Injuries Beginning to Heal for Illini

The Fighting Illini continued their fall practice preparation for the 2007 season Monday. The weather was cloudy and damp and ultimately forced the team to reconvene indoors, but there was reason for optimism. After all, potential star Arrelious "Regus" Benn was practicing again to the relief of all concerned.

Benn hurt his shoulder during the first scrimmage and sat out the second week of Camp Rantoul to allow healing. Coach Ron Zook confirmed the shoulder is still a little tender, so Arrelious wore a red shirt so he could practice without getting hit and risking reinjury.

"Boy, it sure is (great to have Benn back)," exclaimed Inside Receivers Coach Jim Pry. He confirmed that Benn's presence allows the other players to relax and play their roles.

"Without question. Everyone's back in their place where they belong. When he got hurt, along with Chris James, we had to make some adjustments and move some guys around."

Coach Zook confirmed that Benn is imporant to this team.

"Obviously, when you've got a guy like Regus...he hasn't done it yet, but we've got to get him in a game and see what he can do."

Benn is the potential superstar who will take the pressure off the other players. But James is also missed. In fact, Zook said the staff is closer to a decision for James to have season ending knee surgery. Fortunately, Pry and the Illini may have found someone capable of playing at least part of James' role in the person of freshman Brian Gamble.

"He's doing super," said Pry. "He's a great player. He catches the ball well, runs good routes. He was a db for the most part and actually a tailback in high school, so he's got some skills."

Coach Pry confirmed the coaching staff is designing plays for Gamble to run the ball as well as receive passes.

"Yeah, for him and Regus. We've got two guys who can go back there and run the ball." Playing time this year is a distinct possibility for Gamble. "I would think so, depending on how the next two weeks go," said Pry. "With the beginning of the season right there, I would say yes."

The Illini also now have all four tight ends available for practice after Jeff Cumberland, Michael Hoomanawanui, Tom Sullivan and C. J. Jackson all missed time the last two weeks with various problems. Coach Pry said it was good to have them back.

"Oh boy, it sure is."

The Illini didn't use Cumberland and Hoomanawanui much on pass routes last year because they were both freshmen just learning the offense. Will they get more opportunities this season?

"Yes. We're running a lot more two tight end stuff with routes out of that for those guys. Both can catch the ball, both run good routes. They were just concentrating more last year on being a blocker. We've got some packages in there now for them."

Does size or speed help a tight end more when running short routes against linebackers?

"It's a combination of both, but their size really helps them. They can bump into linebackers and knock them two feet away to get open. Size and strength is important. Jeff Cumberland is a little bit more of an intermediate guy. He possesses good speed, he can run a corner. Mike can run a corner also, but he's a little bit slower but weighs 270 or whatever he weighs."

There is a lot of fan interest in the development of C. J. Jackson at tight end. What does Pry think Jackson needs to learn to get on the field this year?

"He's got a long ways to go to learn blocking skills and playing in a small space. Putting his hands where they've got to be, technical things. A lot of technique is involved in blocking somebody. He's been out of it for awhile, so he's had a little bit of a tough time, but he's working on it. We probably will bring in at least one (more TE this year)."

While a few players were dressed and practicing again, there were others who still aren't ready to practice. Fullback Russ Weil and receiver Greg McClendon are still recuperating from high ankle sprains. Clay Nurse fell on his surgical repaired shoulder in Rantoul, and it is still tender. He at first feared reinjury, but this problem is minor and appears unrelated to the surgery.

Justin Sanders has a groin problem, so they were being careful with him. Josh Brent was seen doing some agility drills and showing no ill effects from a sprained knee. Coach Zook feels he might begin practicing again on Wednesday, saying he might need some additional conditioning before then. Travon Bellamy was dressed but not practicing. Coach Zook said it might be another week before a decision is made on him. And senior running back Charles Bailey has decided to transfer to another school where he might get more playing time.

Most of practice was devoted to 7 on 7 and 11 on 11 drills with no tackling. Clock management was an important aspect of these drills. The quarterbacks were not always sharp, but in part this was due to them needing to throw several balls away to prevent interceptions.

It remains to be seen how good the offense and defense really are, but they are relatively equal to each other. Practices alternate between offensive and defensive successes. There is occasional tension because everyone is so competitive. But the Illini secondary appears much improved as they frequently block all the passing routes with quality play. They will need to be good against Missouri's pass-happy attack.

Fumbles had not been a problem this fall, until Monday. Running backs Daniel Dufrene and Troy Pollard both suffered fumbles on hits that were not complete tackles. This is likely an important reminder for these newcomers to protect the ball at all times.

There were a few notable plays worth repeating:

* Joe Morgan fought off Justin Harrison's tight defense for a big catch. He caught another good ball later but dropped a simple pass in his breadbasket in between.

* Freshman middle linebacker Ian Thomas ran down speedy Will Judson for a loss on a reverse.

* Dufrene made an important catch over the middle for a nice gain.

* Brit Miller batted a Juice Williams pass behind the line and almost caught it on the way down.

* Eddie McGee waited in the pocket while receiver Jacob Willis ran freshman cornerback into the endzone before reversing course to grab a TD pass.

Coach Zook summarized the team's development at the end of practice.

"We're making progress. One good thing about a young team is you continue to improve as the season goes along. We'll be a better football team at the end of the season than we are at the beginning. I really feel like we've made great progress, and we have a chance to be a pretty good offensive unit.

"(Defensively) we need to eliminate big plays. We made improvements from the first year to last year, but now we have to continue to make plays. We're not tackling as crisply as we would like."

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