Illinois went through a pregame dress rehearsal Friday to begin its next to last spring practice. Wearing no pads, the players and coaches practiced what they will be doing Saturday prior to their annual Spring Game. Coach Ron Zook believes the Illini have done everything they can to make needed improvements this spring.
"We were pretty smooth today. I think the execution was pretty good, the focus was good, the concentration was good. We're gonna be as good as the offense makes the defense and the defense makes the offense."
Zook is pleased there have been no major injuries so far. Completing the Spring Game without additional problems will be important. Several players will miss the game, but all are expected to be healthy by Camp Rantoul or shortly afterward. That list includes A.J. Jenkins, Darius Millines, Corey Lewis, Whitney Mercilus, Jason Ford and Andrew Carter.
It was encouraging to see Millines walking around and doing conditioning work without his walking boot Friday as he recovers from a stress fracture. Likewise, Jenkins had his wrist cast replaced with lighter padding. He didn't receive any passes, but he is nearing full health. And Ford ran plays and appeared at nearly full strength.
The game Saturday will pit offense versus defense, with points awarded for several categories of plays. With a shortage of players at a couple positions, it was necessary to change from a regular game.
Running back was the biggest reason for the change. Besides Ford, Bud Golden has been out a couple weeks with a ligament strain in his foot. He may go Saturday, but that is not confirmed.
Troy Pollard's fate will be decided tonight or tomorrow morning as he recovers from a mild concussion sustained last Saturday. He has been running with a red shirt on this week.
"Ean Days has come in and done a nice job. Jay Prosch went in there Saturday. He's a pretty big load and did a pretty good job. So there's an opportunity for Jay to get a few rushes too."
There will be a large contingent of former Illini in attendance Saturday. A reunion of John Mackovic's four teams takes place this weekend. Since the Illini attended bowl games all four years, it will be good to see those former players back on campus. Zook feels continuity with the past is essential.
"I was telling the coaches, I think it's kind of neat. If you think about it, this is their program. All the players that come back, this is their school. I want them to think that this is part of them. Because of what they've done, we're here. We're just fortunate enough to be able to coach them."
Also back and serving as Honorary Coaches for the Spring Game are Dallas cornerback Alan Ball and New York Jets punter Steve Weatherford. Both starred at Illinois before making names for themselves in the pros.
"Alan has done a heck of a job," Zook reminds. "I always thought he had a chance to be a pretty good football player. He didn't play a whole lot when we first got here, and then he was a little bit frail. But he's done a great job.
"Of course, Weatherford has always had a great leg. There's only 32 of those guys in the world that punt for the National Football League. He's done some awfully good things to hang around that league."
Former Illini star J Leman visited practice today. He will be reporting on the Illini Spring Game for the Big Ten Network. Leman is now with the San Diego Chargers, his seventh NFL stop in his quest to fashion a professional football career.
Leman addressed the team before practice. Dana Howard was also at practice, arriving early for his reunion. Ball and Weatherford will speak with the team before the game Saturday according to Zook.
"Weatherford and Alan will talk to the players. J just talked to them. Of course, Dana's has been around a little bit. I just think it's important to know this program's important to them, and they have a lot of pride in it. Wherever they live in this world, you want them to be proud of their university and football program."
Another practice visitor was Joliet Catholic running back Josh Ferguson, who will report with his other future classmates June 10 to begin summer school. While he went to high school in Joliet, he lives in Naperville and has played sports with future teammate Matt LaCosse since third grade. Those two and Reilly O'Toole are good friends. Ferguson says he is now up to 188 pounds.
The weather is predicted to be favorable, so it is hoped a large contingent of Fighting Illini fans will enter the East side of Memorial Stadium, take in the DIA merchandise sale and then cheer their team Saturday at 1:00 pm.