- First, a breakdown of the voting in the Coaches' Poll from Pollspeak.com. Rich Rodriguez retained his vote even though he moved from West Virginia to Michigan, giving the Big Ten seven voters and the Big East only four. The Big Ten has the highest percentage of teams with a coach voting.
- Sophomore Bo Flowers leapfrogged Donsay Hardeman at safety on Bob Asmussen's projected depth chart for Illinois.
- Indiana freshman wideout DaMarlo Belcher wants to be the next James Hardy, Terry Hutchens writes in The Indianapolis Star. Belcher, a Fort Wayne native like Hardy, certainly looked the part in Wednesday's practice. Hutchens also breaks down a good few days for Indiana, which faces decisions at quarterback, cornerback and safety.
- A comprehensive Iowa preview from the Iowa City Press-Citizen, starting with the team's need to get beyond the last three seasons. There are also items on the Hawkeyes' young defensive ends, highly touted offensive lineman Dan Doering and reporters' picks for the season. Quarterback Jake Christensen, fighting to reclaim his starting job, takes the blame for last season, Eric Page writes in the Quad City Times.
- No official announcement yet, but a deal between the Big Ten Network and Mediacom looks imminent, Randy Peterson writes in the Des Moines Register. Iowans rejoice.
- Michigan running backs coach Fred Jackson, the sole holdover from Lloyd Carr's staff, adapts to a new regime, John Heuser writes in The Ann Arbor News. The Michigan schools will be featured on the Big Ten Network this weekend, reaching an audience that largely didn't have the channel last season, Michael Zuidema writes in The Grand Rapids Press.
- Michigan State tight end Charlie Gantt won't try to be the next Kellen Davis, but he should be a factor in the passing game following a good preseason, Andrew Mouranie writes in the Lansing State Journal.
- Minnesota wideout Eric Decker is probably the team's best player, even though he might end up playing baseball down the line, Kent Youngblood writes in the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune. Coach Tim Brewster's eternal optimism might not be going over well with every Gopher fan, Patrick Reusse writes in the Star Tribune.
- Ohio State has its own version of the Four Horsemen in the backfield this fall. In not-so dramatic lore, their names are "Wells and Mo Wells, Boom and Zoom," Tim May writes in The Columbus Dispatch. Linebacker James Laurinaitis joins a select crowd of two-time captains at Ohio State. The Cleveland Plain Dealer's Doug Lesmerises has a good synopsis of the Big Ten Network-Time Warner Cable-Ohio State mess.
- Whenever Joe Paterno chooses to step down, he wants to leave his successor with something to work with at Penn State, Jeff Rice writes in the Centre Daily Times. Penn State's offensive line is stacked with experience, but hopes are highest for underclassman Stefen Wisniewski.
- Purdue's defense had the edge in Friday's scrimmage, as freshmen Derek Jackson and Tommie Thomas recorded interceptions. But the best sign was wideout Aaron Valentin, a junior college transfer who racked up 100 receiving yards, Tom Kubat writes in The Journal and Courier.
- Wisconsin's Mike Newkirk is back at his natural position of defensive tackle, Jeff Potrykus writes in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
RANTOUL, Ill. -- I rolled up to Camp Rantoul just as Illinois players finished stretching before Wednesday's morning practice. Though the team worked out in shorts, the workout had plenty of intensity -- and four-letter words from a geeked-up coaching staff.
Here's a closer look:
- First, the injuries. Backup running back Troy Pollard sat out with an ankle injury and starting tackle Xavier Fulton missed practice with an ankle injury he sustained in Monday night's scrimmage. Both players are expected back soon.
- During the first set of team drills, true freshman running backs Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure rotated with the second-team offense behind projected starter Daniel Dufrene. Though Ford didn't join the team until preseason practice -- LeShoure practiced during the spring -- the standout from Belleville, Ill., seems to be catching on quickly.
- Arrelious Benn is fully healthy for the first time since the first few practices of last summer, and Illinois plans to take advantage. The sophomore wideout often lined up in the backfield and took option pitches from quarterback Juice Williams. He also remains Williams' top passing target, as he showed by catching several touchdowns in 7-on-7 drills.
- Williams looked good overall, consistently finding Benn and several other targets. He still has the tendency to throw too hard, gunning the ball to Marques Wilkins on a 5-yard slant [Wilkins somehow held on]. After Williams was forced to scramble during a play in team drills, offensive coordinator Mike Locksley asked, "Where's your outlet, 7?"
"He came back ahead of the game," Locksley said. "He's come in in awesome shape. Like most quarterbacks at this time, he's got a little bit of sore arm, so we're resting it up a little bit by limiting his throws. But mentally, he's right where we want him to be. The leadership part of it is there."
- Backup quarterback Eddie McGee seemed to struggle Wednesday, particularly near the goal line. He threw an interception to sophomore safety Garrett Edwards. Then Ashante Williams stepped in front of a receiver to pick off a McGee pass in the end zone. "You can't make mistakes in the red zone like this, 10!" Locksley shouted. Williams also broke up a Juice Williams pass to Chris Duvalt, and cornerback Dere Hicks recorded an interception.
- Illinois lost both starters at safety and rotated several players at both spots on Wednesday. Sophomore Travon Bellamy is the likeliest candidate to start, but Donsay Hardeman and Bo Flowers are also getting reps with the first-team defense.
- The receivers could be better than many have forecasted, including yours truly. They'll create matchup problems with Jeff Cumberland, a 6-foot-5, 251-pound junior, and boast speed with both Duvalt and Chris James. Cumberland and James likely will start alongside Benn. Wilkins seemed to be getting a lot of work Wednesday. And look out for Alex Reavy, a sophomore walk-on who is working heavily with the second-team offense. True freshman Cordale Scott looks ready to play at 6-foot-3 and 208 pounds, and coach Ron Zook expects all the freshmen wideouts -- Scott, Jack Ramsey and A.J. Jenkins -- to play this fall in an accentuated passing attack. Ramsey and Scott also could be factors in the return game, as Illinois might want to rest star cornerback Vontae Davis as much as possible.
"Right now, they're swimming a bit," Zook said, "but once those guys get it down, which they will, it's got a chance to be a deep group, a very explosive group. That's exciting."
- Running backs coach Reggie Mitchell had an animated exchange with fullback Rahkeem Smith after a carry during 7-on-7s. "Hey dog, how much you weigh?" Mitchell asked the 255-pound junior. "You go and run full steam."
- Early in practice, pairs of reserve offensive linemen went through resistance training by attaching what looked like a bungee cord between them. Things were going well until Randall Hunt's cord came off the harness, nailing teammate Ryan Palmer just above the groin. Ouch.