One of the great aspects of training camp is that it brings a sense of authenticity to the season. Yes, in our heads we know college football will soon be upon us, but when we see the players out there on the practice field, equipped in full-pads, getting reamed by coaches – linemen refining their techniques, receivers running patterns, defensive backs practicing dropbacks, quarterbacks throwing fades – the impending season feels real.
Illinois conducts their training camp at an old Air Force base in Rantoul, IL, a quick 20-minute drive north of Champaign-Urbana. The off-campus location helps foster a focused environment, removed from the distractions a college-town can create. I drove out to Rantoul yesterday to catch the afternoon practice…here are a few things I was looking for:
1. Running Back Situation
Jason Ford will be the starter and will get the bulk of the carries, no doubt about it, but it’s unlikely he will get the workload Mikel LeShoure did a season ago (22 carries/game). The carries will be diversified, and it will be interesting to see who might be involved. Senior Troy Pollard will be the logical choice to backup Ford, with sophomore Bud Golden and freshmen Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young in the mix. Ford was solid yesterday, but it’s hard to get a good look with the defense going half-speed. We’ll know more as training camp rolls on.
2. Nathan Scheelhaase
During the first 6 games of the 2010 campaign, Scheelhaase completed 73 of his 125 attempts, amounting to 781 yards, 4 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions. During the final 7 games of the season (including the bowl game), Scheelhaase completed 82 of his 139 attempts, amassing 1,044 yards, 13 touchdowns, and only 1 interception. Granted, the competition was weaker down the stretch, but anyone who followed the Illini closely could recognize a growing maturity in #2’s game. I spoke with Nathan’s father at Camp Rantoul yesterday, and he couldn’t stop raving about his son’s intelligence, an attribute that pays obvious dividends from the quarterback position. Will Scheelhaase evolve from a game manager to a game changer? Will he step up and become one of the undisputed leaders of the team? For me, this is the biggest storyline of the 2011 season.
3. Overall Feel
This is hard to quantify, but sometimes you can sense a mood or attitude coming from teams, and this can have significant effects on the outcomes of games. In practice, is there a sense of intentionality? Are people running drills hard? How involved are the coaches? Are the players being vocal? Is there a positive feel to the workouts? Is there a sense of accountability? I remember watching the Illini practice at Camp Rantoul in 2009; specifically, I was watching the quarterback drills. At the time, I remember my brother commenting that there was a noticeable apathy and indifference emanating from Juice Williams and co. – it wasn’t explicit, it was just a subjective feeling, and I could sense it as well. Illinois finished that season 3-9 with a team that some felt might compete for the Big Ten title. Was the disappointing season a direct result of poor work ethic during preseason quarterback drills? No, but that apathy may have been an indicator of bigger issues, and those issues can influence games. I liked the feel I got from practice yesterday – everyone seemed focused, determined, and ready to take care of business.
If the rain holds off, the Illini will scrimmage tonight (Saturday) at 6:30 PM at Rantoul High School.