Camp Rantoul report Day 3: 'Dynamic Duo' healthy
Beat writer Bob Asmussen's report from Day 3 in Rantoul:
IN THE NEWS
Wednesday's afternoon session was briefly interrupted by a heavy thunderstorm that rolled through Rantoul. The players and coaches went to their locker room for about 10 minutes.
"We just had a little halftime," Illinois coach TIM BECKMAN said. "That's what I told this football team, 'You have to come back out and be ready to perform.' That's exactly what we did."
The Illinois training staff was monitoring the weather before the break. When a couple of lightning strikes were seen to the north of the fields, the team went inside.
"I want to make sure our kids are safe," Beckman said.
On the Illinois preseason depth chart, junior STEVE HULL is listed first at strong safety. But coming off shoulder surgery, his status for the opener against Western Michigan is unclear.
"We're trying to progress him the best way possible so he can be healthy," Beckman said after Wednesday's morning practice.
In the remaining three weeks before the opener, Beckman said, the coaches will find out about Hull's availability.
"We'll see what he does," Beckman said.
With Hull on the sideline, EARNEST THOMAS moves up the depth chart. And so does TOMMY DAVIS, who transferred to Illinois after graduating from Northern Illinois. Beckman coached against Davis while at Toledo.
"Earnest has done a great job," Beckman said. "Tommy Davis coming in, with him being a proven guy who has played college football before, has shown that he's got some capabilities."
At times, they clutched the football like a prized possession, their fingers and thumbs positioned just right. When the balls hit the ground, they grabbed and cradled them as coaches tried to pry them loose.
It is all part of the daily routine for Beckman's team. The ball possession drills come at the end of the team stretch, just before they try live field goals.
"I think that's the fundamentals of football," Beckman said. "The players have to know how to get on a fumble. They've got to know how we scoop and score, how we intercept."
They can't quite simulate a live fumble for fear of an injury. What usually happens is the player who gets the ball first is piled on by the opponent. Each of the players tries to strip the ball away at the bottom of the pile. Wednesday's drill is a way for the players to fend off the ball stealers.
Even with replay, the officials are left to award the ball to the player who comes out of the pile with it in hand. Any little edge helps.
Hard to believe they are the "veterans" at their position. Neither has turned 20 yet. One is a sophomore, the other a medical redshirt freshman. They have 101 college carries between them.
Still, they are getting the questions from the trio of anxious freshmen.
A year ago, DONOVONN YOUNG and JOSH FERGUSON could turn to seniors JASON FORD and TROY POLLARD for help. Now, they are the leaders.
"We learned a lot from the older guys last year," Ferguson said. "We're definitely receptive (to questions)."
Both are fully recovered from injuries. Ferguson, who has added 10 pounds, missed most of the 2011 season. And Young was slowed in the spring.
With Young missing time, Ferguson was one of the stars of the spring. That added motivation for his summer workouts.
"It laid the foundation for the summer," Ferguson said. "It gave confidence to me and my coaches since they didn't have film on me."
Back to work Wednesday morning, No. 5 (Young) and 6 (Ferguson) took turns carrying the ball and catching passes.
"I'm excited about the whole feel of the program," Young said.
"We've already got our name, '5, 6 in the mix.' People around here are starting to call us 'The Dynamic Duo.' I think we've got something good going on."
There has been a significant change in the type of offense Illinois is running, from pro-style to spread.
"I still run the ball," Young said. "As long as I'm running the ball, I'm fine."
The new offense likely will mean more receptions for Young and Ferguson. How does Young rate his hands?
"If I was to put it on a percentage scale, I'd say about an 85," Young said.
Ferguson has a greater comfort level as a receiver.
"I've always been able to catch," Ferguson said. "Over the year, (Young) has definitely gotten better at receiver."
NO CARTS ALLOWED
At past Camp Rantouls, the grassy area beyond the fields were littered with golf carts. Not anymore.
Instead of taking carts from the hotel to the fields or to lunch, the coaches are walking. The only carts being used at this year's Camp Rantoul are for the training and equipment staff. Everyone else is on foot.
A home game against Youngstown State was added to the 2014 Illinois schedule. Probably a good thing the Illini aren't playing ERIC WOLFORD's team this year.
The former Illini assistant, who is entering his third year, has a loaded team in Ohio. According to PHIL STEELE, the Penguins are the preseason No. 4 among Football Championship Subdivision schools.
According to Steele, Illinois State is No. 21 and Southern Illinois is No. 26. Charleston Southern, which visits Illinois this season, didn't make the Top 40.
Former Illini defensive lineman NATE PALMER, now at Illinois State, is listed as a fourth-team All-American.
The team will be together for the first time Thursday, with a single practice scheduled for 9 a.m. A single session is scheduled for 9 a.m. Friday.
POSITION WATCH: Offensive line
HUGH THORNTON has been around Illinois for a long time. So, a position change isn't going to cause the senior to freak out. Not even close.
