Illinois opened spring practice late Tuesday afternoon, and head coach Ron Zook came away pleased with the first workout. Zook saw players respond well to the team's two new coordinators and four new position coaches, whose ability to turn talent into tangible production will chart the course for the 2010 season.
Zook held his spring news conference Wednesday, and here are a few takeaways:
Illinois is experimenting with a "bandit" position this spring, which Zook describes as a hybrid rush end/outside linebacker. The Illini have two solid defensive linemen in Clay Nurse and Corey Liuget but need more help up front. Sophomores Michael Buchanan and Justin Staples are among the players being considered at the bandit spot. Staples earned high marks with his winter performance in the weight room. "[The bandit] can be a drop guy, he can be a rush guy, he can be a blitz guy," Zook said.
Jacob Charest took the first reps at quarterback Tuesday and has a slight edge in the competition because of his experience in 2009. Redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase also is in the mix, and Zook praised the play of true freshman Chandler Whitmer at Tuesday's practice. Zook called Whitmer "a pleasant surprise" and marveled at his accuracy and quick release. "That's going to put him right in the thick of things," Zook said.
Zook wouldn't consider any of the quarterback candidates as traditional drop-back passers. Charest fits the description more than others, but Zook once again noted that Charest is a better athlete than many folks believe. He might lack the mobility that both Scheelhaase and Whitmer have, but he's not a stiff, either.
Sophomore Terry Hawthorne, who provided a lift at cornerback late last fall, will remain on defense. There had been talk that Hawthorne could see time at wide receiver as well as cornerback.
Zook praised the practice performance of safety Supo Sanni, who has played extensively as a reserve the last two years. "We always felt he's got a lot of talent," Zook said. "He can do all the things you want a safety to be able to do."
Aside from the quarterback spot, the offensive depth chart is fairly settled. Zook will spend much of his time focused on the defense, and the competition at linebacker should be interesting. Martez Wilson is back from a neck injury and will practice this spring but not take on contact. Ian Thomas is back after starting every game last fall, and Russell Ellington, Evan Frierson and Aaron Gress are all in the mix.
Zook is relying on Wilson, Nurse and Liuget to be leaders on defense. "Corey’s had a great offseason," Zook said. "His whole mentality has changed."
Junior college transfer Trulon Henry is an engaging personality with an interesting backstory, and the safety also has a sense of humor. According to Zook, after Henry dropped a few interceptions Tuesday, he joked that the last Illinois player to wear the No. 9 jersey also had the dropsies at his first spring practice. That player? Former Illini star wide receiver Arrelious Benn, who happens to be Henry's younger brother.