More Relaxed Illini Take on Syracuse

The Fighting Illini football team has had a good practice week leading up to its date at Syracuse Saturday. It is always easier to prepare for the next opponent after a victory. Now, the challenge is to carry the winning momentum into the game Saturday and see if the Illini can take the next step in their development by winning two in a row.

The Illini needed a win against Western Illinois University last week. Desperately. Coach Ron Zook gave a good explanation for how the win improved the outlook of himself and his program.

"I'm a lot calmer this week. Like I told the guys, the coaches needed the win, the players needed a win, our wives needed a win. But by the same token, we have a long way to go. It's amazing how much more relaxed and flowing the practice was."

"(Without a win) we're pushing. They're wanting to do it, and therein lies the problem. We push hard, sometimes they try too hard. But that comes with a young group. We've said this all along. We're not going to coach like we have a bunch of young guys. We're going to coach like they're juniors and seniors, and I think that's what they want also."

Now, the key is to create a winning streak. With a victory against Syracuse, the Illini can have another good practice week. And that can lead to more victories and more good practices, which lead to more wins. The Illini have experienced the downward spiral far too frequently in recent years. Hopefully, an upward spiral is in their immediate future.

Coach Zook and his staff have emphasized special teams even more than usual this week.

"I think we're improving," said an encouraged Zook. "It is as important as offense or defense, and I think our guys are learning how important it is. Whether you're a first teamer or second teamer, or whether you are a senior or freshman, you can contribute to this team. It's a very big play, and we're getting better at it."

The punters continue to get Coach Zook's personal attention. At one point, he took four small strides and placed his hat on the ground. The punters were then required to get their punts off without stepping past the hat. In other words, they could take a maximum of two steps, with the second being the punt.

It is a work in progress, as Anthony Santella, Kyle Yelton and Jared Bosch all concentrated so much on their steps they sometimes missed solid contact with the ball. Consistency with the punting motion is as difficult as a golfer's swing, so getting perfect repetition is hard to accomplish. And in the case of the starter Santella, the nervousness of his first playing time tightens the muscles and limits the kicking motion.

"Obviously, we would like to have a longer net (yardage)," says Zook. "My brother happened to be here yesterday (Monday) at practice. I was watching the tape this morning, and he's watching him (Santella) pound them out there...45, 52, 46, 47, 48 (yards).

"Now you have to understand why I get so frustrated. The guy has the ability to do that. He has the potential to do that. He's just got to go relax and punt the football. He can punt it. He can get the football off."

Several of Santella's punts against WIU were short because they were pooch punts to pin the Leathernecks back near their goal line. Part of special teams work is helping the punter by running fast downfield and downing the ball before it reaches the end zone. Illini punt gunner Joe Morgan just missed doing that last Saturday.

"The one inside the 20, Joe should have probably handled. That's something that we worked on last night. When they get down there, they've got to keep that ball from going into the end zone. I still think that we are much improved in our punting game from last year. We're not where we have to be, but we're going to get there."

Defensive practice this week included drills teaching the Illini to strip the ball from opponents to create turnovers. This is also a work in progress as some players concentrate so much on making the tackle they are out of position to cause a fumble. Of course, it also takes great strength as all ball carriers are taught to hold tight to the ball.

Illini linebackers and defensive backs were also shown how to handle the picks Syracuse receivers sometimes use. Intentionally screening a defender, if recognized by an official, might result in offensive interference. But this is rarely called, so recognition is essential. Illini cornerbacks now know what to do should they see a receiver screening a linebacker or safety.

Co-Defensive Coordinator Dan Disch was asked whether he plans to give Martez Wilson more playing time at linebacker this week, and whether fellow freshmen middle linebacker Ian Thomas will see his first playing time.

"I'd love it if we got a big lead and could play more of the substitutes. But I'm not planning to play more of the kids. Martez got in the other night and is battling for second string. They battle every day, and each week it can change. But they are both in the mix, and I've been happy with their progress. I expect before the season ends you'll see him (Wilson) contribute."

Perhaps the most impressive individual play of the week was a long run with a screen pass by Rashard Mendenhall. It appeared both Justin Sanders and Dere Hicks had the angle on him, but Rashard found an extra gear and sped past them for a long touchdown. Sanders and Hicks are fast athletes, so this run by Rashard puts to rest any concern his increased weight might have slowed him down.

