Illini Put on the Pads

The pads went on Wednesday for the first time as the Fighting Illini football team continued its Camp Rantoul preparations for the 2007 season. The players kept a good tempo and completed the practice on time despite the extremely hot weather and two rest breaks.

The Illini coaching staff doesn't scrimmage constantly to prevent burning out their players or risking injury, so little hitting actually occurred on this day. But the first day in pads wouldn't be complete without an Oklahoma drill. One blocker takes on one defender as a running back tries to avoid a tackle within a confined space. Many times, a runner will get past even with a good defensive effort. This is especially true when burners Rashard Mendenhall, Daniel Dufrene and Troy Pollard carry the ball as they either juke quickly to avoid the defender or simply outrun him.

But there were indeed some interesting battles. Freshman defensive tackle Josh Brent may have drawn the most raves from those in attendance with his brute force and quickness. Even Coach Zook commented on Josh's effort. He defeated Dan Motuliak twice and Mike Nabolotny in the Oklahoma drill, and he continued his outstanding effort in later line work.

Some other notable efforts included freshman defensive tackle Daryle Ballew over walkon Cole Knuth, guard Jon Asamoah over Anterio Jackson, freshman lineman Mike Garrity over linebacker Antonio Steele, defensive tackle Chris Norwell big over a lineman whose number was not determined, and guard Brandon Jordan over freshman linebacker Ian Thomas, pancaking him with his 85 pound size advantage. Tackle Xavier Fulton won at least four battles, including two over Doug Pilcher and one over Antonio James.

There is a shortage of experienced depth at the offensive tackle positions, so it is fortunate that Fulton is picking things up quickly. With Akim Millington and freshman Mark Jackson riding stationary bikes, right tackle was two deep with redshirt freshmen Randall Hunt and Ryan Palmer. Backing up Fulton, whose previous game experience was at defensive end, was freshman Craig Wilson. While all these players have potential, the lack of experience is obvious.

Without divulging the problem, Coach Zook confirmed that "Akim will be fine." He also bragged about the improvement shown by Randall Hunt. He explained that Hunt tore a pectoral muscle in the spring but has recovered enough to increase his bench press to 405 pounds. But Akim will need to become involved soon to give the line an experienced man at right tackle.

Defensive backs and receivers also worked against each other one on one, and there were several notable efforts. Freshman safety Nathan Bussey covered his high school buddy Arrelious Benn step for step on a long sideline pattern. Kyle Hudson made a nice catch despite close guarding by Dere Hicks. Brian Gamble, a freshman safety praised by Coach Zook after practice, blanketed speed demon Will Judson on one pattern.

Also, Travon Bellamy disrupted a Jacob Willis pattern. Walkon Alex Reavy ran a fine down-and-out pattern for a completion over Chris Duvalt. Benn neutralized Kevin Mitchell's defense on one play. And Joe Morgan outraced Vontae Davis for a long gainer on a fly pattern.

Assistant Coach Jim Pry coaches slot receivers, and he has four men vying for playing time there. Benn and Chris James are best known and are certain to be popular targets for Illini quarterbacks. But Pry confirmed that both Will Judson and Greg McClendon are making strides at the position and are putting heat on the others. McClendon has the size to compete with linebackers and safeties and is finally healthy. Judson may be the squad's fastest member, and he continues to catch pass after pass. As the coaches learn to trust Judson more, they will devise means to utilize his great quickness.

The Illini did some 11 on 11 scrimmaging to conclude practice, but no tackling was permitted and plays were stopped prematurely. Juice Williams made a couple excellent decisions on option runs for long gainers. Rashard Mendenhall might have scored twice if tackling was permitted as his burst was too powerful for a simple touch tackle. And Frank Lenti caught a long bomb from Eddie McGee.

Also, Martez Wilson made an exceptional interception on a ball tipped by Nathan Bussey on a pass from McGee intended for Marquis Wilkins. C. J. Jackson caught a pass from McGee and proceeded down the sideline for more than 20 yards before the play was called off. A success like that has to help Jackson's confidence as he tries to gain the trust of the coaching staff. Quarterbacks were not allowed to be sacked, but Travon Bellamy and Jerry Brown would both have had major sacks if permitted. In all, Juice completed three of five passes and McGee three of six plus the one interception.

Thursday will be the first day with double sessions. Coach Zook is less concerned about the heat in these practices because they occur early in the morning and late in the evening. Only the second practice will be in full pads.

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