Another Hot Practice: Weil Hobbled

The Fighting Illini held another practice in the intense heat at Camp Rantoul Tuesday. There was little hitting as the coaches wanted their charges to have a good learning opportunity while nurturing the bumps and bruises so common this time of year.

Coach Ron Zook called Tuesday "hump day" as it occurs just before the big push that will culminate with a major scrimmage Saturday, the last day in Rantoul. "It's hot, it's a one-a-day in the heat of the afternoon. Two-a-days like Wednesday are always easy because we go early in the morning and late in the evening when it's not as hot, so you have more bounce in your step. Thursday they see the writing on the wall, Friday is obviously big, and then Saturday is a big scrimmage.

There were some new additions to the stationary bikes as more players try to recooperate from mild but nagging problems. Cornerback Vontae Davis and tight end Jeff Cumberland joined the walking wounded but are not expected to miss much time. Michael Hoomanawanui was back today after missing last evening and got all the reps at tight end. C. J. Jackson was still not back from a family funeral, and walkon Tom Sullivan is still not quite 100% yet.

Perhaps the worst new injury was to fullback Russ Weil. He has a sprained ankle and was seen limping with a walking cast. Coach Zook didn't feel Russ would be out a long time, which is good since he is an outstanding lead blocker in the running offense.

Assistant Coach Eric Wolford is still mixing his offensive linemen to determine his best players and find their best positions. Today, the second team line showed Ryan Palmer and Randall Hunt at the guard spots adjacent to center Eric Block, while Craig Wilson and Mark Jackson manned the tackles. This experiment didn't last the whole practice, but it was a new variation. The first five of Xavier Fulton, Martin O'Donnell, Ryan McDonald, Jon Asamoah and Akim Millington has remained intact for several practices.

Offensive Coordinator Mike Locksley praised the offensive line after practice.

"The offensive line is where it starts and ends for us. Coach Wolford and Mike Degory have done great job, and our offensive line has really responded. They're playing tough, and I often say when the offensive line leads you, when those are the guys who run the locker room, you're going to have a great chance to win games. The offensive line is playing with an attitude, they're playing tough and they're playing together."

Overall, Coach Locksley feels much progress has been made with the offense. It is much better than this time last year.

"The difference between last year and this year is night and day. Last year, our motto was to be able to run the football. This year, in order for us to take steps, we've talked a lot about ball security and improving our passing attack. We knock on wood that we haven't turned the ball over a bunch, or put it on the ground a lot with our ones and twos. I've been pleased with the progress of our passing attack.

"Competition within the team helps a lot. Our receivers are probably going against some of the top defensive backs in the conference, so they're getting to work daily with some of the best in the country. That can't do anything but help us."

Locksley answered in the affirmative when someone suggested Juice Williams has improved his touch on longer passes.

"I think Juice's decision-making and touch on the long ball all starts with knowing where the ball should go. The speed of the game has really slowed down for him, and he has a good concept of what we want and where his pass routes start and end. With that comes good decision making. And when you know where the ball should go, you can set your feet and make accurate throws.

"He's learned to put more air under the deeper throws to give his receivers time to run under them. He's learning what type of ball to throw for what situation, and probably the biggest thing is he has developed timing with his receivers. We've got a group that has been together now for a second year. They spent all summer timing up routes, and I think he has a great feel for where guys are going to be."

Locksley also gave some insights into quarterbacks Eddie McGee and freshman Phil Haig.

"Eddie McGee is a clearcut number two, and we're going to keep pushing him and trying to find meaningful reps for him, so that if something should happen to Juice I have no problem with Eddie McGee.

"Phil Haig has been coming along. I've been pleased with the progression of the freshman. Phil Haig has moxy, and that's what we look for when we recruit a quarterback, an intangible that you just kind of get a feel for. When you look at him, he looks like a quarterback, carries himself like a quarterback, and it doesn't hurt that he's a lefty."

Without any tackling, most of practice was uneventful. But there are always some noticable efforts. A few follow:

* Vontae Davis made a leaping deflection in the end zone on a pass from Juice to DaJuan Warren. Davis fell on his hip, causing a bruise which forced him to sit out the rest of the day.

* Juice waited patiently in the pocket for a long down-and-in pattern from Kyle Hudson before hitting him in stride for a long gain. Such intermediate routes are rare when a quarterback gets flushed from the pocket too quickly as happened frequently last year.

* Dere Hicks had perfect man coverage on Joe Morgan as he flew down the sideline, forcing the quarterback to throw the pass away.

* Newly converted freshman Brian Gamble made strides at the slot receiver, showing excellent hands on a ball thrown high over his shoulder. And he caught a ball in a crowd, showing no fear of going over the middle.

* Kyle Hudson showed his excellent footwork with a long down, out and curl back route on the sideline. Few if any defensive backs can cover that type of route with Hudson's quickness.

* Cornerback Chris Duvalt has a knack for interceptions, getting another one today with his outstanding closing speed and anticipation.

* Juice rolled right and completely juked defensive end Derek Walker, turning him around as Juice sped by.

* Safety Justin Sanders made an impressive interception, fighting off Will Judson on a throw from Juice.

* Haig rolled right and threw a left-handed strike against his momentum to a leaping Joe Morgan in the end zone.

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