The "Fight" is definitely returning to the Fighting Illini football team with each passing day. Confidence, enthusiasm and swagger are becoming increasingly apparent on a team filled with young but talented athletes. And they are beginning to practice like a national caliber team needs to practice to compete at the highest levels.
Illini coaches split up Friday's practice between instruction and some live action, and the live action proved quite entertaining. At first, the offense showed immense improvement over last season by confidently penetrating the defense for numerous big plays. Red Zone work showed Juice Williams on fire, finding open receivers several times for touchdowns. He showed poise in the pocket and the touch needed to throw catchable balls.
Little by little, the offense began to sense the quality of play and initiated cheers to prop up their confidence even further. All offensive players shared the excitement, with freshman Arrelious Benn one of those taking a leadership role by helping encourage the clapping.
Eventually, the defense began to assert itself and made several straight stops, firing themselves up in the process. Their fortunes reversed, they clapped in unison to counter the offense. Back and forth the two sides went, with both benefitting. It is always hard for observers to know whether a team has good offense and defense when they play against each other in practice. But if the team is excited about its performances, perhaps there is good reason for it.
The confidence levels haven't been this high in a number of years. The team may come out flat for the Saturday scrimmage at Rantoul High School, or one team may dominate on that particular day. But there is no doubt that both units have the personnel, experience, and athleticism to compete throughout the 2007 season.
Akim Millington rejoined the first unit at right tackle, while starting left tackle Xavier Fulton spent his afternoon with Strength & Conditioning coach Lou Hernandez. Ryan Palmer played left tackle with the first unit in Fulton's absence. Coach Zook explained the situation after practice.
"X probably could have gone today, but he had sore hip flexors, and we wanted to make sure he was healthy for the scrimmage. I think he has had an excellent camp. Akim was back working with the first unit today. His shoulder was a little bit sore the other day, and we held him out to get it back to where he feels comfortable. Akim has just got to go out there and relax. He can play, and sometimes he gets too worked up for his own good. He is a perfectionist, but sometimes he has to realize that no one is perfect and just go out and play."
There were a number of excellent individual efforts throughout the practice. A few of many follow: * Defensive end Doug Pilcher read a swing pass and almost intercepted the pass. He later penetrated and threw running back Rashard Mendenhall for a loss.
* Ryan Palmer and Jeff Cumberland were praised for their blocking on one of Rashard's touchdown runs.
* Antonio James threw running back Troy Pollard for a loss.
* Chris Norwell sacked Juice once. That said, the offensive line held off the onrushing defensive line most of the day.
* Eddie McGee made a quick cut, broke a tackle and outraced the defense on a third and one series.
* Walter Mendenhall had a long gain on a swing pass from Juice where the cornerback missed a tackle.
* Rashard Mendenhall continued his fine play with several excellent runs.
The practice concluded with a two-minute drill, and both quarterbacks looked poised and confident. Juice Williams was practically perfect. After seeing Chris Duvalt break up his pass intended for Willis on the sideline, he completed five straight passes, three to Kyle Hudson and one each to Chris James and Arrelious Benn, the last one for a 2 yard touchdown. Juice also added a 13 yard scramble for an important first down.
McGee's task was to position the second unit for a field goal and was asked to reach the opponent's 30 yard line before time expired. Eddie completed four of seven passes (two were throw-aways) and added a short run. His team made it to the 33-yard line with seconds to spare, where Jason Reda missed a 50-yard field goal. He had plenty of distance but pulled it a little left. It was possibly his first miss of fall practice.
The players are having fun. And it is increasingly fun to watch them play.