CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- When it comes to rebuilding projects, the Illinois Fighting Illini have a huge one in front of them.
But it's clear that the attitude has changed around here, thanks mainly to the new assistants that head coach Ron Zook hired during a tumultuous winter. I'll have more on this next week, but new coordinators Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning have increased the level of accountability for a team that has, quite frankly, been one of the nation's biggest underachievers the past two seasons.
I had a chance to speak with players and coaches and watch a portion of practice Wednesday afternoon -- a scrimmage session was closed to media -- and here are some quick thoughts.
Zook likely won't officially name a starting quarterback until fall camp, but it's very clear that Nathan Scheelhaase is the guy. Scheelhaase brings excellent athleticism to the position -- Petrino likens him to former Louisville star Stefan LeFors, a player he helped coach -- and is making strides as a passer. Jacob Charest also has done some good things, and while Chandler Whitmer is a bit behind the other two, Zook said the early enrollee has really benefited from going through this spring session.
Zook said Illinois' defensive leaders are linemen Clay Nurse and Corey Liuget, Martez Wilson and Ian Thomas at linebacker and cornerback Tavon Wilson, who has had a "superb spring," in the secondary. The head coach also recognized defensive linemen Akeem Spence, Glenn Foster and Daryle Ballew for their play this spring. Linebacker Aaron Gress also has come on strong the last week or so. "A lot of times, those junior college guys, it's that the second year that they turn it on," Zook said. Wilson and Nurse are being held out of contact following surgeries, but both have performed well.
The secondary has a few question marks, but Zook said sophomore cornerback Terry Hawthorne, nicknamed "black cat," continues to step up, along with corner Patrick Nixon-Youman. Cornerback Miami Thomas has started doing some individual work as he works his way back from a torn ACL in his left knee. Sophomore Joelil Thrash is seeing time at both safety and corner and has been impressive.
Petrino thinks the offensive line can be a strength this fall and recognized tackle Jeff Allen and sophomore Graham Pocic, who moved from guard to center, for their play this spring. "He gives us some size and some strength in there that helps us both in the running game and the passing game," Petrino said of Pocic. "That's been a pleasant surprise."
I'll touch on this more next week, but the defense is really getting back to the basics. "The fundamentals were so far out of whack," Koenning said. "Our tackling leaves a lot to be desired, and every day we have a normal practice, we're spending an exorbitant amount of time not on X's and O's. There's so many things we've got to cover, but if you can't tackle, it doesn't really matter."