A light rain and overcast skys met the Illini as they began another practice. The cooler conditions aided the mood, but having Co-Defensive Coordinator Curt Mallory rejoin the fun uplifted their spirits even more. And seeing popular buds Chris James and Arrelious Benn dressed and watching from the sidelines was the icing on the cake.
James was walking with only a slight limp. He didn't participate in any drills, but many teammates consider him a friend and benefit from his presence. He was even seen sending hand signals to the offense during one drill. Benn had one arm in a sling to allow for maximum healing to his shoulder, but he was able to do some stretching and stationary bike work. Coach Zook anticipates Benn will be able to practice again next week.
Mallory gained a great deal of respect by not only attending practice but coaching as well. He walked with some stiffness and pain, which is to be expected. But he shunned the golf cart available to him so he could help his players improve.
Mallory was humble afterward, admitting he was hurting "a little bit," but exclaiming, "I feel fine. I've got a lot of guys on the staff who obviously know a lot about defensive back, so I was never concerned. The biggest thing is I wanted to get back and be around the team and coaches."
Cornerback Dere Hicks was impressed by the courage and effort put forth by his position coach in returning quickly from surgery. "The next day, he's out here coaching, making us reach our full potential."
Fellow cornerback Chris Duvalt echoed Hicks' feelings on Mallory and provided additional detail. "Coach Mal wants to be on the field with us, man. He's a football guy, the kind of guy you want to be around. I kind of had a feeling he would be back soon. He's just like us, he fights through the injuries." Mallory set an example that will help serve to inspire his charges throughout the year.
Mallory has four cornerbacks who are expected to get significant playing time, players Coach Locksley and others have said are among the best in the country. Vontae Davis had a great season as a true freshman and continues to work hard to improve. He sees a big difference between this year and his rookie indoctrination last fall.
"I'm more comfortable. Last year, I had my (play) book always beside me. If I forgot my book last year, I'd be so upset I'd run back and get it. Now this year, if I were to leave my book somewhere, I wouldn't be in a hurry to go get it because it's up here (pointing to his head). So far, it's been a great camp. It's the coaches' job to push us, but its a little easier than being a freshman."
Davis praised the improvement in Duvalt, and Chris in turn was humbled by Vontae's compliment. "Thanks to Vontae on that. Vontae's a very modest guy," said Duvalt.
The one member of the foursome not presently practicing is potential starter Travon Bellamy. Coach Zook clarified his situation.
"Travon's shoulder has been bothering him. We got another MRI this morning, and we will know more tomorrow. He's had some issues with it before. Last year he had the same kind of things. I think he'll be alright."
In his absence, the other corners have needed to step up and produce. Duvalt described the situation best.
"If one of us goes down, we're all going to stay together. We just look at it as, if one of us goes down, we have a solid backup. We have four of us, so we've got depth. We're (cornerbacks) all just like a big family. We don't bicker about anything, we just want to finish the game. We all want to win, and any of us are good enough to start. Whatever coach Mal wants."
All four tight ends practiced Thursday for the first time in a week. Walkon Tom Sullivan participated in regular workouts after spending several days toiling with the Strength and Conditioning staff. And C. J. Jackson finally made it back from a family funeral. It is regretful that he couldn't get the reps possible while some of the other tight ends were unavailable.
One new addition to the injury list was the sprained ankle suffered by slot receiver Greg McClendon. It didn't appear serious, but he is the third player at his position to go down. In the absense of Benn, James and McClendon, Will Judson and freshman Brian Gamble got many snaps with the first two units. Judson is becoming more consistent so he can use his blazing speed. And Gamble continues to impress with his receiving and running.
There was no hitting again today, so big plays may not be representative of a trend. But a few highlights follow:
* Freshman free safety Nate Bussey grabbed a nice interception on a pass from Eddie McGee.
* Wide receiver DaJuan Warren made a diving stab of a ball thrown by Billy Garza.
* Freshman running back Troy Pollard reached back against his body to make an excellent catch of a ball from Garza.
* Senior strong safety Justin Harrison batted the ball away from receiver Joe Morgan in the back of the end zone. While Morgan still occasionally suffers from dropped passes, again today he impressed with leaping catches. He seems to be a high riser who catches well with his hands.
* Freshman defensive tackle Josh Brent was walking and running much better today.
Benn Back, But Only Watching
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