Ask Asmussen what he's worried about here
The team has six new coaches and a mandate to show improvement on the field in 2010. Is it working for Ron Zook's team? Bob Asmussen breaks it down position by position after the conclusion of spring practice
COMING IN: Test Jacob Charest, Nathan Scheelhaase and Chandler Whitmer both mentally and physically. Make sure all three understand the offense. Show them that playing quarterback in college doesn't end at the practice field. ... While deciding on a starting quarterback wasn't mandatory, it was at least a desired option. ... Get the tailbacks comfortable and reacting instead of thinking. ... Find a workable rotation at tailback. ... Put Justin Green in a position to help the team the most, which meant using his speed. ... Introduce an unfamiliar position, the fullback, to the offense. See if newly scholarshipped Zach Becker is ready for a larger role. ... Give plenty of work to reserve running backs Bud Golden and Troy Pollard, who are likely to be needed in 2010. ... Learn from new offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, who helped Arkansas rank among the nation's best units in 2009. ... Listen to running backs coach DeAndre Smith, the first change at the position since the Ron Turner era. ... And listen to Jeff Brohm, who knows a thing or 100 about quarterbacks.
GOING OUT: Scheelhaase looked comfortable and ready from the start of spring drills. A week into the session, it was clear he had moved to the front. He's still got work to do and Charest isn't out of the race, but it appears that Scheelhaase will be the starter Sept. 4 against Missouri. ... Charest had his share of positive moments, too. The question is how he reacts to not being the starter. ... Whitmer played like you would expect, inconsistent while he learned a college offense. Whitmer showed a strong arm and mobility. He had trouble getting rid of the ball in time and with accuracy. Very common for a first-year quarterback. ... Mikel Leshoure seemed to be having a great spring until he pulled himself out of the third scrimmage with an ankle injury. That upset Zook, who praised Jason Ford for playing with a sore ankle. ... Justin Green suffered a broken ankle the first week and was lost for the rest of the spring. He is expected to be ready to run long before Camp Rantoul. ... Becker secured the fullback spot. He proved he could catch the ball out of the backfield and run with it after the catch. ... With Green's injury, Golden and Pollard got plenty of carries. ... Smith and Brohm had the undivided attention of the running backs and quarterbacks. Petrino ran the show.
COMING IN: Find a go-to receiver to replace early departee Arrelious Benn. ... Teach the receivers the Paul Petrino way. Not only in route running and pass catching, but also his work ethic and expectations for off-the-field efforts. ... Decide if A.J. Jenkins could not only be a reliable option but a player capable of putting up Benn-type numbers. ... Reintroduce tight ends to the offense. ... Put Jarred Fayson in a position to become the big-time threat the coaches expected when he transferred from Florida. Nagging injuries have been a part of Fayson's troubles in the past. See if he has worked through it. ... Determine depth beyond Jenkins and Fayson. That meant a continued progression for Jack Ramsey and more work for converted quarterback Eddie McGee and Fred Sykes. ... Get Steve Hull involved in the offense after his redshirt season. ... Find out if Chris James will be able to contribute.
GOING OUT: Jenkins has been a hit on the field, and the coaches like his enthusiasm off it. Someday, maybe very soon, the first question to Jenkins won't be "Are you glad you didn't leave?" He was patient answering the same topic throughout spring practice, another sign he is ready to make a splash. ... Fayson looks like a guy capable of a big senior season. It isn't guaranteed, but it's a possibility. He could still be the team's top receiver. ... London Davis and Justin Lattimore caught passes and made blocks during spring ball, just like tight ends are supposed to. They got some help from Becker, who figures to get the bulk of his time at fullback. ... Ramsey and McGee had their share of positive moments throughout the spring. McGee is settled as a receiver and talks a lot about finishing his career as a winner. ... Sykes and Hull appear to be part of the rotation and will go into Camp Rantoul with a chance to move up a spot or two. ... The players are all smiles when it comes to Petrino. Sure, he's demanding, but they like it. ... James could be the Michael Dean of 2010 (ask your older siblings).
