Illini kick off preseason practices
On day one of Illinois football preseason practice Thursday, all eyes were on a pair of deuces -- one red and one blue.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase took snaps in the red No. 2 jersey as the first-stringer, officially holding down the top spot on the depth chart. His place in the pecking order should come as no surprise after taking the bulk of the snaps with the No. 1 offense during the spring.
Barring injury, Scheelhaase is the starter when Illinois faces Missouri in the season opener. In one year, Scheelhaase jumped three spots up the depth chart.
"When you're in camp and the fourth-string guy, the (snaps) are limited,'' he said."When I got into the scrimmage at Rantoul last year, I took 15 snaps. That's about as many as I took the rest of camp. I'm excited to be out there.
"I remember last year waiting for reps, hoping and praying that I'd get in there once in a while. Now I take every rep in the first three practices.''
A natural leader, Scheelhaase leads by example with film study and his preparation. He wore the red jersey to keep him off limits from contact, even though there's very little in the first three days, when the Illini practice in helmets and shorts.
On defense, the junior in the blue No. 2 was Martez Wilson, the linebacker coming off neck surgery who missed the final 11 games last season.
"I'm 100 percent cleared,'' Wilson said. "All systems go. I'm excited to be back wearing the blue jersey instead of the red one.''
Wilson, the former USA Today prep All-America and a Chicago Simeon senior, was withheld from contact during spring drills, but defensive coordinator Vic Koenning didn't see Wilson shy away from anything in the spring or the first day of preseason drills.
"It's a lot easier to say whoa than sick 'em,'' Koenning said. "We have to say whoa with him. He's a guy you don't have to motivate, I guarantee you.''
The Illini will likely move Wilson around to find ways for him to make plays, Koenning said.
Cornerback Miami Thomas, who made a key interception and a deflection that caused another interception in the upset at No. 1 Ohio State in 2007, returned from two knee injuries and will provide depth in the secondary, Koenning said. Cornerbacks Tavon Wilson and Terry Hawthorne are solid starters and leaders on defense. Safety Walt Aikens practiced with the team but his status was unknown while coach Ron Zook awaited for a final decision from university admininstration. Aiken served two weeks in Champaign County jail after pleading guilty to misdemeanor theft.
The list of walk-ons include sophomore safety Ben Mathis from Springfield High School, freshman offensive lineman Edward Vander Heyden from Rockford Guilford and freshman offensive lineman Nate Swanson from Manlius (Bureau Valley).
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.