Matt Daniels: Hot reads from Friday's practice

Matt Daniels: Hot reads from Friday's practice

1. Time to hit. Illinois will hold its first practice of the spring in pads Saturday. Depending what the weather is doing will determine whether the players will duke it out on the Memorial Stadium field or on the turf at the Irwin Indoor Practice Facility.

Players and coaches alike are eager to put the pads on.

“I can’t wait,” Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. “We’ve got a drill called the gauntlet, where it’s one-on-ones where you’ve got to run through a gauntlet of blockers. Then we’ve got a drill at the end that we call the alley drill where the ball is on the 10-yard line. You’ve got three downs to score (where) three players block and three players get off the blocks.”

Beckman mentioned three players did not practice Friday morning and won’t take part in Saturday’s scrimmage because of grade issues. He declined to name who the players were, and in the 20 minutes practice was open to the media Friday, no real noticeable departures stood out to the assembled media.

“They’re not getting academically done what I think they need to get done, so we sat them and took football from them,” Beckman said. “They’re studying during practice. They’re at our meetings, but then they go study. We meet with them once a week, and if their grades aren’t at where we want their grades at, we’re sitting them.”

2. STAR-gazing. Earnest Thomas is playing closer to the line of scrimmage so far in practices. The leading returning tackler for Illinois doesn’t mind the possibility of playing the STAR spot.

“It’s probably the main position in our defense where you have to have a playmaker there,” Thomas said. “For me, it’s something where you’ve just got to see and react, and I feel like I’m good at that in being real instinctive about that part of the game. I’ve been enjoying it these first couple days of practice.”

A knee injury to Eric Finney shortly after practices started in August derailed the Illini’s hope of seeing Finney take full control of the hybrid linebacker/defensive back position. Thomas said he wanted to play the position last year and kept up a dialogue with the Illinois coaching staff this offseason about possibly making the switch from safety to the STAR. Illinois still could use Thomas back at the strong safety position he played last fall, too.

“It looks like to me that he feels comfortable,” Beckman said. “He can blitz, and that really was a position that we had to fill as soon as Finney got hurt. Now our young safeties have gotten better, so that we can utilize Earnest at that position. He’s looked good in two days.”

3. Simon says. Simon Cvijanovic has a few new tattoos on his right arm, along with curly, longer hair this spring. No word yet if that helps improve his nastiness — a key word offensive line coach A.J. Ricker utters when describing the large men he coaches — but it can’t hurt. With Corey Lewis gone, the left tackle has assumed some of the leadership responsibilities Lewis had for the unit. Veteran experience isn’t lacking, however, with Cvijanovic, right guard Ted Karras, center Alex Hill and left guard Michael Heitz combining for 92 starts at Illinois.

“I’ve really been trying to step up and be a leader, and make sure that when we’re out here, we’re doing everything right,” Cvijanovic said. “I don’t really have to barge in and take too much of a new role. We already have a big group of guys who know what they’re doing, and what we’re doing with the ones is what trickles down to the rest of the guys because there’s so many of us that have been here and played a lot.”

Illinois ranked ninth in the Big Ten in sacks allowed last year with 30. Not great, but not a complete disaster like 2012, when the Illini surrendered 39 sacks to rank last in the Big Ten.

“Alex and Michael are pretty vocal, and Simon is doing a good job as a senior,” Karras said. “I’ve been trying to do as much as I can, but Simon is pretty much the leader.”

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