RANTOUL — Illinois worked in quarterbacks Reilly O’Toole, Aaron Bailey and Wes Lunt for the second straight practice on Thursday morning in Rantoul.
Starter Nathan Scheelhaase was limited again after he rolled his right ankle — the same one he hurt last year against Western Michigan — on Wednesday.
“It didn’t swell up (Wednesday night), which was good,” Scheelhaase said. “It’s a little sore, but it’s the same type of ankle sprain you’d have if you twisted it on the basketball court. Nothing serious. Nothing like last year, which is good.”
Scheelhaase said he felt good enough to practice the last two times, but understands why the Illinois coaching staff held him out.
“They definitely are being a little more precautious, and I think the whole team is feeling that with bodies are a little sore and a little tender,” Scheelhaase said. “Mentally, we’ve seen a lot these last few days, so these next 24 hours will be great for our recovery.”
Illinois holds its last two-a-day practice in Rantoul today, going from 9-11 a.m. and again from 4:15-6:20 p.m. It’s back to Champaign on Saturday for a night scrimmage at Memorial Stadium closed to the public and the media before the first off day of training camp takes place Sunday.
Scheelhaase still has a firm grasp on the starting job, even with O’Toole and Bailey getting the majority of reps the last two practices. He just wants to avoid injury problems that plagued the start of his 2012 season. This latest ailment happened when his feet were tangled up.
“As a quarterback ... your feet get stepped on and your legs get twisted up a little bit just because those linemen are going hard every play,” Scheelhaase said. “When guys fall down, that’s when things really get scary because that’s when everyone’s going to topple over, kind of like dominoes.”
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Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said O’Toole has had “a good camp,” but struggled Thursday.
“I’ve really been impressed with his accuracy, and it’s much improved there,” Cubit said. “I think (Thursday) he got flushed out a few times and that kind of disrupts things. That might have been the worst practice he’s had. It wasn’t great by any means, but it wasn’t terribly bad.”
Cubit has emphasized for most of camp having better routes run by the wide receivers. He said it’s improving, but he’d still like for that group to perform better when they get tired. Which is what most Illinois players are grappling with at this point.
“They cut things off then,” Cubit said. “All of a sudden, a 12-yard route becomes a 10-yard route, and (that affects) the timing. That’s the biggest fear during this time at camp because when you get back to campus next week, they see the light and see that Southern Illinois is coming around, and all of a sudden, you take it a little bit more easy on their legs, but here you can’t.”
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Three players with significant injuries either last year or in years past figure to contribute this season.
Two — right tackle Corey Lewis and defensive tackle Jake Howe — are projected to start. The third, Henry Dickinson, could find some spot duty at linebacker.
Coaches have cut down on Lewis’ reps to make sure he is healthy heading into the season. Michael Heitz, the projected starter at left guard, worked in at right tackle with the starters at times on Thursday. Backup Joe Spencer saw time at left guard with the starters, and Patrick Flavin has spelled Lewis at right tackle in spots during camp.
“Michael’s done that, and if you recall what happened last year with the offensive line and moving guys over at different places, you get your five best on the football,” Beckman said. “I would say if we had a top seven right now (with the offensive linemen), you would add Spencer and you’d add Flavin to that picture.”
Lewis, who has had five knee surgeries during his time at Illinois, insists his knees are holding up.
“I still try to take as many reps as I can just to get acclimated to taking a lot of reps during the season,” Lewis said. “I’m not trying to come out. Sometimes the coaches ask me how I’m doing, and I just say ‘I’m good.’ I worked hard to make the knees feel good, so I look forward to every day and look forward to every rep. Obviously, with two-a-days, just from five knee surgeries, you get worn down a little bit, but I know for sure I’ll be ready to go Aug. 31, God willing.”
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Howe knew right away his season was done when he broke his arm against Penn State in the Illini’s fifth game last year.
“It wasn’t in the socket,” he said. “It was completely flapping around.”
Beckman is counting on the McHenry native to produce along an inexperienced defensive line. And stay healthy. Howe will likely play alongside Austin Teitsma, two players who have never started a game, but were both part of Illinois’ Class of 2010.
“We have everything to prove,” Howe said. “We’re not proven players by any means, so we have to go out every day, every game and really prove who we are. I think we’re good players. We just have to prove it now.”
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Dickinson missed all of the 2012 season with a broken leg and ankle he suffered last year at Camp Rantoul.
He redshirted Beckman’s first season, so he still has three seasons left, but isn’t in the mix for a starting spot. At least not heading into the season opener.
“It’s still painful, especially in these quick turnarounds,” Dickinson said. “It’s hard for me to be able to recover after each one, but it’s a lot better, and I’m getting back in the swing of things. I’m still not there yet.”
Dickinson hasn’t been held out during camp and has gone through full contact drills.
“I feel like I’ve been away from the game for eons,” Dickinson said. “It’s definitely great to be back with the guys hitting. I think my role is really going to depend on my health. If I can get back to 100 percent and really contribute, I’d love to, but right now, the big question mark is my health and see if I am 100 percent at the opener.”
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Linebacker Jonathan Brown is slated to go through full contact drills today.
The linebacker wore a green jersey on Thursday after two days of wearing purple jerseys and working off to the side of practice.
The green jersey indicates to avoid contact.
It’s the first concussion of Brown’s career. The Memphis, Tenn., native is all too familiar with injuries after leg and shoulder ailments impeded his 2012 season.
“It’s just been a slow process getting back, but just following protocol and safety first,” Brown said. “I feel good. We’ve just got to follow protocol and follow rules.”
Defensive coordinator Tim Banks said it’s tough not having Brown out there for most of Camp Rantoul. Zepheniah Grimes has handled most of the reps at Brown’s position while he makes his way back to full strength.
“You want your best players out there, but we understand that he’ll be there, and he’s slowly working his way back in,” Banks said. “We’re just excited about that opportunity because now we’re playing some other kids who may not have obviously gotten some reps, and those guys are continuing to develop.”
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It appears freshman Caleb Day might shift to cornerback.
He worked out with that group during positional drills on Thursday after initally coming into camp at a safety spot.
“We wanted to get Caleb on the field as fast as we could and wanted to give him a shot at corner,” said Beckman, who coaches the cornerbacks. “We’re so young in that room with freshmen and sophomores and maybe one or two juniors, but we thought he might be able to do that. He’s definitely athletic enough.”
— Matt Daniels