Camp Rantoul is next as the team will spend Sunday moving into their dorms at the practice facility there in preparation for two solid weeks of practice beginning Monday. This will be the time when a depth chart will begin to emerge, especially once the pads go on Tuesday.
It is common for journalists to write an article each fall on the speed, size and strength gains made by the team during the summer conditioning period. There have indeed been impressive gains made at Illinois, just as has been true on the campuses of all Illinois' upcoming opponents.
But physical improvements are immaterial if the athletes in question have limited ability to improve. That is why the entering freshman class this year is so exceptional. Dr. Robert Gurtler, orthopedic surgeon and team physician, spoke on a WDWS radio program Saturday morning and was glowing in his praise of the freshmen after giving them physicals.
Gurtler said the freshman class of 2007 is the most athletic, best conditioned group he has seen in his years at Illinois...by far. That is especially impressive when one realizes that 5-6 of the freshmen weigh in excess of 300 pounds each. As Gurtler reminded, you can add bulk to a player, but when a freshman is 6'-7" and 300 pounds of muscle, you have a great starting point.
D'Angelo McCray is listed at 290 but appears at least as big as fellow defensive linemen Josh Brent (320) and Daryle Ballew (318). They plus offensive linemen Jack Cornell (320), Craig Wilson (310) and Mark Jackson (307) are all in excellent shape and have low body fat for their size. These young men have the physiques of fourth and fifth year seniors rather than freshmen.
Cornell's athleticism and strength are such that he might be given consideration to play as a raw freshman despite his lack of experience. He is quick and aggressive, so all he needs is practice and experience. Playing right guard right now, Jack looks exactly like the kind of "road grader" Coach Zook wants from his interior linemen.
Wilson and Jackson are also impressive and will help form the cornerstone of future Illini offensive lines. Tackle Mike Garrity is only 270, but at 6'-6" he has the frame to be another 300 pounder within the next year. Garrity has been nursing a hip flexor and hasn't practiced yet.
Jason Reda appears fully recovered from the groin problem that sidelined him in the spring, and he boomed every one of his kicks through the uprights Saturday. He is an experienced senior, so he should be one of the leaders on the team. Punters Anthony Santella, Jared Bosch and Kyle Yelton are all still working on the consistency necessary to win the position. But their best strikes are longer and higher than last spring.
Practicing punt returns were Kyle Hudson, DaJuan Warren, Will Judson and Chris Duvalt. For those worried Arrelious Benn would hurt himself returning punts, he was not practicing there today. Instead, he was being tried at a gunner position where he can use his speed and strength as the first line of defense against opponent punt returns.
Assistant Coach Reggie Mitchell is quite happy with the progress Rashard Mendenhall has made and says "as Rashard goes, so go the Illini." Rashard is no longer sitting behind two upperclassmen and has taken on the responsibility of being the running back leader. He is looking confident and fast.
Newcomers Daniel Dufrene and Troy Pollard are everything Mitchell expected them to be. Only a lack of understanding of the offense holds them back so far. But Coach Mitchell says they must force-feed these two because two of the three between Dufrene, Pollard and upperclassman Walter Mendenhall have to play this year whether they are ready or not. Charles Bailey is back on the team for his final year and adds depth to the position as well as offering speed for special teams.
Mitchell is also pleased with what he has seen from Rahkeem Smith as a fullback so far. "Rahkeem is physical and athletic, and he looks promising at fullback. It is difficult to recruit to the fullback position, but we have been fortunate in having some linebackers with the ability to play there. Russ Weil was moved there and is doing a great job, and now Rahkeem has similar potential."
Some Illini linebackers appear able to cover passes. If so, this will be an important improvement for the defense. Antonio Steele made a nice interception today, and freshmen Ian Thomas and Martez Wilson both showed good speed on coverage.
Temperatures are expected to be in the mid 90's for the first week at Camp Rantoul, and there is concern the players can keep hydrated through the practice sessions. Some players can lose as much as 10-15 pounds of water in one practice. Hopefully, Illini doctors and trainers can keep a close eye out to make sure all the players keep replenishing their water throughout the day to prevent heat prostration and heat stroke.
Much will be learned about this team in the next two weeks. The players and coaches are ready, so bring it on.