Rotating OL; Punting Highlight Wednesday Work

The Illini football team breezed through another double session Wednesday in preparation for the upcoming season. There was no tackling, but there was plenty of competition nonetheless.

Both the offense and defense are developing pride as units and don't ever want to back down. If they can take that attitude into each game this fall, they will do well.

The offensive line continues to see some juggling of personnel, giving players a chance to gain experience at different positions and allowing coaches to determine their best positions. The one player who seems to get plugged into any vacancy is redshirt freshman Ryan Palmer. The 6'-7", 308 pounder has been seen practicing at every spot on the line except center. Speculation is that he is being groomed as a sixth man who can be used wherever needed. That is, if he isn't starting.

Brian Gamble is proving to be a quick study. The Massillon, Ohio, freshman was moved from safety to slot receiver after injuries to Arrelious Benn and Chris James, and he appears to be thriving. He runs good routes and appears to be learning the offense quickly. Coach Ron Zook was asked how the Gamble experiment is going after the Wednesday evening practice.

"Real well. The offensive coaches are excited about it, I'm excited about it, and he's excited about it, which is the most important thing. He's catching on. He made a couple of big-time catches today. He's a tough kid. You can get the ball in his hands. We originally started recruiting him as a running back."

Freshman Martez Wilson is still learning the nuances of the WILL linebacker position but shows obvious potential.

"You see spurts," said Zook. "He makes plays a lot of people can't make. But yet, on the same token, you see those wheels turning, and he's thinking and thinking. He'll be alright. I'm excited about some of the things he can do. Yesterday and this morning, he did some natural things, so this will come. The more we go, the more we do it, he'll play faster and faster."

Coach Zook also spent time after practice talking about the kicking and punting games.

"Jason (Reda) had the wind at his back, but he kicked a 52 yarder today that could have been 62. The big thing is we can't let him kick too much."

Zook was asked if the NFL might be in Reda's future.

"Absolutely. I think he's a talented guy. A lot of times, it's a case of being at the right place at the right time. But he has rhythm. He'll need to kick off, which he has. He has a strong enough leg he can kick off, but it's great we don't have to force him to kick off as well."

"Mike Cklamovski is kicking great (as kickoff man). When we work on returns, we actually have to find a wind to kick into. That (new 30-yard line kickoff rule) hasn't affected him too much. Of course, it's a little different later. You know how the wind gets in the fall."

The punting competition continues. Kyle Yelton, Anthony Santella and Jared Bosch all have their moments. Yelton is the quickest getting his punts off, but this sometimes causes him to drop the ball onto his foot at a bad angle, producing a shank or a shorter kick. When he uses his best technique, he kicks the ball farther and higher than last year. He has gained 26 pounds since last fall, and his leg is definitely stronger.

Jared Bosch may be, pound for pound, one of the strongest players on the team. When he gets hold of it, he can boot the ball a long way. Not all his punts are spirals as it appears he relies heavily on brute strength to power the ball up and out. He is working on improving how quickly he can get the ball flying off his foot.

Anthony Santella, the walkon transfer from Utah by way of Wauconda, Illinois, is also working on his release time. But he is the guy most likely to draw "ah's" from the crowd with his towering, pretty spirals. Some practice observers are ready to annoint him the winner of the intense competition, but he has his bad moments as well.

Coach Zook commented on the punting situation.

"I tell you what, they were kicking pretty good again tonight. We're close, but I'm not ready to say who's going to be out there. That's the great thing, the competition. And they're all punting under pressure."

If he had to choose between a quick kick or the best hang time, Zook said it depended on the opponent.

"If I was playing against a pressure team, I would choose a quick kick. If I was playing against a team that didn't pressure a lot, I would probably prefer the hang time." So, if worse comes to worse, perhaps the Illini could use two punters depending on the opponent. Of course, the ideal is to find someone who combines all the best traits of a punter in one man.

"I don't remember having three punters in camp, ever," said Zook. "The thing that's scary is you don't know how they're going to react in a game. So all you have to go on is out here. We try to put as much pressure on them as we can, but that's not a game.

"It is a skill, and there's a lot more to it than people think. Catching it is one thing, and then getting it off in time, getting it off the way you want to get it off. Even Tiger Woods will shank some once in awhile. It's hard. I pay more attention when we're coming after them like we did at the end of practice when we had the block on and they knew. It does two things. It puts them under pressure, so the process has to be fast, and then it helps you with your protection."

The big scrimmage that will end Camp Rantoul this Saturday will likely go a long way toward helping the coaching staff choose their number one punter. But the final decision may not come until closer to the Missouri game.

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