Coach survives blind-side hit from tight end during individual drills.
Illinois football coach Ron Zook is no Joe Paterno. That much is obvious in the win total, where Zook trails the Penn State legend by 350, but Zook's more durable than the aging Paterno, who was knocked out of practice for a few days earlier this month after a collision with a wide receiver. On Saturday, Zook survived a blind side collision with tight end Jon Davis, who ran a crossing pattern during warmups with his eyes on the ball. Wham. That's enough to send the coach to the training room, or the emergency room, but Zook was back on his feet first. The grass stain across his back reminded everyone after practice of the big hit and Zook dodging a big issue. "I just went over and asked Jon if he was all right,'' said Zook, referring to the 6-foot-3, 230-pound freshman. "I didn't want to hurt him.'' Coordinators Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning were almost bumped up the ladder. "That's a bad job by that quarterback,'' Petrino said. "He shouldn't be throwing it. The quarterback almost lost his spot.'' Sophomore starter Nathan Scheelhaase said he never saw Zook. "Coach Zook hopped up faster than any player in camp,'' Scheelhaase said. "That was good to see.'' The workout put an end to Camp Rantoul, the two-week preseason training camp. The Illini begin practicing at the Memorial Stadium complex Monday. Those sessions are closed to the media and public. But here's what we know as the Illini inch closer to the season opener against visiting Arkansas State on Aug. 3. -- Offense Petrino found more evidence during the past two weeks to boost his confidence about the passing, which ranked 10th in the Big Ten last season. "I feel way better about our passing game than coming into camp,'' he said. "We'll be able to throw the ball a lot better than last year. We have to keep running the ball well.'' The Illini have four "legitimate'' receivers, said Petrino, led by sophomore Darius Millines. Senior A.J. Jenkins, the Illini's leading receiver last season, wore a red jersey, signifying he's off limits to contact, apparently for a strained pectoral muscle. Sophomore Spencer Harris made catches and is the best blocker among the receivers. Sophomore Ryan Lankford is also among the top four. "I told A.J., If you want the most balls, you better start playing better than Darius,'' said Petrino, claiming there's "no question'' Jenkins would play in the season opener. Freshman Donovonn Young appeared to be the second-stringer behind senior running back Jason Ford. Freshman Josh Ferguson will also see playing time, Zook said. If the Illini needed to use a backup quarterback, freshman Reilly O'Toole and sophomore Miles Osei would both play, Petrino said. Redshirt freshman strong-side tackle Michael Heitz looks like a starter, but Zook and Petrino wouldn't make it official. Junior Corey Lewis may return from a knee injury by Big Ten play. -- Defense The biggest concerns on defense are the sprained ankle suffered by defensive tackle Akeem Spence and the sore shoulder of middle linebacker Ian Thomas. Both players went through indiviudal drills but were withheld from scrimmaging Saturday. Sophomore linebcker Jonathan Brown is the big hitter. Freshmen Ralph Cooper and Henry Dickinson back up Thomas. A year ago, the defense was manhandled by the offense before looking much better when the season started. "I think we're OK,'' Koenning said. "Last year, I was bleeding coming out of here. We didn't have an understanding of what were doing. At a bunch of positions, guys were trying to grasp it. They really didn't have much confidence in themselves. Somehow, we meshed it together. We had some success that first game. "This year, the expectations are much higher. We know what we're capable of. As a group, we've got higher expectations.'' Patrick Nixon-Youman is making it a battle with Steve Hull at one safety spot, although Hull looks like he has the edge. Nevertheless, Hull has battle a concussion in preseason. -- Special teams -- Freshman Justin DuVernois is the punter after converted placekicker Matt Eller quit the team. Placekicker Derek Dimke is looking better during the transition of holder Tim Russell. NOTABLE: Freshman offensive lineman Chris Boles, who passed the NCAA clearinghouse in the middle of the week, didn't dress but will wear No. 55. He's listed as a 6-4, 325-pounder. . . Illinois is one of seven scholarship offers received by Lemont junior offensive tackle Ethan Pocic, the younger brother of Illini center Graham Pocic. Notre Dame, Michigan State and Wisconsin have also offered.