Illini Practice Report

The Fighting Illini football team held their first double sessions of Camp Rantoul Thursday, and the evening period included the first live tackling of the fall. It was a productive and memorable day. Get inside for the best updates.

Three NFL scouts watched the morning session, giving the seniors extra motivation to play their hardest. And the coaches whipped up the intensity for the evening session, guaranteeing a hard-hitting practice. Coach Zook was excited about the intensity.

"We got better tonight. The offense made a major step and made the defense better tonight. We say 'practice like heck, play like heck,' and we did that tonight.

That intensity, combined with all the hard work, improved competition for positions and intense heat throughout the week also produced several brief skirmishes between offensive and defensive members. Each side was fighting for dominance and refused to back down, so some of this was expected. But Zook made it perfectly clear to a few of his players that they must also play smart.

"We must play with intensity, but we must also have discipline. We can't afford penalties, so we have to be careful." While Zook was understandably upset with the excesses, he didn't let it distract from a hard-hitting effort.

Right tackles Akim Millington and Mark Jackson were practicing again and found themselves at second and third team positions respectively. Millington showed good effort in both sessions as he works to regain his starting spot.

Martez Wilson and Ian Thomas saw considerable action at second team linebackers as the coaching staff wishes to give them experience and find out their strengths. They are not yet ahead of veterans Anthony Thornhill and Sam Carson but have the talent to challenge them. Brian Gamble was singled out again by Coach Zook for his solid play and saw time as a second string nickel back in addition to his safety work.

Other freshmen who caught Zook's eye included defensive tackle Josh Brent, safety Nate Bussey and offensive tackle Craig Wilson. Offensive line coach Eric Wolford thought Brent reminded him of a young Vince Woolfolk. Defensive tackle D'Angelo McCray did not scrimmage because he forgot his knee brace. But Zook is otherwise pleased with him as well.

Some of the highlights from today's action included:

* Juice Williams was sharp with his passing during both sessions. He looks more relaxed all the time. And Eddie McGee is also beginning to develop confidence and more consistency.

* Jason Reda concluded the morning with a booming 40-yard field goal that had about 15 yards to spare.

* Doug Pilcher submarined and tackled Daniel Dufrene in the backfield. Pilcher also had success in earlier one-on-one drills by bull rushing Xavier Fulton right into the quarterback.

* Starting WILL linebacker Antonio Steele continued to show leadership and speed as he made two consecutive tackles for little or no gain against the number one offense.

* Sophomore transfer running back Daniel Dufrene broke free from a Brit Miller tackle for a TD run, although Miller may have let up a little thinking the play would be stopped.

* Freshman running back Troy Pollard broke a tackle for one TD run on a sweep and had another outstanding run where he bounced away from a scrum on the left side, turned right and then burst quickly upfield through a small hole for a TD.

* Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui drove defensive end Clay Nurse about 20 yards backwards on one blocking effort.

* Cornerback Dere Hicks intercepted a pass from Juice Williams intended for Jacob Willis. He also was impressive by breaking up two alley oop passes to Jeff Cumberland. Cumberland is 6'-5" and one of the team's best leapers, but Hicks batted both passes away with excellent jumping of his own.

* Justin Harrison broke up a sideline pass intended for Arrelious Benn.

* The first team defense in general was strong, but the starting offensive unit held its own much better than in the spring. With the offense learning to move the ball on a tough defense, and the defense practicing against a multidimensional offense, both sides can benefit.

In recruiting news, several sources confirm that Pat Nixon, a speedy cornerback from Jacksonville, Florida, committed to the Fighting Illini Thursday. He chose Illinois over Florida and hopes to enroll for the second semester.

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