COMING IN: Teach the guards and tackles to switch from side to side, depending on the formation and play called. Instead of left and right tackles and guards, the players are now slotted according to strong side or weak side. ... Find two starters to go with returnees Jeff Allen, Randall Hunt and Hugh Thornton. ... Move Thornton from the tackle, which he played in 2009, to guard to replace Jon Asamoah. ... Decide who was the best fit at the open tackle spot: Ryan Palmer or Corey Lewis. Both have started in the past. ... Replace center Eric Block. ... Find depth across the board. ... Integrate the blocking schemes with the rest of the new offense.
GOING OUT: The guards and tackles said they have adjusted to flipping from side to side. Jeff Allen said it took time, but he understands the concept and doesn't think it will be a problem during the season. ... Thornton made the transition to guard, though he was dropped to the second team for a period during spring drills. He is expected to be a starter. ... The team found its starting center in guard Graham Pocic. It's the position the former Lemont star played in his first season at Illinois. ... Lewis leads at the open tackle spot but will continue to be pushed by Palmer. That's exactly what the coaches want. ... Jack Cornell, Craig Wilson, Tyler Sands and Ryan Sedlacek are next in across the line.
COMING IN: Find a replacement for tackle Josh Brent, who is at Parkland College this spring trying to clear up academic shortcomings. ... Decide who will be the Bandit, a new position in a new defense. Vic Koenning's pet position is a combination defensive end/outside linebacker and has made some of his former players rich in the NFL. First up was Michael Buchanan, a highly touted end who got on the field as a freshman in 2009. ... Turn tackle Corey Liuget into a dominating player on the field and in the huddle. The Floridian has huge potential and a big personality. The coaches want to see more of it. And they want to see him become a consistent force. ... Create depth at end, where Clay Nurse was sitting out contact during the spring while recovering from a shoulder injury. ... See if redshirt freshman Akeem Spence is ready to be a contributor at tackle. ... Listen to coach Keith Gilmore, one of two holdovers on the defensive staff. ... Gain depth across the line and find out if some of the returning veterans, like Daryle Ballew, are ready for an expanded role.
GOING OUT: Spence, who reshaped his body while dropping about 25 pounds, has more than held his own as the starting tackle opposite Liuget. He'll continue to be pushed during the summer and Camp Rantoul but is gaining confidence with every snap. Once a major concern, the coaches now feel they can go forward without Brent. Of course, they still want him back. ... Word from the coaches on Brent is that he remains on track to return to the Illini. It will take the rest of the spring semester and some summer work. And it isn't guaranteed. But it's a possibility. Ron Zook talks with Brent almost every day. You wouldn't have that communication if Brent had given up. ... Whitney Mercilus and Justin Staples have improved and will provide depth at end/Bandit. Still, the team needs a healthy Nurse back or the defense will suffer. ... Liuget became one of the voices of the defense, projecting confidence in the unit's ability to improve. ... Gilmore, with the backing of Koenning, has the attention of the linemen. ... Buchanan did well in adjusting to the Bandit. It's a work in progress.
COMING IN: Transition Ian Thomas, who played most of the 2009 season at middle linebacker, back to the outside. Thomas will be moving to his old spot with the return of Martez Wilson in the middle. ... Test Wilson's projected 2010 backup, Evan Frierson, in the middle, creating options for the coaches when Wilson returns. ... Get Aaron Gress more involved in the defense. Like many junior college transfers, Gress will likely be at his best in his second season. ... Keep Wilson involved, even though he can't have contact while recovering from a neck injury. ... Decide if converted defensive back Nate Bussey is the answer at the SAM position. Also, find a backup for Bussey, starting with Russell Ellington. ... See if veteran Dustin Jefferson is able contribute.
GOING OUT: Thomas has been a steady part of the defense throughout the spring, being in the right place on runs and passes. He will be able to resume his former role without any problem ... Frierson isn't going to replace Wilson in the starting lineup, but the coaches aren't worried about putting him on the field. ... Gress has been a hit during the spring, swarming to the ball and making big plays. It might be difficult for the coaches to keep him off the field. ... Wilson looked like he wanted to sneak onto the field during contact drills. He went through every drill that was allowed and was talkative during practices. He showed the leadership the coaches hoped he would. ... Bussey has held the SAM spot and will be on the field in the opener against Missouri. ... Ellington was tried some on offense. ... Converted safety Ashante Williams appears to be Bussey's backup.