It was interesting watching the Monday post practice wind sprints. The Illini are in outstanding condition and don't need to do extra running often. But when they do, it is easy to see they have worked hard in the offseason. Of special interest was how C. J. Jackson was the fastest lineman running back and forth the width of Zuppke Field.

Xavier Fulton stayed close to him the first time, and Mark Jackson gave him some competition the second time. But Jackson was the clear victor all three times. It was good to see him so motivated to excel. If he keeps that attitude every day at practice, he will help the Illini down the road.

Juice Williams had to persevere this week as some fans and media chose to question his starting role and seek more playing time for backup Eddie McGee. This is part of the learning curve for any quarterback, and the sophomore has shown maturity through the experience.

"We just have to feed off the negative remarks and have a big game," Williams explained. "I experienced the same thing last year with me and Tim Brasic. I'm glad he (McGee) had a great game (against Missouri). Like Coach Zook says, it's good to have someone behind you putting pressure on you. It helps make you much better. It makes you want to work harder off the field so you will do better than the guy behind you."

Williams has a unique interest in the game since he has become friends with Syracuse great Donovan McNabb.

"I'm pretty good friends with Donovan. I'm pretty sure either I will call him or he will call me sometime this week. He has a camp in Chicago every year, and I attended one of his camps. We talked this past offseason, and he told me about what to look for in breaking down film.

"So me and Donovan are pretty good friends. I'm a big fan. He's like the model, the perfect player for me to do the things he does. He does things with his feet and tremendous things with his arm, so he's a great model I try to follow."

Juice has unlimited potential and may someday be compared with McNabb, but he is still developing. He sometimes gets jittery in the pocket and rushes things, but his touch has improved a great deal since last year. He provided a good analysis of his improvement to this point and what he needs to do to improve further.

"Trying not to overthrow has helped me with the long pass, not leading guys too far down the field, overthrowing the man in wide open space. Now, it's just a matter of keeping my eyes looking upfield and not worrying about the things going on with the offensive line.

"Relaxing and forgetting the negative plays helps a lot. If you try too hard to be successful, that's when things start to go wrong. Just come out here, have fun and make the routine plays works for me."

Of course, that's easier said than done. Classmates and fans on campus approach him, and media are always asking about his mistakes. With continued maturity, he will learn to ignore all the outside distractions. The two long drives he led in the second half of the Western game did wonders for his confidence.

"That was very encouraging going into next week's game. It's something to feed off of and get momentum going. Now it's just a matter of correcting the mistakes I made. And most of all, just keeping my focus and keeping my eyes on my reads."

Coach Zook took his offense into the indoor facility for part of Thursday's practice. He did this so he could blast tape recordings of loud, cheering fans into the players' ears to get them used to playing in a dome that reverberates with sounds.

"The biggest reason was the noise factor," says Zook. "The only way you can simulate the dome is to be inside, so that's the reason we did it. It's going to be a hostile place no matter how many people are there. Syracuse is going to give us all we can handle."

Syracuse will be desperate for a win, and it is never easy to play on the road. The Illini are considered favorites, but they will need to play their best to get that all-important second win. Syracuse's offensive strength is their wide receivers and defensive front.

Illinois needs to put constant pressure on the Syracuse quarterback to prevent him from getting into a comfort zone. Keep him throwing under duress, and he will have more trouble finding his targets. The Orange offensive line is struggling, giving up 13 sacks in their first two games, so one key to the game will be whether the Illini defensive front can break contain.

Another key will be whether the Illinois offensive line can hold the Syracuse defensive line in check. If Jameel McClain and pals put sufficient pressure on Juice Williams, they can disrupt the Illini offense. But if Illinois' offensive line can protect the quarterback, the Syracuse defensive backfield can be burned.

One way or the other, it will be an interesting game with important ramifications for both programs' futures. Coach Zook doesn't preach payback, although Illini fans would love to see a reversal of Syracuse's surprising win in Champaign last year.

"Every game, we have to go out and expect to win," says Zook. "We prepare to win and think we will win. I don't know about a vendetta or anything like that, but we got beat last year, so we have to go out there and win. The only thing we can do is take care of business for us. We can't worry about anything that's happened in the past. It's about our future on Saturday."

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