The Fighting Illini 7 on 7 football camp has been a summertime fixture for more than 20 years, and another one was held this past Saturday in Champaign. However, for a variety of reasons, turnout was much lower than past years.
High school teams used to flock to this camp because it was one of the only sanctioned opportunities for high school football teams to practice and play football in the summer. Even those schools who employed a running game as their primary offense benefitted from working on their passing games. And the high school athletes learned more about their coaches and teammates in a relaxed setting. Many times, success at the 7 on 7 camp gave teams a head start on outstanding fall seasons.
Former Illini coach Mike White began these camps in the 1980's, and Coaches John Mackovic, Lou Tepper, Ron Turner, and now Ron Zook have continued the tradition. They are always well organized, and all Illini coaching staffs have provided hands-on assistance and encouragement for teams and players. But even though Ron Zook and his staff do at least as well as any of their predecessors in making the camps a success, there has still been a noticeable dropoff in the number of participating teams.
There are more summer camps available for high schoolers now than ever before, and players simply cannot fit them all into their schedules. For one thing, the Illini's success has spawned competing camps on other college campuses. High schools are limited as to how often they can practice and play as a team during the summer, so they must weigh the cost/benefit ratio for each competing camp. Travel these days is extremely expensive, so long trips are less inviting than in years past.
Also, outstanding individual athletes are invited to both combines, where large groups are tested for their athleticism and potential, and to one-day tryout camps on college campuses. Schools have long operated week-long camps during the summers, but these are now less popular than the one-day camps where players can travel to a different school each day of the week looking to impress enough to obtain that important college scholarship.
In the span of two weeks, a player might make 8 to 10 different campuses. This must be an exhausting experience for the players, but many top colleges are now putting great pressure on the athletes to attend their camps. It is certainly a great way to coach and test players, as long as those players are able to perform at a top level every day. But it cuts deeply into the time available for athletes to participate in other camps such as 7 on 7 team camps or the longer training camps.
The Illinois 7 on 7 camps used to field enough teams to make six or seven different divisions of games where schools could compete with other schools in their same enrollment range. This year, there were only enough for three divisions, and a couple of those schools failed to appear after enrolling. What was left was easier to administer for the coaches and their staffs, but it reduced the level of competition.
One of the joys of attending the 7 on 7 camps is always the chance to see top players perform and to check out possible future Illini recruiting targets. Past quarterback gunners like Jeff Hecklinski, Tim Lavery, and Chris Redmon attracted a following as they showed off their superb passing ability. And a plethora of outstanding running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, linebackers and defensive backs whetted the appetite of Illini fans.
Unfortunately, there weren't too many top prospects on hand this year. There were still some top schools present like Maine South, Wheaton Warrenville South, Edwardsville, and St. Louis Vashon, but they didn't appear to have as many top athletes as past years. There were a few athletes worth watching, but it remains uncertain whether any will receive scholarship offers from Illinois.
There are a few top athletes in Illinois who rank highly nationally and are at the top of the Illini's list of potential recruits. But the quantity of top talent is limited again this year. And there appear to be no quarterbacks in state who will be offered Illini scholarships. The few top skill players in Illinois do not attend schools who usually participate in the Illinois 7 on 7 camp, so this added to the problem on Saturday.
There is always a one-day lineman camp that occurs simultaneously, and there were probably a couple hundred participants, mostly linemen from teams also playing 7 on 7. But campers are given special jerseys with individual numbers to help the coaching staff identify them. This may help the coaches, but it prevents the average viewer from recognizing anyone.
There were a few recruitable linemen in attendance, and one or two might receive scholarship offers from Illinois. But most of the top players interested in Illinois will likely come to one of the weekday camps, where they will get more individualized instruction and have more opportunity to visit with the coaches. Of course, some of the absolute best may not attend any camps since they have already cemented their reputations with outstanding combine results or great junior seasons.
Perhaps one of the best parts of this camp was getting to watch Coach Zook and his staff in action. All are quite personable and work hard to show everyone some love. New tight end coach Jim Pry seemed to be a positive energy guy and will likely fit in well with the others. He spent some time in between games reading up on the Illini brochure in his possession as he just came on board and needs to learn more about his new school.
It was also fun to see some of the entering freshmen for the first time. Although it wasn't possible to attach names to all the faces yet, a few were easy to spot. Defensive end Jerry Brown spent considerable time with his former St. Louis Vashon teammates. He looks almost slender despite his reported 245 pound weight as he is probably in top shape. He was observed visiting with a promising 6'-3", 220 pound Vashon junior linebacker who caught this writer's eye with his mobility.
Another promising freshman at the camp was Anterio Jackson. Early reports suggested Jackson might eventually outgrow the linebacker position and become a defensive end. But he looks like a linebacker on first view. In fact, he appears to be a personable, intelligent young man who is mature beyond his years and is in outstanding shape. If he is as talented as he is conditioned, he will help the Illini early in his career.
For those interested, Tuscola won the 1A championship, Wheaton St. Francis won the 2A championship, and Maine South defeated Pekin to win the 3A championship. These are always fun games to watch, so we sincerely hope more teams will take advantage of the great facilities and administrative support offered by the University of Illinois and participate in the 7 on 7 camp in future years.
Ron Zook's 7 on 7 Camp
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