First Full Team Practice for Illini

Coach Ron Zook saw no ill effects from sending his Fighting Illini football team into the oppressive heat and humidity at Camp Rantoul again Tuesday. Despite a heat index in excess of 100 degrees, Zook felt the light breeze made it seem to him like a day at the beach. The players probably had less fun than that, but they fought through any discomfort.

This practice was the first time the entire squad met at the same time, so a preliminary depth chart began to take shape. While full pads were originally listed on the schedule for Tuesday, the hitting will begin in earnest Wednesday.

The offensive line starters will likely fluctuate for awhile like they did in the spring. Assistant Coach Eric Wolford likes to test his players at different positions and challenges them to improve their performance. He is learning whom he can trust as he seeks to develop leadership and consistency among his top prospects. He likes the potential of the freshmen and promises to play whomever proves he deserves playing time.

"Normally, I prefer to stick with my top five guys, but if I learn to trust eight men, then eight will play. I will play the best players regardless of their age. If a freshman can beat out a junior, then the freshman will play."

Wolford likes the progress being made by Xavier Fulton.

"Xavier has a bright future. He is a student of the game, moves great, is strong and athletic. He has gained 20-25 pounds since the spring and appears to be holding it during practice."

Offensive line starters on this day besides Fulton at left tackle were Martin O'Donnell, Ryan McDonald, Jon Asamoah, and Randall Hunt. The second unit was composed of Ryan Palmer, Brandon Jordon, Eric Block, Dan Motuliak and freshman Mark Jackson from left to right, with freshmen Craig Wilson and Jack Cornell getting some second team reps.

It is fun watching the offensive and defensive linemen butt heads. Even the second and third teamers give a decent account of themselves on both sides, guaranteeing continued competition and thus hopefully some good depth. Once the pads are on and the hitting begins, some gargantuan wrestling matches are guaranteed between offense and defense.

The defensive line has more depth than any time in recent memory. There are six ends and eight tackles who are all vying for playing time. Derek Walker and Doug Pilcher continue to hold down the 1st string end spots, but Jerry Brown is a quick insert on passing downs and both Will Davis and Antonio James get extensive action with the second team. Clay Nurse is a little behind after being limited by injury in the spring, but he has excellent strength and quickness. With all these players back again next year also, defensive end is likely set for awhile.

Chris Norwell and Dave Lindquist are still 1st string tackles, with Sirod Williams and Mike Ware holding second team positions. But freshmen D'Angelo McCray, Josh Brent and Daryle Ballew all have excellent potential and will compete for playing time this year due to their strength and quickness.

McCray stands up too quickly and must learn to stay low longer to prevent offensive linemen from getting their hands under his pads. But with good technique, his aggressive bull rush will be tough for offensive linemen to block. Anterio Jackson may be the forgotten man here because he is only 245 pounds right now. But he has excellent quickness for the position and will continue to improve.

Co-defensive coordinator Curt Mallory says he has four excellent cornerbacks from which to choose. In fact, Dere Hicks and Chris Duvalt were starting there ahead of Vontae Davis and Travon Bellamy Tuesday. Obviously, Davis and Bellamy are still likely to see major playing time, but their positions are not secure if they don't continue to work and improve. Duvalt celebrated his ascension to the first string with an early interception.

Mallory also likes what he sees from the newcomers in the defensive secondary. Brian Gamble got some second team reps Tuesday at free safety, and he says he likes what he sees from Nathan Bussey. Darius Purcell is getting back into shape after completing the Bridge Program but has potential. Miami Thomas will be a good cornerback in time but is slight of build and still learning the nuances of the position.

Newcomers will have to earn their way into the lineup, and there is much more upperclassman depth than in the past. But transfer Daniel Dufrene was sharing time with Walter Mendenhall behind running back starter Rashard Mendenhall. Troy Pollard must not be overlooked there either as he used a quick-hitting inside swing pass to burst through a small opening in the line and outrace the defense for a big gain. Freshman Ian Thomas was getting some second team reps at middle linebacker, replacing Sam Carson on passing downs.

The first group of receivers included Jeff Cumberland, Arrelious Benn, Joe Morgan, Kyle Hudson, and/or Chris James. Second teamers at the receiver positions included DaJuan Warren, Frank Lenti, Jacob Willis, Michael Hoomanawanui, and Will Judson, with Marquis Wilkins and Greg McClendon also getting some time. Warren made an outstanding leaping catch from Eddie McGee, and Kyle Hudson showed his high jumper legs by springing into the air to grab a pass from Juice Williams.

Jason Reda drew praise afterward from Coach Zook for his booming and accurate field goal tries. Zook is justifiably relieved to see Reda healthy after he missed the entire spring. He hopes to limit Jason's daily reps so he won't wear out or reinjure the groin that caused him previous problems.

Punting is still an uncertainty. All three have their moments, although both Anthony Santella and Jared Bosch had punts blocked, by Frank Lenti and Jason Willis respectively. Kyle Yelton remains the biggest enigma. He shanked one yet came back and boomed the next one quicker, higher and farther than anyone else's individual effort. Kyle must eliminate his tendency for extremes of success and failure to earn the starting spot.

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