Spring Football in Champaign

A large throng of high school football coaches descended upon the Fighting Illini football team's second spring practice Thursday. Visiting as part of the annual coaching clinic hosted by the UI, these coaches got an eyeful of tightly muscled athletes working to refine their game.

The Illini are still not in pads, so there was no hitting. The pads will be added Saturday, something both players and fans await with eagerness. In the meantime, there is much drilling of fundamentals and practicing the play book. These are 15 important days for building a strong foundation for a winning season this fall.

There will continue to be much experimentation and shuffling of personnel, so any lineups now will likely change considerably come fall. But right now, the defensive line shows Derek Walker and Doug Pilcher at the ends, and Chris Norwell and Dave Lindquist at the tackles. Lindquist, who led the Illini with four fumble recoveries as a reserve last fall and already scooped up another at Tuesday's practice, replaces Josh Norris. Norris' leadership will be missed, but Lindquist continues to prove that walkons can contribute to major college football. The second team front right now is composed of Jerry Brown, Sirod Williams, Mike Ware and Will Davis.

With J. Leman sitting out recovering from minor surgery, Sam Carson is patrolling the middle at linebacker. He is backed up by Rahkeem Smith. Brit Miller returns at his familiar SAM (strongside linebacker) position and is getting competition from Rodney Pittman. Antonio Steele and Anthony Thornhill share the WILL (weakside linebacker) position. Cornerbacks are Travon Bellamy and Vontae Davis, backed by Chris Duvalt and Antonio Gully. And the safeties are led by Kevin Mitchell and the combination of Justin Sanders and Justin Harrison. Garrett Edwards and Bo Flowers back them up. Again, much can change as the year goes by.

The defensive linemen got their first opportunity to go one-on-one with offensive linemen, and several fared quite well. Will Davis had the most eye-popping play, doing an inside spin so fast he was at the quarterback before Ryan Palmer could react. Jerry Brown had two impressive runs against Brandon Jordan, beating Jordan once with a quick sidestep. On the second play, Jordan successfully made two equally quick foot adjustments to prevent Brown from reaching the quarterback.

In other action, Doug Pilcher bull rushed Palmer right into the quarterback. Chris Norwell had his way with Eric Block, and Mike Ware did as well. Anterio Jackson had two chances against Randall Hunt, and he reached the quarterback both times. For an undersized converted linebacker, Jackson's play was good enough to draw cheers from his d-line teammates.

There was a clearcut leader among the punters on this day, although this changes daily and should not be considered final. Jared Bosch boomed almost all of his punts higher and farther than his competition. He has an excellent leg and only needs to speed up his steps so he can get his punts off quicker. Kyle Yelton struggled on this day. Even in pre-practice warmups, he flubbed several in a row, suggesting he was not on his game. Kyle has learned to kick quickly, but speeding up may be costing him hang time and distance. Of course, Saturday's practice may show the exact reverse.

Both Juice Williams and Eddie McGee showed good touch and accuracy when practicing with the wide receivers. McGee is proving he can throw the long pass accurately. Juice completes some of his long bombs also, although he is one of those truly rare fellows who misses long when he misses. He must rely on speedy receivers to catch up to his longest throws, and Kyle Hudson in particular proved successful at this.

When the quarterbacks had to throw against an 11-man defense, some of their passes were less accurate. When one stands at ground level near the play, it is hard to understand how Juice can see his receivers over or through those big linemen in front of him. That plus the threat of an all-out pass rush caused both quarterbacks to rush a little. Juice was three for six in one brief segment, with two drops. But the drops were due to passes that caused the receivers to make quick adjustments to reach. They should have been caught, but Juice will want to remain confident and relaxed when rushed so he can hit his receivers on the numbers.

It also seemed that sometimes both quarterbacks lost a little accuracy when doing their 3 and 5-step drops compared with their shotgun passes. As one might expect, the extra body movements coupled with the need for quick decisions adversely affected some of the passes. That is what spring is for, to practice these techniques repeatedly until they become second nature.

A couple of receivers made outstanding plays today. Dere Hicks made at least three great grabs that required body adjustments, his over-the-shoulder one-handed snatch being especially good. Dere is slightly built, but he has quickness and speed. He undoubtedly impressed the offensive coaches today. DaJuan Warren had one excellent reaching catch. Joe Morgan had at least two notable plays and is definitely playing with more confidence than last fall.

Arrelious Benn caught a long sideline throw from McGee and would likely have scored if the play had been allowed to continue. And Michael Hoomanawanui and Frank Lenti both made 20-yard catches they turned into longer plays with their speed. Hoomanawanui also impressed with a diving grab on the sideline.

Running plays are difficult to evaluate when the players are not in pads and cannot tackle. But Rashard Mendenhall continues to run to daylight. In fact, on one play he started off left tackle and made a quick adjustment back to his right to find a big hole over right guard. And Eddie McGee gained significant yardage on a quarterback draw. McGee appears to be at least as fast as Juice Williams.

On a sad note, Charles Bailey is still in school but no longer out for the team. Fullback Sam Porter is not practicing with the team, and his status is unknown at this time. And quarterback Billy Garza and receiver Jacob Willis are both missing at least the first week of practice due to academic deficiencies. They could be reinstated if they take care of their responsibilities prior to the end of spring practice. Both Garza and Willis are missing valuable time and will have difficulty moving up the depth chart with this setback.

Garza would be competing for a second-team spot at quarterback with Eddie McGee, but like Tim Brasic last year, he is not showing the leadership necessary to impress the coaches. We hope these players meet their responsibilities and return to the team's good graces soon.

The pads come on Saturday, so it is a good time to come out and watch practice. Rosters are available for those who don't know the players' numbers. But for those who wish to watch the new second semester enrollees, Arrelious Benn is wearing #9, Bo Flowers is #24, and Erique Robertson is #48.

There is much yet to learn, but the team is showing definite signs it is ready to compete with the upper echelon of the Big 10 this fall. Come see for yourself this Saturday.

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