Illini Get Ready For Mizzou

Camp Rantoul is now just a distant memory as the Fighting Illini football team gears up for its big game with the Missouri Tigers in St. Louis Saturday in the Edward Jones Dome. Depth charts have been determined, and game-planning is complete. All that remains is the game itself.

Game week practices are different than preseason workouts. While there is still competition for some positions, most of each practice is devoted to practicing against a scout squad of Illini reserves. Mimicing Missouri players and wearing their numbers on orange jerseys, the scout squad's job is to prepare the starters for every eventuality once Saturday arrives.

Coach Ron Zook is a rarity these days as he still allows media to witness practices. But college football is big business, and there is always concern opponents will discover something that can help them in the upcoming games by reading practice reports. Injury updates and description of game plans would give aid to the enemy and are discouraged for good reason.

One thing is probable, however. Illinois will not be relying on as many raw freshmen to perform as last year. The Illini enjoyed great recruiting success last year, and most if not all those freshmen will be stalwarts eventually.

But there are now enough upperclassmen with talent and experience to take the prrssure off the freshmen and allow them to develop at their own pace.

Receiver Arrelious Benn will definitely be a starter, but he is the only newcomer slated to start. He had the benefit of spring practice, as did Bo Flowers, who will likely see time both at safety and nickel Saturday. Defensive tackle Josh Brent, receiver Brian Gamble, linebacker Martez Wilson, linebacker Ian Thomas and junior college transfer running back Daniel Dufrene all practiced with the varsity this week, but they are all backups at this time. Some others may help on special teams.

A similar number of redshirt freshmen may also be in line for playing time, if not against Missouri then sometime thereafter. Quarterback Eddie McGee, lineman Ryan Palmer, lineman Randall Hunt, safety Garrett Edwards, fullback Rahkeem Smith, punter Anthony Santella, and defensive end Jerry Brown are all eager for their first action. And Xavier Fulton will get his first start at left tackle after spending the last three years at defensive end.

The scout squad cannot provide the same competition as Missouri, but it did well showing the starters Mizzou's different formations and tendencies. C. J. Jackson was used to mimic star Tiger tight end Martin Rucker, and he made several good catches. Of course, he will move back to tackle after this week.

Crowd noise recordings were blasted into the ears of the players to represent playing in an enclosed dome. Even though there will be a mixed crowd, Missouri fans are likely to outnumber Illini fans. They will generate considerable crowd noise that will reverberate around the dome. The Illini will need to be mature and not let the crowd bother them, so practicing with the loud noises may help.

Coach Ron Zook has not yet named a starting punter. He is looking for three main things in making this decision...one, getting it off on time; two, drop point; and three, consistency. Whoever is selected, Zook believes all three candidates can get the job done.

"I'm kind of pleased where we are with the punters. One day, one of them is booming them, and on the next day another guy is booming them. Whoever is out there, we will be better than last year. I'm not as concerned about the punting game as I was. Our coverage is also better. We have more athleticism, and the guys understand it better."

Missouri's offense is extremely dangerous, but it is similar to Illinois according to Zook.

"The good news is their offense is in the same family as our offense. There are some similarities. We've gone against a spread offense all year. They are different. They spread you out a little more. They have those two big tight ends that make catches and go up and use their bodies against a smaller DB or even a linebacker. The fact that we've been going against our own offense everyday is going to help us."

Defensive co-coordinator Dan Disch describes the task at hand for the defense.

"You just try to slow them down. You're not going to stop them, obviously. Our plan is to not give up the big play. You want to mix things up, give them different looks if you can, keep them in front of us and run to the football. If we can prevent big plays, and if our guys execute, we've got a chance. If you stay in one thing, they will get you out of it. They're pretty smart. We've just got to do what we do and do it well. "

"I like our attitude going into the season," declares senior defensive tackle Chris Norwell. "We're going to be a good defense. Our offense has gotten better, and the defense is going to go out there and play hard."

Norwell's thoughts are shared by defensive tackle partner Dave Lindquist.
,br> "We're just going to go out and try to hit them in the mouth. That's what we do, bottom line. We do that, I think we're going to be good. The first game of the year is always fun. But the fact they are rated makes it even more fun, and we're going to go out and give them something."

To beat a high-scoring team like Missouri, the Illini need to score points often. Much of the success of the Illinois offense depends on the continued development of sophomore quarterback Juice Williams. Coach Zook believes Juice's growth off the field will help him on the field.

"He was watching tape at 10:30pm last night (Tuesday), and you wouldn't normally see that last year because he was so involved in all the other things that were going on."

Williams acknowledges the thrill of a new season and looks forward to it.

"The excitement started to come when we had the band play for our walk-through (last Saturday). Seeing the orange jerseys, and seeing the scripts with the actual game plans that we're going to use Saturday was stimulating. So the excitement is in the air, and now it's just a matter of us going out and performing well."

Juice expanded on his growth since last season.

"I'm a lot more at ease now back there at quarterback. Things are slowing down for me. Defenses have started to reveal themselves. I know exactly what's going on now. I'm not just guessing and panicking and running around the field like an 18 year old would. Now, I'm a lot more mature, and I have a feel for what's going on. Now it's just a matter of me going out on the field on game day and applying it to my situation."

Playing in a domed stadium will be a new experience for the Illini, but Juice for one is looking forward to it.

"It's the first time I've played inside a dome. It's supposed to be a neutral site, but I'm predicting more Tiger fans than Illini fans. We just need to ignore all the negativity with the crowd and feed off all the good positive things our fans chant for us. It's going to be a lot different, but it's going to be an experience to remember. I just want to go out and score as many points as possible."

Offensive Coordinator Mike Locksley is happy with Juice's progress.

"He's had a great week of practice, and now it's just a matter of seeing him carry it over to a game situation."

It is impossible to tell how well a team is going to perform on Saturday from watching practices during the week. But two things are certain. One, the Illini defense is acutely aware of Missouri's many playmakers. For instance, defensive backs were flying around all over the place, trying to anticipate pass patterns and working diligently to disrupt as many passes as possible. If they play with that type of dedication and focus, they will have some success.

And two, it became extremely obvious the Illini are tired of hitting each other and look forward to the major challenge Saturday. Juice assessed the preparation of the offense.

"Guys are more serious, more focused. Guys want to be perfect at everything because we know we're in a game situation. I feel like we're moving in the right direction. We're not perfect, but we're making many strides."

Coach Zook summed up his players' feelings.

"Right now, they want to go out and prove they can play. They're focused, the way they've worked hard both physically and mentally in the offseason and in camp. We're to the point where they want to play, and thank God it's coming."

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