The Fighting Illini football team practiced within Memorial Stadium today due to a wet practice field. The normally beautiful stadium looks anything but that due to all the construction, but seeing football players running around on the field gave it a much more attractive look.
The Illini were in full pads but were doing no tackling, so most of the day was spent with drills and instruction. Quarterbacks and receivers worked on their routes both with and without defenders. There will no doubt be many more days like this as repetition is the best teacher and there is always much to learn.
Sophomore Joe Morgan showed his skills several times. Quarterback Billy Garza was back at practice today, and he fired a perfect pass which Morgan hauled in with his hands at the goal line after a 50-yard sprint. Morgan had several additional catches, and he seemed to be a favorite target today. He has excellent speed and appears to be much more relaxed and confident than last fall.
Regis Benn is still running with the first team and demonstrated why with several fine catches. He can catch the ball in traffic, one time wrestling the ball away from the clutches of safety Kevin Mitchell. Benn made a fine stretching catch at the sideline while also securing a ball thrown low to avoid defenders. And he showed an excellent burst of speed after his catches. With his size and strength, he will be dangerous with the ball in his hands.
Other receivers made good plays as well. Frank Lenti made an exceptional over-the-head grab while keeping his toes in bounds. Kyle Hudson fought off Travon Bellamy's hand-checking to make a 10-yard catch over the middle. Chris James made an excellent grab of a ball over his head. Will Judson made a couple good catches. If only he were a little taller he would really be dangerous.
Dere Hicks made a nice reception in traffic. Marques Wilkins demonstrated improved hands with several good catches. DaJuan Warren made an excellent catch on an out route. Although he isn't a receiver, running back Rashard Mendenhall may have made the catch of the day with a great one-hand grab. So at least on this day, the receivers proved capable of the consistency needed in the passing game.
Slot receivers line up in the backfield because they are really running backs who catch passes. The Illini's spread offense takes advantage of this fact by using slot receivers on reverses and option pitches. DaJuan Warren and CJ James both run these plays effectively. And we saw the coaches take advantage of Benn's running skill by trying him on an option pitch. This is why Illinois recruits slot receivers who can also run with the ball.
Defensively, two players made major impressions. Chris Duvalt broke up five passes by our count, and four of these were outstanding plays where he broke to the ball and flew over the side of the receiver to bat down the pass. Duvalt is playing behind Travon Bellamy right now at corner, but his performance Tuesday will give the coaches something to consider. In fact, when Illinois goes to the nickel package, Brit Miller moves to middle linebacker in J Leman's absence, Travon Bellamy moves to nickle back, and Duvalt plays the corner.
Jerry Brown was easy to notice at defensive end. He may have difficulty beating out star two-year letterman Derek Walker for a starting spot, but it was easy to see why the coaches are so high on him. On one play, he crossed to the opposite side of the field to make a tackle on the sideline after a 10-15 yard gain. On the next play, he penetrated so quickly from the left side he caught the walkon running back from behind on the opposite side for a four yard loss. And he also diagnosed and stuffed a screen to his side. Brown is aggressive and quick, and he appears to have a bright future.
Among the other things noticed today, Brandon Jordan was running with the first string line at right guard, and he seemed to assert himself well. He is at least the third person tried at the spot vacated by four-year letterman Matt Maddox, so it remains to be seen who will end up starting there. But Jordan, Jon Asamoah and Randall Hunt all have potential.
Those who practiced punt returns included Chris Duvalt, Kyle Hudson, Will Jordan, Dere Hicks, DaJuan Warren and Regis Benn. Jared Bosch was given some time punting in game conditions, and he boomed one high and deep. However, he was inconsistent at best, and he is still slow getting his punts off. It is far different punting on your own versus punting with 11 angry men running at you.
Overall, it was another good practice. There were no new injuries, and much was accomplished. The Illini now have 11 more spring practices to get ready for the 2007 season.