The season opener is only 11 days away. Illinois is back on campus for the remainder of training camp before game-week practices begin next Tuesday for Southern Illinois. But the Salukis were never far from Tim Beckman’s mind during the Illini’s annual sojourn to Camp Rantoul. Beat writer MATT DANIELS was at every practice session the Illini went through on practice fields at the former Chanute Air Force. Here’s three items he picked up on when he wasn’t writing from Conference Room A at the Quarters Inn.
No devastating injury came out of this year’s session in Rantoul.
Jonathan Brown and Jon Davis both wore green practice jerseys more than white, navy blue or orange, but both ended Monday’s final day in Rantoul going through practice without any limitations. Nathan Scheelhaase’s right ankle appears good after a brief scare last Wednesday. Eric Finney did not get a chance to go through his first Camp Rantoul after the projected starter at STAR went down Aug. 6 with a right knee injury. And Mason Monheim sported a purple jersey on Monday after coach Tim Beckman said last year’s leading tackler tweaked a hamstring during Saturday night’s closed scrimmage at Memorial Stadium. Beckman said he anticipates Monheim practicing today when the Illini return to campus.
“We kept him tabled because we need him (today) for a little scrimmage,” Beckman said.
Depth is still an area of concern for Beckman.
“Again, we’re young,” he said. “You look at who the depth is, there’s going to be a lot of 18- and 19-year-olds out there playing. They’ve got a year’s experience, and hopefully that’s one of the things that can build us to the future. It’s going to be one of the sore spots that we’ve got to make sure as a staff we take care of it the best way possible.”
Donovonn Young is ripped.
And he isn’t lacking confidence. Or dance moves. The junior running back was prone to bust out a touchdown celebration or two if he crossed the goal line in Rantoul during various drills.
“Camp last year was kind of rough with the defense shutting us down,” Young said. “But now we’re making plays. We’ve got a lot of smiles on the sidelines, so everybody’s feeling good about the offense and what we can do.”
Young has definitely improved his physique heading into the 2013 season. Whether that translates into a breakout junior season will play itself out in the next three months. He knows the pressure is there to live up to what former running backs like Rashard Mendenhall and Mikel Leshoure accomplished at Illinois while wearing No. 5. Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit feels the combination of Young and Josh Ferguson gives Illinois some versatility in the run game.
“I think Young and Ferguson can play anywhere in this league,” former Illini and current BTN analyst Howard Griffith said. “Whether or not they’d be a starter or not is another story, but I think they’re both talented guys. If the offensive line comes together like I think that they will, they’ll be able to make some yards on the ground so it just doesn’t become a pass-rush drill from an offensive standpoint.”
Alex Hill won the belly-flop contest the team had Sunday at the Hap Parker Family Aquatic Center.
No surprise. The projected starting center checks in at 6-foot-3, 325 pounds. The offensive line has size. That’s a given. What it must avoid this fall is injuries. First-year offensive line coach A.J. Ricker’s unit just can’t afford a starter to go down. Projected starters Simon Cvijanovic, Michael Heitz, Hill, Ted Karras and Corey Lewis looked immensely better than the backups for most of the time in Rantoul. And that’s with Lewis playing on knees that have seen five surgeries. Lewis is the one starter Illinois fans will hold their breath on this season. The coaches limited his reps to nearly half of the other starters so he can go into the season opener as healthy as possible. And to keep the offensive line from shuffling players around like it did most of last season.
“This year we have our five guys,” Lewis said. “It’s those five guys, and there’s no switching around or moving around. If we keep everybody healthy, we’ll go a long way.”