Thornton has been working at left tackle after starting the past two seasons at guard. But tackle is nothing new to the former Boise, Idaho/Ohio resident. As a freshman at Illinois in 2008, he started seven games at right tackle. Though the position seemed suited for him, he willingly moved to guard for the next two years.
"I feel confident that we have the players who are going to step up and fill the spots that we need to have filled," Thornton said. "Right now, we're all rotating. It's a good experience. We're all learning from each other."
Toward the end of spring and during the summer, Thornton worked at left tackle. Just in case.
Moving outside can be a dramatic change. Instead of dealing with 300-plus-pound tackles, Thornton will run into more speedy defensive ends. His primary job, as the highly paid NFL left tackles will tell you, is to protect the quarterback's blind side. A missed block can turn into disaster.
"I've been getting in the film room and learning the position," Thornton said. "It's good to come out here and actually compete against some great players.
"There are some technical changes. Offensive line is offensive line. Whatever position I play, I'm going to work as hard as I can to be the best at it."
Thornton likes his new position coach, former Illini center LUKE BUTKUS.
"He's a great addition to the Illini," Thornton said. "He's got a lot of great insight and great ideas. He's a great coach overall. He's been very helpful."
The Illini have more than three weeks before their opener against Western Michigan. One possible starting five for the linemen would include Thornton and SIMON CVIJANOVIC at tackle, GRAHAM POCIC and MICHAEL HEITZ at guard and JAKE FELDMEYER at center. TED KARRAS also is competing for one of the guard spots. If he doesn't start, Karras could be the first off the bench.
COACHING CORNER: CO-OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR/RECEIVERS COACH BILLY GONZALES
When the ball hits a receiver's hands and then the ground, the groans are loud from the Camp Rantoul bleachers.
Early in camp, it's going to happen. Not that first-year coach BILLY GONZALES is going to be OK with it.
"We've got to be consistent," Gonzales said. "If you look at great championship teams, they take care of the ball on the offensive side.
"We've got to do the little things better than everybody else. Everybody is out there doing the same stuff. They're out there busting their butt. They're out working. What we need to be able to do is execute at a higher rate of efficiency than everybody else to be successful."
Before this week, Gonzales hadn't seen his guys practice since April. It was on the players to continue studying their playbooks and practicing on their own.
How did they do?
"They had a fantastic summer," Gonzales said. "I'm excited about the guys coming back. It's neat to get around a bunch of guys who want to be good."
The Illini are missing a go-to receiver after the departure of A.J. JENKINS, who caught 90 passes in 2011.
"Everybody's going to ask the receiver group, 'Who is going to be able to step up and replace A.J.?' " Gonzales said. "I said, 'I want all of you guys to step up. This is going to be something we do as a team. It's not going to be one individual more than any other.' "
Gonzales wasn't sure what to think of Camp Rantoul when he first arrived. In his past stops, preseason drills always have been on campus. But he is a fan of the Illinois setup.
"I really like it," Gonzales said. "I've never done it before. Just getting a chance to get out here in Rantoul is pretty darn nice. You get away, and there's a chance to build the relationships right before you're getting ready to go into battle. You have no distractions. It's a pretty good deal."
SURVEY SAYS ...
Each day during Camp Rantoul, we will run survey answers from the Illinois football players. Today's guests:
LONG SNAPPER ZAK PEDERSEN
Obama or Romney? Ron Paul write-in
Olympic event you had to watch? Dutch women's field hockey
Favorite stadium to visit? Michigan Stadium
1992 Dream Team or 2012 version? M.J. and the '92 Hall of Famers
RG3 or Andrew Luck? RG3 based on his swag alone
Teammate who should be on "America's Got Talent"? Jake Feldmeyer (standup comic)
How many days would you like to stay in Camp Rantoul? 364 ... with Christmas at home
Four-team playoff or BCS? 12-team playoff
Other than your girlfriend, who will be cool if you answer this, who is your dream date? Patricia Immekus (Nick's mom)
Which current Illinois coach looks like he still can play? Coach Austin ... he has a diesel neck
Other than a teammate, who is your Heisman favorite? Jay Prosch
You are in charge of music at Memorial Stadium. What's on? The new Rick Ross album
PUNTER JUSTIN DuVERNOIS
Obama or Romney? Beckman
Olympic event you had to watch? Gymnastics or swimming
Favorite stadium to visit? Lincoln Financial Field
1992 Dream Team or 2012 version? 2012
RG3 or Andrew Luck? RG3
Teammate who should be on "America's Got Talent"? Zak Pedersen
How many days would you like to stay in Camp Rantoul? Five days is enough
Four-team playoff or BCS? Four-team playoff
Other than your girlfriend, who will be cool if you answer this, who is your dream date? Anne Hathaway
Which current Illinois coach looks like he still can play? Alex Golesh
Other than a teammate, who is your Heisman favorite? Matt Barkley
You are in charge of music at Memorial Stadium. What's on? Red Hot Chili Peppers