Illini Hit the Field

No pads were popping, no score was kept. But for the Illinois football team, so eager to get work on this crucial season, none of that mattered. What did was that football season, 2007, got underway with a spirited practice workout with bigger players, faster players and a renewed enthusiasm.

The Fighting Illini football team celebrated the beginning of fall practice with an enthusiastic practice on the field adjacent to Memorial Stadium Friday. Heat and humidity were nonfactors as players and coaches alike enjoyed doing what they love.

Coach Ron Zook was in a positive mood describing first impressions of his latest team.

"The players showed great attitude and effort today. All their voluntary summer work shows."

Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley also noticed how much work the Illini put in during the summer.

"I was encouraged by how much offense we were able to put in today. It was proof the players learned a great deal this summer."

The Illini were split into two groups so more individual instruction could occur. The two squads met in the middle segment to practice special teams but were otherwise prepared separately. This made for a long day for the coaches, but they seemed to relish the opportunity to get back on the practice field.

Locksley admitted that spliting the squad hurts the continuity of the offense since more freshmen are involved with the top units. But the freshmen also seemed well prepared for their first taste of college football, making the practice schedule flow smoothly.

Most of the day was devoted to instruction. Without pads, players were not always going full speed, and there was no hitting. So it is premature to make evaluations of the players. But several things were obvious.

One, the Illini continue to make weight and strength gains due to the efforts of strength and conditioning coach Lou Hernandez. Will Davis, Clay Nurse and Michael Hoomanawanui were clearly more sculpted than a year ago. They were just a few of the many players who made gains in muscle mass and strength. With the extra strength comes more confidence, and this year's team definitely has more confidence and determination to win than Zook's previous two squads.

Two, Juice Williams is much more confident of the offense and is becoming a leader on the field. There was some rust, of course, but this year is totally different from a year ago. Coach Zook said that Juice admitted to crying after the third day last fall, but that is highly unlikely now. Juice said he spent many hours studying film, including a couple times at 2:00-3:00am when he couldn't sleep. This work is beginning to pay off.

Three, a number of newcomers will provide quality depth and may get significant playing time despite the presence of much upperclassmen experience. Daniel Dufrene and Troy Pollard look like excellent runners. Pollard is short but stocky and extremely quick and elusive. He will likely become a fan favorite with his waterbug style. He also seems to catch the ball well.

There are three mammoth newcomers on the defensive line, D'Angelo McCray, Josh Brent, and Daryle Ballew. There is a chance at least two of the three will get playing time this year. McCray and Brent seem to have quick first steps. McCray may be the biggest #33 in college football.

Martez Wilson practiced at weakside linebacker. Described as "pretty" by J. Leman, Wilson has a wonderful physique and a fluid running style. He will be groomed for playing time since he has the speed and size to play well both against the run and the pass.

Quarterback Phil Haig is slender and has much to learn, but the 6'-3" lefty threw the ball with authority and some accuracy. He has an above average arm. Brian Gamble, Nathan Bussey and Miami Thomas showed promise in the defensive backfield. All the freshmen have potential, so it is just a matter of time before we can get a good read on their ability to help the team this season.

The offensive linemen were on the field more than 30 minutes early practicing their plays. There seems to be a determination to create a cohesive unit that can be effective this season. Akim Millington is finally healthy and played right tackle today in the injury absence of Charles Myles. Xavier Fulton, Ryan Palmer and freshman Craig Wilson lined up at the important left tackle position. Coach Locksley was impressed with how smart Fulton is and how hard he has worked to gain weight and strength and learn the offense over the summer.

There were a couple position switches since spring. Dere Hicks said he preferred cornerback over receiver, so he was working there today. Perhaps the most surprising was yesterday's decision to switch Rahkeem Smith to fullback. Rahkeem was unlikely to get significant playing time at linebacker this year, and Illinois is short of fullbacks. Since Smith did some running in high school, Coach Zook decided to give him a look there and thought he did well in his first practice.

Arrelious Benn went down momentarily with a leg injury that turned out to be a cramp. He was back on the field practicing after ten minutes. But Benn is one player the Illini can least afford to lose, so it was a reminder of how the fortunes of football can ebb and flow quickly as circumstances change.

The work inside Memorial Stadium is taking shape. With both the North end zone seating and the large scoreboard towering over the South end zone, there is a feeling of intimacy that was not there before. Noise levels will likely rise, making it more difficult for opponents to hear plays and develop a comfort level.

Practices are open to the public for the next couple of weeks.

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