With just 30 days until season openers, let there be practice. For the first five days, teams can practice just once per day. Full pads aren’t allowed until the fifth practice.
Also, let there be the release of the first ESPN/USA Today coaches poll. Northwestern ranked 31st overall and seventh in the Big Ten with 30 points' worth of votes. Northern Illinois shared 43rd place with 4 points. The Huskies are the only MAC school that received votes. Illinois did not receive any votes.
Lastly, the Big Ten announced it will expand to a nine-team conference schedule in 2017. So start paying attention, you seventh-grade football players out there.
Ron Zook’s bunch kicks off fall camp at Memorial Stadium today with split-squad sessions. Done to allow the players to get more reps than they would if everyone practiced together, the first Illini bunch goes from 3-5:20 p.m. and the second works from 4:30 to 6:50. I believe they work on special teams and stretching during the overlap.
This marks the first official college practice for Illinois’ freshmen. Unlike Zook’s first six recruiting classes in Champaign, it’s a group loaded with suburban standouts: Wheaton Warrenville South QB Reilly O’Toole, Naperville North TE Matt LaCosse, Benet LT Pat Flavin, Hinsdale Central OL Scott McDowell and Joliet Catholic RB Josh Ferguson (he’s a Naperville resident).
There are also three invited walk-ons: Naperville Central WR Hayden Daniels, Prospect WR Peter Bonahoom and Cary-Grove long snapper Richard Kersten.
While many of these freshmen need to make an impact down the road (Ferguson might be the only one who plays in the Sept. 3 opener against Arkansas State), the most intriguing rookie is 6-foot, 215-pound running back Donovonn Young.
He was issued jersey No. 5 --- just like Rashard Mendenhall and Mikel Leshoure --- and could be part of the running back rotation from the start. Young comes from suburban Houston where he rushed for 2,300 yards and 36 TDs as a senior. How did the Illini lift him out of Texas?
“He was hurt his junior year,” Zook said. “To be honest with you, we just kind of luckily fell into it. Of course, playing down there (at the Texas Bowl) was a big plus for us. I know this: The first time I saw him, he was actually standing in the stands when we were practicing. Of course, you couldn’t talk to him. But I looked over there and told (offensive coordinator) Paul (Petrino), ‘If that’s Donovonn Young, he looks like an NFL running back.’ ”
First-year boss Dave Doeren and his staff hold their first fall practice at 3:15 p.m. in Huskie Stadium. The defending MAC West champs return almost everybody from the offense that finished 12th nationally with 38.0 points per game.
The most noticeable absence is tailback Chad Spann, who won the league’s Vern Smith Award that goes the Most Valuable Player. While Spann and his 1,388 yards and 22 TDs are in camp with the Indianapolis Colts, the Huskies have four options at running back this fall.
Senior Jasmin Hopkins, who led all junior-college rushers in 2009, finished spring ball as the starter. Realistically, though, he might be first among equals with sophomore Akeem Daniels (who shifted from WR) and junior-college recruits Leighton Settle and Jamal Womble.
Settle, a sophomore, is the son of former Atlanta Falcons RB John Settle (he rushed for 1,801 yards and 10 scores with one Pro Bowl appearance in his brief career). Womble, a former four-star recruit, began his career at North Carolina before an injury and academics sent him the juco route.
Here’s Hopkins on each guy’s style:
On himself (5-foot-8, 183 pounds, Senior): “I try to use my quickness as an advantage and my size: Getting behind my linemen and hitting the holes as hard as I can. I run harder than my actual size is. Some people come up and don’t expect that much power than I’m bringing to them.”
On Daniels (5-7, 180, So.): “A very good player. Fast. One of the fastest ones on the team. Very smart. Catches on to everything really quick. He’s very competitive. I have everything good to say about Akeem. He’s more shifty than me.”
On Womble (5-11, 246, Jr.): “He brings in a lot of power. He can go side-to-side, too. He’s pretty fast for his size. Sometimes I don’t think he even knows that he has it, but he’s a very talented player as well. He knows how good he is, but he’s just being Jamal. When you’re around Jamal, you’re going to smile all the time. There’s no being serious around Jamal. That’s one thing I love about him being around the team and in the running back room.”
On Settle (5-10, 190, So.): “Very shifty. He’s kind of young. He’s catching on. He’s kind of like me when I was first coming in with the juco mentality (that) you can run sideline-to-sideline. As time goes on, he’s starting to realize there’s people just as fast as him. You can’t do everything you want in D-1.”
The Wildcats open camp on Monday. They’ll work for six days in Evanston before leaving for Camp Kenosha on Aug. 13.