Camp Winds Down with Light Friday Practice

Coach Ron Zook is a player's coach. How else can you explain him asking for speakers to be set up adjacent to the practice field so his charges could warm up to Snoop Dogg's music? After that uplifting opening, the Illini football players mustered enough energy to have a spirited practice one day before the final scrimmage of Camp Rantoul.

Friday's double sessions proved to be among the easier practices at camp. Coach Zook realized his players were stiff and sore from a number of hard practices over the last two weeks, so he lightened up to get some energy back prior to Saturday's 10:00am scrimmage. But his ingenious addition of hip hop music probably did the most to lighten the load and help his players focus on the task at hand.

"We all wanted to make sure we had a good practice, so I asked Lou (Hernandez, Strength & Conditioning coach) if we could get our speakers out there," explained Zook. "I think football is attitude, it's about 90% attitude. When you're tired...of course, I knew they're feeling their oats a little bit in terms of getting out of here. Whatever they like is fine with me. I'm the one that told them to do it, but I didn't pick the music. Lou knows, he's got them in the weight room all the time. He knows what gets them going."

Friday's evening session was almost entirely composed of running plays without tackling to serve as a summation of all that has been installed this camp. But Zook was pleased with the energy and intensity.

"That was pretty good tonight. The last 24 hours we have tried to freshen them up a little bit. It was a good bounce around practice and a good thinking practice."

Will Saturday's scrimmage be a lengthy one with great importance on finalizing a depth chart?

"It's a little bit different because we have gone at each other so hard, so competitively, that we've got to be smart (to avoid injuries). I don't look at it that way (battle for position chart) as much as just continuing to grow, to get experience and get better. But obviously it will have some impact as well."

With one day of camp remaining and some players nursing injuries, a few positions on the team are definitely still up for grabs. For example, Travon Bellamy is the usual nickel back in passing situations, but he is recuperating from shoulder problems. With freshman Brian Gamble transferred to offense, Coach Zook mentioned three players who are being trained for that role.

"Right now, we're trying to get Justin Sanders, Garrett Edwards and Bo Flowers ready to go because whether you are in nickel or dime, they're all kind of reciprocal positions and so all three of them have to be ready to go."

Fullback is also a concern with senior Russ Weil needing more time to recover from an ankle sprain.

"(Russ Weil) is getting better every day, and that's the main thing," noted Zook. "He's just got to continue to get better. (If we had a game tomorrow) we'd play them both (Walt Mendenhall and Rahkeem Smith). We'd start with Rahkeem first because Walter hasn't played there a whole lot this spring."

Coach Zook confirmed that Rahkeem Smith's move to fullback is a keeper. "I heard Reggie tell him tonight, 'Well, you're finally coming around.' When you change positions, it's not as easy as people think. Of course, he played running back in high school. But as fast as we're going, throwing stuff at them as fast as we're doing, and with him practicing defense all summer, he's done a nice job. He's worked hard and done well, taken some shots, and I'm proud of him."

Rahkeem took awhile to adjust to the sudden change one day before the start of fall camp, but he is starting to accept his new assignment.

"It's fine, it's different. Tackling is a lot easier than blocking, but I'm picking things up. It's all about coming out each day and trying to get better. At the beginning of camp, they were throwing out signals I didn't even know. But I know all the signals now, and it's like I'm getting better every day.

"On offense, you've got to know a lot more. Like, if the defense does this, you do this. Defense is more reaction. On offense, they tell you exactly what to do and you do it. Russ will be back soon, and Walt is our leader in running back room. Walt can do anything. I'm just going to try to do my part and do all I can to help this team."

Running back coach Reggie Mitchell was effusive in his praise of Walt Mendenhall.

"Walt is going to do whatever is best for us, whether that is fullback or linebacker or running back. He's a great guy. He's probably one of the best guys on the team about being able to do things like that (help out at several positions)."

And Coach Zook paid Mendenhall an equally positive compliment.

"I told Reggie, 'Walter is a guy that is so important to this football team.' At times, he may be our best runner. He's important for a lot of reasons. He's looked up to on this team. I have no qualms putting him into the game."

One area of the team that has remained stable while continuing to improve is the defensive line. Coach Tom Sims commented about the development of this important unit.

"We've definitely improved a little bit every day. They're working hard, and I'm pleased where we are right now. We've got a long way to go before that first game, and we've just got to be ready when the time comes. We definitely have made some quality additions. The kids we've had have improved to the point a lot of them can contribute, so I'm excited about it."

Practice observers talk as if some of Sim's charges will get a chance to play pro ball eventually. Does he agree with this assessment?

"I think we've evolved to the point where we have some talented kids where that (NFL) is definitely a possibility for a lot of the kids we have in our group. It's going to come down to how hard they work, and then winning leads to those kind of opportunities. To be honest, the better we look as a team, the more we improve as a team, the more other teams will take notice what they individually contribute. I love competition and encourage it. It brings out the best."

Sims has three prized freshmen defensive tackles with which to work in Daryle Ballew, Josh Brent, and D'Angelo McCray. Although they are not yet in the two deep, they have great potential.

"I can't tell you how pleased I am with their work ethic and how they came in here with a great attitude. Playing time for them is going to come. It'll come when it comes. All three of them are talented kids, and all of them are good kids. It's just a matter of them catching up with the speed of the game at this level, and the tempo of the game. But they are good kids, and they will eventually be good Fighting Illini."

In looking back over the last two weeks, Coach Zook reminded how much his coaching staff and players want to win.

"The people of Illinois, the Illini people deserve a great program. We're going as hard as we can as fast as we can to get where we all want it. This is a microwave society...people want instant gratification. So there is no longer any 5-year plan or 4-year plan in college coaching.

"Everyone wants instant success, including our own players. Our freshmen are talented guys, but they're still freshmen. And even the sophomores are still sophomores. Now they're going to be better players as juniors and seniors than they are as freshmen and sophomores. But they are some talented guys."

Illini fans can see for themselves in just two weeks when the Illini meet Missouri in St. Louis.

Illini Inquirer Top Stories