D-Line Ready to Chase Daniel

School is now in session for the Fighting Illini football team. This requires adjustments in lifestyles and practice schedules. There is much more to think about and do, but the primary focus likely remains the same. After all, the Missouri Tigers loom on the horizon.

Missouri is the preseason favorite in the Big 12 North, and they have a dynamic offense that scores quickly and in bunches. This Illini team is hungry, and the Missouri game is an imporant stepping stone to reach their goals. Coach Zook and his staff had their undivided attention as the Illini began preparations for Missouri schemes.

The defensive line looked especially excited for the start of the season. Coach Tom Sims had them bouncing around and cheering each other on. This group is sturdy and deep, and they are healthy. They look forward to the challenge Tiger quarterback Chase Daniel and his offense presents.

Despite the number of excellent young prospects in the defensive line, junior Derek Walker and sophomore Doug Pilcher remain fixtures at defensive end. Offensive tackle Akim Millington was glowing in his praise of both players.

"Derek Walker is one of the best defensive ends in the Big Ten and the nation right now going into his junior year."

What makes Walker so tough to block?

"He's unpredictable," explains Millington. "He does things that d-ends are not supposed to do. He plays fundamental football, but he's very confusing before the snap. I don't know if it's intentional or if it's just how he plays, but whatever it works for him. Everyone's different. He's a very good competitor, and he makes me better and he makes everyone else he goes against better."

Pilcher is known for his bull rush, but he has other skills also.

"For Pilcher, it is probably his bull rush," says Akim. "But he goes from that to the speed rush, up and under. Whatever it takes to get the job done. It just depends on the tackle they're facing and what they can and can't use against them. Every offensive lineman has a weakness and a strength, and your job (as a defensive end) is to find that during the course of the game."

The first part of practice included some fundamentals. As one example, the defensive backs devoted time to attacking receivers' outstretched hands to break up passes or cause fumbles. They also worked on shedding blockers to tackle oncoming receivers.

The next part of practice included some special team work. If one were to have watched only the last two days, they would have assumed Kyle Yelton was the starting punter. He boomed some spirals both days. Of course, the punting position is still up for grabs.

One punt was especially notable because it reminded of a play in the 1970's when Bob Blackman was head coach of the Illini. Outstanding punter Terry Masar hit a low spiral toward the Southeast corner of Memorial Stadium, and running back George Uremovich ran under it and caught it inside the 5 yard line. It was a practically perfect play that required great timing and precision.

On this day, Anthony Santella hit a punt that sailed higher than Masar's, but it came down inside the 10 yard line into the arms of gunner Martez Wilson. There can be no runback of punts like this, and it was Wilson's speed and awareness that made it possible.

Work on Missouri began in earnest after this, with the reserves serving as scout teams both offensively and defensively. This was just a brief introduction that will no doubt become more detailed and intense as game day approaches.

The final portion of the practice was spent on perfecting the two-minute offense. Juice Williams completed his drive with a perfect 12 yard touchdown strike to Joe Morgan.

Some individual efforts during Wednesday's practice deserve special attention.

* Kyle Hudson made a leaping grab of a pass along the sideline. Given his excellent leaping ability (he was a state champion high jumper), it is surprising he hasn't shown this more during his first two seasons.

* Brian Gamble fought off Justin Harrison's aggressive advances to haul in a pass.

* Frank Lenti demonstrated a senior's expertise by using quick feet to force defensive back Travon Bellamy back on his heels. This allowed Lenti to get wide open for a sideline toss.

* Arrelious Benn made a leaping catch of a Juice Williams pass over the outstretched arms of Chris Duvalt and then kept his feet in bounds for a touchdown.

* Josh Brent showed his strength by using a rip move to get around center Ryan McDonald during line drills.

* Akim Millington kept his balance and moved his feet to neutralize Derek Walker twice during the same drills.

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