Keys to Camp Rantoul
The Illinois football team will spend the next two weeks at Camp Rantoul. They won't be telling ghost stories while eating s'mores. But they will be working on several areas that need to be addressed before the Sept. 3 opener against Arkansas State. Here is beat writer Bob Asmussen's suggested to-do list for the Illini:
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1. Keep the attitude
Last time we saw the Illini play in a real game they stormed the field after a dominating performance against Baylor in the Texas Bowl. They looked as if they had just won the national championship.
That kind of emotion can help a team in close games, which has been a downfall for Illinois since the 2007 season. Looking ahead, Illinois has at least a handful of tossup games. What it does now, both physically and emotionally, could make a difference in the fourth quarter against Northwestern, Ohio State and Michigan.
Second-year coordinators Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning have a better feeling for their guys and how to get them going. But they can't do it alone. They will need the help of the players, especially the older guys who have lived through the dark days (3-9 in 2009).
2. Pick strong-side tackle
Corey Lewis won't be ready for the start of the season while recuperating from knee surgery. So, it's up to either Michael Heitz or Simon Cvijanovic to fill the hole. Neither has played a down of college football, redshirting as freshmen.
The 2010 season served as a good learning experience for Heitz and Cvijanovic, who tutored under Jeff Allen and Ryan Palmer while gaining size and strength.
Heitz seemed to have a small advantage coming out of spring practices. The coaches want the competition to stay close throughout training camp, pushing both players to better performances.
The good news for Illinois: the other four spots are held by established starters, including three-year starter Allen at the critical weak-side tackle position.
3. Select a backup QB
Miles Osei would seem to be the first choice. He has been in college games, though his work was limited to three appearances during his rookie season. Osei has thrown only one pass, an incompletion.
The competition comes from News-Gazette All-State Player of the Year Reilly O'Toole. He had a good opening day of practice, Petrino said. But like all rookie quarterbacks, learning the system can take some time.
O'Toole has a strong arm and is a solid runner. Even more important to the coaches: he's a winner, leading Wheaton Warrenville South to consecutive state titles.
Nathan Scheelhaase has three years of eligibility remaining. Do the coaches want to use a year of O'Toole's eligibility if his playing time will be limited? The next two weeks should provide the answer.
4. SAM I am
Ashante Williams won't be at the outside linebacker spot for at least a couple of games. After a good spring, Williams got into Ron Zook's doghouse with a DUI arrest a week before the start of practice. Williams isn't practicing with the team and his future is uncertain.
Trulon Henry worked at SAM the first two days of practice and would seem to be a logical choice for the position. He is good against the run and likes contact. The position is a hybrid linebacker/safety. Zook calls it a nickelback.
If Henry gets the call, he'll be backed up by redshirt freshman Earnest Thomas. In future years, the position could belong to the Michigan native.
5. Depth at DT
Akeem Spence will finish his Illinois career as a four-year starter and Craig Wilson has found a new home after working as an offensive tackle. The coaches want to keep the guys fresh, which means Spence and Wilson will need to take some plays off.
Austin Teitsma and Jake Howe have worked toward playing time after redshirting in 2010. They will get the first call. Koenning would like to find another player or two to help at the position, even if for just a few plays a game.
Unfortunately for Illinois, it won't have Chris Jones in a backup role. Expected to play early in his career, Jones remains jailed on a battery charge. His next court appearance isn't scheduled until late in the month.
6. Pick a punter
Freshman Justin DuVernois has a chance to take the position. But he's got some competition from senior Matt Eller, who worked earlier in his career as a starting kicker.
Eller wants to be on the field for his final season and turned to the punting position during the spring with mixed results. Watching him the first couple of practices, it's clear he has worked hard during the summer to put himself in contention.
Zook wants somebody he can count on every punt. He will put pressure on DuVernois and Eller during the two weeks to see who can handle it best. Like Zook said, the most important part of the punt is getting it off.
Saturday's scrimmage at Rantoul High School, with fans in the stands, will provide a good test.
7. Divvy up the carries
Jason Ford returns as the go-to guy at tailback and should get the bulk of the runs. But the position averaged 32 carries in 2011 and Ford can't take them all.
Troy Pollard starts as the lead backup and Bud Golden is also under consideration. The coaches have been impressed by freshmen Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young, who come from top high school programs.
Mikel Leshoure averaged 22 carries in 2010 and put together a record season. Ford won't likely get that many carries. Those decisions might come down to game time and who is hot.
8. Sort out the freshmen
O'Toole, Young and Ferguson figure to get a chance to play as rookies. Who else?
Petrino likes the freshman receivers and tight ends: Jordan Frysinger, Kenny Knight, Jeremy Whitlow, Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse. They spent the summer working with Scheelhaase and the rest of the returnees.
Linebackers Ralph Cooper and Henry Dickinson have the ability to play early. In the secondary, all hands are potentially in.
The closer you get to the ball the more difficult it is to play early. The Illinois coaches like the class of offensive linemen, and the defensive linemen have a high upside. Zook hasn't hesitated to use freshmen linemen in the past ... if the players were ready. Hugh Thornton, Allen and Lewis all played in their rookie seasons.
9. Happy returns
Illinois was 117th nationally in punt returns last season, averaging 3.2 yards per try. The kickoff returns weren't much better, finishing 101st with a 19.8 average.
They are free yards, the kind that can make the difference in a close game. In the early practices, several players were given a chance to return punts.
Zook is looking for a dynamic returner, someone who can threaten to score on any return. Look at the teams with those kind of guys and you will see a lot of wins. Nothing more humbling to an opponent than a return for a touchdown.
10. Turnover central
Illinois was 22nd nationally in turnover margin in 2010. The teams ahead of Illinois on the list includes a who's who of BCS participants: Oregon, TCU, Wisconsin, Ohio State, UConn, Stanford, Virginia Tech and Oklahoma.
The quest for ball protection starts with Scheelhaase. He was careful about where he threw the ball in 2010, especially the final seven games of the season. If he continues the low interception rate, Illinois should move up the margin list.
Turnover margin is about more than protecting the ball. On defense, you have to aggressively go after it. That means stripping the ball from runners, putting yourself in position for more interceptions and grabbing it when it's on the ground. With Tavon Wilson back at cornerback and a healthy Terry Hawthorne, interceptions should climb from the 11 Illinois had in 2010. That was the lowest total among the Top 25 turnover margin teams.