Illinois Spring Football Preview

Illinois football coaches have waited and waited, chomping at the bit to get this latest edition of the Illini on the field. They have waited to see a rejuvenated Juice Williams after days of throwing on his own, to see the heralded freshman class of a year ago after all this time in the weight room. To see last year's stellar defense that returns nine starters, back bigger and stronger.

To see Regis Benn on the field. Period.

Tuesday, they get their chance as the Illini start spring practice.

"We've got a long ways to go," Illinois coach Ron Zook said. "But we can't wait to get started to see how far we've come. This is a different team. I truly believe that."

But how many of the players will seem different? For starters, how different will quarterback Juice Williams be in his sophomore season with his first ever spring practice under his belt.

"He will be much better, there is no doubt in my mind," offensive coordinator Mike Locksley told me. "And he was pretty good already. He is a really good leader. And he wants so badly to succeed, to do it just the way we want him to do it. That is what will make him so good. He is determined to do it right. He wants so badly to please."

Williams has been throwing on a regular basis with all of his receivers. Post patterns, corner routes, drags, ins and outs. And the more they do it, the more familiar they become with each other.

"That is the key thing," Locksley said. "When that Florida passing game was so good, it was because Wuerffel and Ike Hilliard and Reidel Anthony had spent so much time together. Wuerffel always knew exactly where they would be, exactly what to expect. And they knew what to expect from him. That is why it worked so well. That great familiarity they had with each other."

One thing receivers will know is how hard Juice will deliver each throw. But Locksley said talk of that was overrated.

"That stuff, the touch, will work itself out," he said. "They will get a feel for that with him. What we want to work and work on and get right is his accuracy. He has to be accurate with his throws. I think he will be."

Juice will share reps this spring with Eddie McGee and Billy Garza. McGee is regarded as clearly the number two quarterback, even though he redshirted last year and has not played. At 6-feet-4, 200 pounds, he is extremely athletic, but like Williams a year ago, still raw.

In the backfield, it will be Mendenhall and Mendenhall. Rashard Mendenhall will be this year's workhorse, but at least until heralded newcomers Derius Hodge, Troy Pollard and Daniel Dufrene arrive in the fall, most of the other reps will go Rashard's older brother, Walter, who moves back to tailback at least for the spring.

The wide receiver position gets a bit of a jolt with Derrick McPhearson and Jody Ellis now off the team and Kyle Hudson splitting time by playing baseball. Touted newcomer Benn, sophomore to be Chris James and veteran D'Juan Warren are all listed at the same position, but that will change soon. Benn and James certainly will be on the field together.

Also, Marquis Wilkins, almost certainly headed for a move to defense before the dismissals of McPhearson and Ellis, now will remain a wide receiver for the foreseeable future. Joe Morgan, who played sparingly in his freshman season last year, will have to cash in on his incredible talent a year early.

At least for now, Jeff Cumberland will stay at tight end. But expect a great deal of two tight end sets with Cumberland and Michael Hoomanawanui, both from last year's heralded class, on the field together. Those two, Benn and James make for a daunting combination for opposing secondaries.

Up front, minor injuries to Akim Millington will provide great opportunities for Ryan Palmer and Randall Hunt to battle it out at left tackle. The winner of that battle will battle Millington in the fall for the job. At right guard, Jon Asamoah and Brandon Jordan, two more from the great class of 2006, should have a spirited battle to determine a starter. Left guard Martin O'Donnell could have to fight off the loser of the Asamoah-Jordan battle in the fall. Same with right tackle Charles Myles with Palmer and Hunt. Center Ryan McDonald seems safe.

Defensively, the biggest area of concern is tackle, where Chris Norwell is an All-America candidate, but he is surrounded by former walk-ons, converted linebackers and youth. David Linquist opens the spring as the other starter and will be pushed by former linebacker Sirod Williams. But four new signees – Josh Brent, DeAngelo McCray, Darryl Ballew and Steve Matas all will get a chance for playing time when they arrive in the fall.

According to Zook, ends Derrick Walker, Antonio James, Jerry Brown and Clay Nurse have NFL ability. Doug Pilcher has an all-world motor. Will Davis is faster than any of them. All of which means Illinois is loaded at that spot. Coaches have toyed with the idea of Jerry Brown to tight end, but probably won't make the move now. At least not in the spring.

At linebacker, J. Leman, the clearcut starter in the middle, will miss spring after minor foot surgery. Sam Carson and Rahkeem Smith will compete there. Outside, Brit Miller and Antonio Steele have held off Rodney Pittman and Anthony Thornhill so far. But come fall, Martez Wilson gets in the mix and probably will be on the field in some capacity.

Finally, the secondary has as many prospects as any position on the field. Interestingly, Travon Bellamy has not yet been moved to cornerback, instead staying at safety. Part of that is because Justin Sanders, the top backup safety, is injured and out for spring. Right now, Vontae Davis and Dere Hick are the starters at cornerback with Antonio Gully and Chris Duvalt as the backups. Hard to believe, isn't it, that all four of those cornerbacks, plus Bellamy, were in the class of '06. No wonder Zook considers that the best class he's ever been around, including the one at Florida that served as foundation for the school's national title last year.

Spring should be fun. It starts on the field Tuesday.

And it starts on Tuesday night with our first practice report.

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