Practice Report: Illini Fight Injury Bug

The Fighting Illini went through the first week of practice relatively injury-free. However, that was bound to change with full contact drills, and it has. Interestingly, the injuries are not limited to the players.

Co-Defensive Coordinator Curt Mallory completed the morning practice session Monday before submitting to a surgical knife this afternoon to repair a hernia. According to Coach Zook, this should be a temporary setback for the healthy and dedicated assistant coach.

"He's fine, he's going to be home tonight. Knowing Curt Mallory, he'll probably be back up here tomorrow. I told his wife to keep him there as long as he needed. The defensive backs were all praying he gets healed quickly because I get to have them. Woody (assistant coach Mike Woodford) has coached it too, so they get us both."

There have been no major injuries since last Saturday's scrimmage, but some nagging problems continue to crop up. Cornerback Travon Bellamy appeared to be limping slightly as he walked over to the Strength and Conditioning staff. And Michael Hoomanawanui was called away after the morning practice due to a death in the family. It is unknown how long he will miss practice. Tight end C. J. Jackson is expected back tonight from his home in Georgia after attending a family funeral there. He missed a chance for many reps this evening as Jeff Cumberland was the only tight end available to practice.

Arrelious (Regus) Benn is making excellent recovery from a shoulder strain but will be withheld from practice for a week or so to guarantee healing.

"They just told me they've got to slow Regus down," proclaimed Zook. "In the training room, Regus was lifting his arms above his head. So I feel pretty confident he's going to be ok. Regus will be fine, he's been in there rehabbing and working. I've said it many times, he's a gym rat. No one wants to be at practice more than him. If we let him, he'd probably go. He's like a horse that just wants to go, you can't hold him back. We obviously need him, but we won't put him out there before he's healed."

In a followup to the other injuries incurred Saturday, Zook said, "Josh Brent's better, Jerry Brown's better. We're still worried about C. J. It's one of those things where in a couple weeks they may have to make a decision. He's walking around with no brace, he's in great spirits and has no pain, so obviously we just have to wait and see."

With two of his friends and important teammates down, Juice Williams was asked how the team coped in Monday's practice.

"Coming out today, it was obvious we have two key players down, but the tempo's still there, the execution level is still there, so we didn't really miss a beat. We have the depth, so we adjusted pretty good, and we just have to go on from here. We have guys in line just waiting to make big plays. Everybody wants what's best for the team, so that's a good sign. It was a big relief (to hear Benn isn't badly hurt) because he's a key player in our offense. He takes so much pressure off my shoulders. All I have to do is get the ball to him and let him do what he does best. Getting him back quickly is critical, just getting him back to 100%.

With Benn and James missing, Will Judson and Greg McClendon were getting most of the reps at slot receiver Monday. Freshman Brian Gamble was moved from safety and showed good hands and natural athleticism. It remains to be seen whether he will stay there. And Marquis Wilkins also saw time at the position. Juice described the unique situation of passing to the fast but diminutive Judson.

"Sometimes I have trouble seeing him over the line, but most times all I see is a burst, a blue light flashing across. He has tremendous speed, so elusive and agile. It's going to be exciting to get him the ball."

With several guys missing, a number of depth chart changes were noticed. Many of these may be temporary but show the progress some of the lesser known squadmen are showing. Justin Sanders was the nickel back for the first team, and Garrett Edwards saw time as the second string nickel and also got some reps at safety. Nate Bussey got some time at second string safety.

Also, Ryan Palmer got a chance at second string left guard, giving freshman Craig Wilson an opportunity at second string left tackle during the morning session. Freshman Mark Jackson saw some time with the second unit at right tackle in the evening. Center Mike Nabolotny was used as a blocking tight end during third and short and goal line situations.

There was no hitting in the morning, and the evening practice was the same until the last few minutes. This gave the guys more chance to heal from the bumps and bruises incurred at the scrimmage. However, the hitting that did occur revived the competitive fire of both offense and defense, showing that each side is gaining confidence and wants to win. There were some big hits and some big plays, and a few wrestling matches broke out again. No one is backing down, which in the long run is a good thing.

Among the highlights, Brit Miller knifed through to down Daniel Dufrene for a loss during third and one situations. Dufrene also was the recipient of a big hit by Sanders after securing a first down. Rodney Pittman hit Troy Pollard like a ton of bricks for no gain. Walter Mendenhall burst through the third string defense for a long touchdown. Derek Walker broke through the line so fast during goal line work that his bump of the optioning Eddie McGee knocked him flat even though no quarterback tackling is permitted. It was probably just a case where he had so much momentum he couldn't stop himself in time. Of course, the hit didn't sit well with the offense.

Both offense and defense had their moments, and it was good to see both units clapping in unison for each success. With both groups gaining necessary team chemistry and trust in each other, the chance for quality play throughout the season is enhanced.

The evening ended on a good note for one player in particular. Freshman Phil Haig may have secured a place in the hearts of his teammates with two big plays on the goal line. On first and five, Haig completed his pass to Rahkeem Smith for a touchdown. On the very next play, also from the five, the lefty Haig ran right, juked a defender, and ran down to the one. Both plays resulted in big cheers by his offensive teammates and no doubt gave Phil a big confidence boost.

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