Camp Rantoul: Earnest Thomas in charge (w/video)
RANTOUL — Earnest Thomas is the unquestioned veteran leader of the Illinois secondary. The junior strong safety from Orchard Lake, Mich., embraces the gig.
If defensive coordinator Tim Banks needs a player to go through a drill first, Thomas is the man.
“We’re counting on him,” Banks said. “He’s a lot more vocal. He’s always been a confident kid, even when he wasn’t ready, but thought he was. He’s extremely confident, and he’s talking a lot more. He’s really trying to be an extension of us as coaches.”
If one of the young cornerbacks or safeties needs a word of advice, Thomas is the go-to guy.
“It’s my job to be a leader out there, show guys the ropes, get them in the right position and teach them whatever I can,” Thomas said. “Any advice I can give to them, it’s my job to give it to them and have them ready. It’s part of my role.”
Thomas will play next to free safety Taylor Barton, a freshman who redshirted the 2012 season.
“I’m really just trying to tell him anything I made mistakes on last season and anything I can help him with from that aspect so he won’t make it this year,” Thomas said. “Obviously, when you’re back in the secondary, it’s a tougher job, and it’s a different mind-set you have to have because if we get beat, nine times out of 10, it’s a touchdown. That’s been my main thing. I’m trying to be like a big brother in a sense.”
He should. With senior Ben Mathis out most of camp with a foot injury, Thomas is the oldest player in the secondary, which could see true freshmen like Darius Mosely, Jaylen Dunlap and Caleb Day contribute early.
Thomas is at ease in dealing with the media and speaking up during practice. It’s a noticeable difference in Illinois coach Tim Beckman’s eyes from a year ago.
“It’s night and day from this time last year because he hadn’t played snaps,” Beckman said. “He had to take over a leadership role. Right now, after a year of playing, he’s definitely become one of our leaders.”
Injuries to Supo Sanni and Steve Hull accelerated Thomas’ learning curve a year ago in the secondary. Now younger players are following his lead.
“There’s going to be some growing pains every now and then,” Thomas said. “My main focus is they learn. With a lot of these guys, we’re not going to really know until we line it up. That’s fine because I believe in them.”
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Nathan Scheelhaase (right ankle) was back taking his full allotment of reps with the quarterbacks Friday morning.
“Really, it was probably precautionary to keep him off (Thursday),” Beckman said. “But you know Nathan. You’ve got to kind of watch Nathan to make sure he isn’t overdoing it anytime. It was good to see him out there (Friday).”
Linebacker Jonathan Brown (concussion) had more reps, but wasn’t taking part in full contact drills yet.
“He got some more reps, but again it’s all the protocol of when you have a concussion,” Beckman said. “We’re going to make sure we follow that protocol.”
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No camp fights have happened in Rantoul.
But at the end of Friday morning’s practice, running back Josh Ferguson and Dunlap exchanged some heated words after a tackle by Dunlap near the end of a play.
Beckman isn’t concerned.
“You have to have that momentum when you’re playing this game,” he said. “I think this game has got to be played with great enthusiasm. When they’re doing that, I like seeing it.”
Beckman showed he was in the loop when it came to the current music scene.
“It must be the Florida-Georgia music being played,” Beckman quipped about the country duo Florida-Georgia Line whose songs were being played at the time.
Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit just doesn’t want to see players get hurt if tempers do flare at practice.
“Sometimes defensive guys get caught,” Cubit said. “Here comes a running back, ‘What do I do? I just jump out of the way?’ They’re not going to do that.”
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The weather this week in Rantoul has bordered on idyllic. Especially for mid-August. And Camp Rantoul.
Temperatures have only gone above 80 on Monday. Every other day has seen clear skies and mild temperatures in the mid-70s. Including Friday.
“There’s ways that we can work that, I guess, when we get back into Champaign where we can practice indoors and shut all the doors because there’s no air conditioning,” Beckman said. “It will get hot in there then.”
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Illinois will still stay at the Quarters Inn this weekend, but won’t practice in Rantoul. A Saturday night scrimmage at Memorial Stadium is on the docket, but it is closed to the public and media. Beckman has given Illinois an off day Sunday before Illinois wraps up its stay in Rantoul with a practice starting at 10:45 a.m. Monday.
“We’re going to treat it as close to a night football game,” Beckman said of Saturday’s scrimmage. “We’re going to have pregame meals and those types of things as if we were all traveling to a night football game.”
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Spencer Harris had a prolific high school career at Greenwood (Ark.) High School.
The numbers haven’t exactly translated at the same rate during his time at Illinois. But the senior heads into the season the most game-proven wideout the Illini have. His 21 starts are seven more than the next receiver on the list, Ryan Lankford.
Wide receivers coach Mike Bellamy likes the options Harris can bring to the team.
“He has the potential to help us greatly, not only from a physical standpoint because he’s a big guy, but I think from the mental standpoint where he understands the offense,” Bellamy said. “He might not be as physically gifted as other guys, but even in the NFL, it’s not always the physically gifted that wins. He just wants to be good and contribute.”
In a variety of roles.
“Everyone is starting to fill their parts and fill their roles,” Harris said. “I’ve always been a big third-down guy, and I’ll continue to fill that role and a big-play guy as well if it’s there. I feel like I’m one of our stronger blockers on the perimeter. Any way I can help.”
Harris is one of five senior wide receivers, along with Lankford, Miles Osei, Steve Hull and Tim Lukas. Imparting wisdom to some of the younger receivers is one area he has focused on in camp. He’s liked what he’s seen from some of the newcomers, like freshmen Marchie Murdock and Dionte Taylor.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the freshmen with the way they’ve come in and worked,” Harris said. “I want to brag on those kids a little bit. They’re doing a lot better than I did when I came in as a freshman. We love those kids like they’re our own kids. We call them our pups. They’re catching on to the offense really quick, and those guys are making plays all over the field.”
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Corey Lewis can talk New York sports all day.
The right tackle loves his Yankees, his Giants and his Knicks.
The saga surrounding Alex Rodriguez hasn’t dimmed his view of Joe Girardi’s club, but has tainted Lewis’ view of the third baseman, who is appealing his 211-game suspension Major League Baseball handed down to him recently.
“I know people that know him personally, and he’s like obsessed with being great,” Lewis said. “He’s playing right now, and he’s doing kind of decent.”
Lewis admits it is hard to cheer for Rodriguez with all the turmoil surrounding the 38-year-old.
“There’s a lot of people out there doing it the right way,” Lewis said. “Those guys are getting those big contracts doing it the wrong way and then it takes the opportunity from the next person away.”