CHAMPAIGN — While the University of Illinois announced a new partnership with something called Fighting Illini Energy on Tuesday, the football program was trying to deal with a power outage at the running back position.
With just days to go until Saturday’s annual spring game, head coach Ron Zook was still undecided about a format for the game. On the one hand, he’d like to play a traditional style “game,” dividing players into two teams. But with starting tailback Jason Ford now ruled out with a persistent knee injury, and with main backup Troy Pollard questionable after taking a blow to the head in last Saturday’s scrimmage, Zook might go to a situational scrimmage with a concocted scoring system.
Even a team meeting at noon on Tuesday failed to resolve the matter and it may take today’s practice to get a better reading on Pollard’s situation.
Either way, Zook said he’s pleased with how the NCAA’s allotment of 15 spring practices have gone.
“At the beginning of the spring we said we were excited about the stability of where we were,” Zook said. “Our players needed to understand that we needed to build on the things we accomplished this last year (a 7-6 record with a victory in the Texas Bowl) and continue to get better. There’s no reason we shouldn’t improve in all three phases.
“At the end of 12 practices, we have made a lot of progress. I’m pleased and happy with the way we have practiced and gotten after it.”
Zook said there’s a decreased chance of injury when players go full speed and in that regard he likes what has happened. “These have been the most physical scrimmages we’ve had since I’ve been here,” he said.
But there have been a few players dinged up and running back seems to have taken more than its share of the hard hits.
Ford was supposed to miss only a short time when he bruised his knee. And although he has participated in individual drills, he has been withheld from a number of scrimmage situations. Given the fact that he’s expected to be the go-to back this fall now that Mikel Leshoure is headed to the NFL draft, Ford has missed a valuable testing ground in the spring.
Pollard, on the other hand, has taken advantage of the extra carries and was looking good until he was dinged up early in last Saturday’s scrimmage.
If neither Ford nor Pollard can play on Saturday, Zook still has options.
Bud Golden, who sat out the last scrimmage with a sore toe, will be available, Zook said. So will Ean Days, who moved from defensive back to running back and has helped provide some depth. And Zook liked what he saw from fullback Jay Prosch, who shifted to tailback and ran with surprising shiftiness and power.
Another bright light in the spring has been the steady place-kicking of Derek Dimke, who is coming off an outstanding season.
Dimke converted 24 of 29 field goals last season and was 43-for-43 kicking extra points. He made 6 of 8 field goals from distances of 40 to 49 yards and was 2 of 3 kicking from 50 yards and farther. His longest field goal was 52 yards.
“I told him, I think he has a chance to be the best kicker in the country,” Zook said. “I really do. With his work ethic, he’s a pretty special guy. Finding a new holder was going to be important but that seems to have worked itself out.”
One unresolved position is at punter, where standout Anthony Santella has to be replaced.
The punter in the fall could be freshman Justin DuVernois, a scholarship player from Plantation, Fla. If that doesn’t work out it could be Matt Eller, the one-time place kicker, or wide receiver Ryan Lankford, who averaged more than 45 yards a punt as a high school senior in Florida.
Serving as honorary captains for the game will be former Illini defensive back Alan Ball, who is now a starting safety for the Dallas Cowboys, and former Illini punter Steve Weatherford, who now kicks for the New York Jets.
The game will begin at 1 p.m. Saturday at Memorial Stadium.