Illini Scrimmage To Shake The Rust

The Fighting Illini football team did something during Saturday's Rose Bowl practice they hadn't done since fall camp. They scrimmaged. Putting on full pads got the juices flowing, exciting both the players and assembled recruits.

Full contact scrimmaging was avoided during the season to avoid injuries and allow players time to recover from the bumps and bruises of the previous game. Defenders were especially frustrated at times, needing to let up just when their kill shots were right upon them. But they didn't want to maime their own teammates.

With over three weeks remaining before their bowl game, the Illini got to do what they love most Saturday: hit. The famous "Oklahoma Drill" was brought out of mothballs, drawing the curiousity of high school recruits and their dads in particular. Comingling with Illini players and coaches, recruits got to watch first hand the explosiveness of the college game.

As a reminder, the drill has an offensive lineman or fullback go one-on-one against a defensive lineman or linebacker. The purpose is for the defender to tackle a running back trying to cut off the offensive man's block within a confined space. It is a fun exercise for the players, except maybe for those who get their lunch handed to them.

Sideline observers had few sightlines to the action, so some of the more impressive displays will go unreported. But freshman defensive tackle Josh Brent overpowered his offensive line opponent to make a tackle behind the line. And guard Jon Asamoah and tackle Ryan Palmer drew praise for individual blocks.

One of the more intriguing confrontations involved tight end Michael Hoomanawanui and linebacker Rodney Pittman. Pittman caught Michael off balance and pushed him aside to make a good tackle. Determined to correct his error, Hoomanawanui received a second chance and reversed the result. Pile-driving Pittman backwards, Michael ran over him and pinned him on the ground. With intensity like that on every play, Hoomanawanui can become a star.

There was some lengthy scrimmaging with first teams competing against second teams. Both offense and defense had their moments. Cornerback Vontae Davis grabbed an underthrown ball by Eddie McGee intended for Jeff Cumberland and made a nice runback.

Later, Juice Williams failed to look off his target, allowing linebacker Martez Wilson to step in for the interception. Wilson then flashed his speed as he proceeded untouched into the end zone.
On the offensive side, the play of the scrimmage was a long touchdown pass from Williams to Arrelious Benn. The freshman receiver juked Justin Sanders to get open on a post pattern, and the pass hit him in stride. One could hear positive mumblings from nearby recruits as Benn and Williams showed their immense potential.

A few Illini are nursing minor injuries, but none of them appear serious. Brit Miller and Will Judson have minor ankle sprains, and Ryan McDonald has a minor problem that has put him in the charge of Strength & Conditioning Coach Lou Hernandez the last couple days. But all three are expected to be healthy long before the Rose Bowl game. Fullback Russ Weil is starting to get some reps again as he recuperates from a strained knee.

It isn't always possible to judge how recruits are reacting to the practices as some are less demonstrative than others. But it is clear the players already committed are already forming good friendships. And some of the uncommitted players appeared to be enjoying themselves. Having their parents with them is always a good sign, and most were joined by one or both parents.

The Illini now have a week of final exams before practicing again next weekend. The Friday and Saturday practices will be the last ones open to the public as the Illini will then begin to gear up for their date with destiny in the Rose Bowl.

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