COMING IN: In his first spring practice, keep Terry Hawthorne moving in the right direction. He was a hit as a cornerback in 2009 but still has plenty to learn. ... Put the pressure on Tavon Wilson to become a lockdown corner, which will allow the defense to become more aggressive up front. ... Find backups at the two cornerback spots. See if Patrick Nixon-Youman and Antonio Gully are ready to step in. ... Watch the progress of cornerback Miami Thomas, who is recovering from his second major knee surgery. ... Find answers at both safety spots, which have been an issue at Illinois since the departure of Justin Harrison and Kevin Mitchell in 2007. ... Test Travon Bellamy's ability to have a big senior season at safety. ... Get junior college transfer Trulon Henry as many reps as possible. ... Find out if Supo Sanni or Walter Aikens is ready to command a starting safety spot. ... Listen and learn from new position coach/coordinator Koenning.
GOING OUT: Hawthorne had a pick six in an early scrimmage and appears on his way to superstardom. He's got great hands and speed. His job between now and Camp Rantoul is to continue to learn the defense. It's OK to take chances if you can make the play. He's got to figure out when to take the shot. ... Wilson was one of the top defensive players, drawing the praise of Zook. He is set at one corner spot and should provide a steadying influence. ... Nixon-Youman is a solid backup at a position that appears a bit deeper than expected. ... Bellamy had plenty of positives and should be on the field against Missouri. ... Henry got involved in the defense and will be a contributor. ... The safety spot opposite Bellamy belongs to Sanni. Aikens would have been in the picture but has been indefinitely suspended from the team after his arrest last week on possession of stolen property charges. He is not expected to be with the team in 2010.
COMING IN: Make sure Derek Dimke is ready to resume his role as the starting kicker. He hit 5 of 5 after replacing Matt Eller in 2009 and has a strong leg. But did the offseason cut into his timing and accuracy? ... Emphasize two areas Illinois has struggled at in recent years: returns and coverage. The team was 114th nationally in punt returns and 105th in kick returns last season. It was 90th in kickoff return coverage and 58th in net punting. ... Determine which coach will work with which unit. The team has had a special teams coordinator in the past, but that position no longer exists. ... Make sure punter Anthony Santella continues on his upward trend. He has increased his average by about 2 yards each season. ... Find a replacement for long snapper Tad Keely. ... Decide on the punt and kick returners.
GOING OUT: Except for a wayward kick or two, Dimke has been solid during the spring. And Eller, now his backup, seems to have fixed his problem that led to seven misses in 11 tries last season. ... The coverage and return teams are a work in progress. Offensive coordinator Petrino and quarterback coach Brohm are handling the returners. ... Special teams have been an important part of the scrimmages. Besides an effort to get better returns and coverage, the team has also put more emphasis on blocking kicks. ... Santella has been very good during the spring and could bump his average another couple of yards. Good thing for Illinois he transferred from Utah. ... Zak Pedersen has been steady as Keely's replacement. ... The returners will come from Terry Hawthorne, Jarred Fayson, Jack Ramsey and Troy Pollard.
COMING IN: Pretty simple: teach the new offense and defense (Vic Koenning). ... Establish a relationship with the players that goes beyond the field. And work hard to gain the trust of the players, who are looking at six new assistant coaches. ... Preach discipline, teamwork, discipline, accountability, discipline, unselfishness. ... Determine a two-deep while trying players at different positions. ... Push a winning attitude among the players. Talk about hopes and dreams. Be positive. ... Remember it takes more than four weeks in the spring to build a team. Be patient. Don't push any panic buttons if it isn't working. ... Be flexible. Adjust to the strengths of the players.
GOING OUT: There is still work to do, but the basic concepts are long since in and the players are working on refining what they know. ... Because of conversations and winter workouts, the relationships had started to form before the first spring drill. But the players seem to genuinely like the new coaches. ... The coaches have been demanding and have ended practice sessions with extra drills. The players haven't complained publicly. ... There was some experimenting, especially within the backup group. And the coaches quickly realized Pocic was the answer at center. ... The coaches aren't talking about bowl games or winning seasons. But they aren't downplaying the abilities of the returnees.