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Ron Zook's team continued practice Wednesday. A look:
— Matt Eller hit 15 of 20 field goals in 2008, including 8 of 10 beyond 40 yards. But there are no guarantees he will be the starter in 2009.
Eller is competing during spring practice with sophomore Derek Dimke. The two battled for the starting job at Camp Rantoul before Illinois coach Ron Zook declared Eller the narrow winner.
“Matt did a great job and I’m very, very proud of Matt,” Zook said. “But it’s not his birthright. Matt knows that. He understands that.”
Eller has to prove himself again.
“It’s going to be a competitive thing,” Zook said. “Just because one guy was the kicker last year doesn’t mean he’s going to be the kicker this year. I feel pretty confident we’ll have two pretty good guys.”
Zook has been impressed with Dimke, who handled kickoffs the second half of the 2008 season.
“Derek has got a leg,” Zook said. “Derek probably right now is kicking as well as anybody. The ball is coming off his foot well.”
Eller is working hard on and off the field, Zook said.
“Matt’s changed everything,” Zook said. “He’s doing all the things off the field that you need to do. I want him to hit every kick obviously, but I don’t think it’s time to get too concerned yet.”
— A.J. Jenkins still hasn’t gotten used to the weather. But football is coming easier for the Floridian during his first spring session.
“It’s a whole lot less intense than Camp Rantoul,” the sophomore receiver said. “I looked at last year as being my growing year, kind of getting used to the football atmosphere. This year, hopefully, I’ll be more comfortable on the field and I’ll be more ready to explode.”
Zook sees a positive change in Jenkins.
“He understands what’s going on more,” Zook said. “He understands the offense. There’s a lot of things going fast through their head. It’s all able to register.”
The receiver position is the deepest on the team, providing plenty of competition. Friendly competition.
“We’re still a big family,” Jenkins said. “We’re still going to help each other out each day.”
— Illinois is working offensive tackles Jeff Allen and Corey Lewis at both the left and right sides.
“Jeff Allen’s really got great feet,” Zook said. “I think Corey’s going to be able to play both sides as well.”
Ryan Palmer, who started three games during the 2008 season, is working exclusively at right tackle. Craig Wilson will continue as a backup left tackle.
— Zook is continuing to look for answers at backup center, where snaps have gone awry throughout the spring.
“I get tired of seeing it,” Zook said. “And the coaches get tired of seeing it. It’s something we’ve got to keep working on. Even Eric Block a couple years ago had some issues and he’s fine now.”
— With extensive work in the spring, Zook is feeling better about his special teams.
“We feel like we’ve got athletes that can contribute,” Zook said. “Hopefully, we can cut down on the errors and be more consistent. It takes 11 guys going wide open. It’s just as important as an offensive or defensive play. It’s probably more important because it’s just one play.”
Zook wants to see more consistency from Anthony Santella, who had a 70-yard punt during Saturday’s scrimmage at Oak Park-River Forest.
“With about a 46 mph wind behind him,” Zook said. “The only game that he was consistent in was the Rose Bowl. At times, he’s consistent and at times, he’s not. That’s why I didn’t do anything last year, because I felt like he would come around. He’s got to become more consistent.”
Santella has been working as the team’s holder. But he struggled some during Saturday’s scrimmage.
Zook is trying receiver Chris James as the holder.
“C.J. is a guy we worked with last year when we didn’t know for sure who was going to be the holder,” Zook said. “(Departed) Jared Bosch took it over, so we didn’t worry too much about it. C.J. gives you an athletic guy who can throw the football. He played quarterback some in high school.”
— “I love it. I wish I’d get to see it. I never get to see anything. I’m too busy doing what I’ve got to do. I was in the zone. I got to the sideline and guys were like, ‘You heard that?’ I knew something happened,” offensive guard Jon Asamoah on a pad-popping hit made by tailback Jason Ford against linebacker Martez Wilson.
— “I’m trying to get back into the groove of things and be an active football player again. Everything’s coming slowly. It’s a work in progress,” safety Ashante Williams, who has converted from cornerback after sitting out the 2008 season as a redshirt.
— “It’s always fun whuppin’ up on the offense. (London Davis) dropped two balls today, so the defense has got to take advantage of that,” defensive end Clay Nurse, who let Davis know about the second drop during Wednesday’s practice.
— “We’ve got to continue to stress that we can’t turn the ball over. The defense had three or four picks yesterday in practice. And we can’t give up big plays,” Illinois coach Ron Zook.