Wide receiver Kyle Hudson attended his first practice of the spring after helping the Illini baseball team to four victories in five games over the last few days. Hudson had to appreciate the warmer Illinois climate after enduring two days of 35 degree weather at Michigan State over the weekend.
And the first of the "Study Hall Five" was reinstated to active status. Slot receiver Brian Gamble rejoined his teammates after spending the first three practice sessions catching up on school work. Despite some rust, it didn't take long for Brian to show off his fluid athleticism and good hands.
"Brian is on double secret probation," warned Coach Ron Zook. "He knows he has no margin of error. He's done what he's supposed to the last few weeks, and he also knows if you don't see him out here you'll know why."
Former Illini star Howard Griffith watched from the sidelines as part of his job with the Big Ten Network. He saw quarterback Juice Williams continuing his improvement, looking especially sharp on his first 11 on 11 opportunity. The Illini are still doing no tackling despite wearing full pads.
D'Angelo McCray shows a slight limp when his surgically repaired leg tires, but he was given some second team reps to begin the training process. The sight of athletic 330 pounders McCray and Josh Brent at the two defensive tackle slots reminded of future possibilities.
Several brief skirmishes broke out. Competition is ferocious, and Illini athletes don't back down to anyone. They are fighting for their football survival, so occasional eruptions are not unexpected. Of course, cooler heads prevailed before there were any enduring repercussions.
Watching the quarterbacks and runners practicing their option game brought to mind some interesting problems for opponents this season. At one point, 232-pound Juice Williams sped to the outside, pitched back to 237-pound running back Mikel LeShoure, who followed 250-pound fullback Rahkeem Smith down the sideline. Opposing cornerbacks are going to cringe at the thought of this threesome barreling down on them with quickness and dexterity.
Martez Wilson is an amazingly quick and agile athlete at 6'-4", 246 pounds. But he had to learn an entirely new system when he arrived from Chicago Simeon last fall.
"Coming out of high school, it was kind of tough because I was playing an entirely different defense. I could overpower people because they were littler than me. (Coming to the UI) was a whole new experience and responsibility for me, but then I started getting through it. Now, I'm more fluid out there.
"Sometimes I make mistakes, but even if you make mistakes our main objective is to get to the ball. So I'm doing way better than I did when I first got here."
Wilson was asked his position and what he does best, but he provided an answer only a multi-talented athlete can.
"I'm playing the WILL (weakside linebacker). I blitz a lot, and I cover a wide receiver a lot. Sometimes I'm in the box, and I have to get to my gap responsibility.
Martez is unique. Some want to see him specialize as a pass-rushing defensive end, but he resists being pigeonholed like that. He feels that would be boring. He can do it all, and he enjoys multiple responsibilities.
"I like to be versatile and play both with my hand on the ground and standing up. Linebacker is fun. We get a lot of action."
Illini fans have high expectations for Martez and see him as the salvation of a linebacker corps that lost two seniors and lacks depth. But he is not letting fan expectations create an unnecessary burden for him.
"I know the fans expect alot, but I'm not really aware of fan expectations right now. I know my coaches and team have very high expectations for me because of my athleticism and my ability over other people. I don't really put pressure on myself, it's really more of a confidence thing. Because I feel like I'm gonna do whatever I put my mind to."
Some of the other highlights of day 4 include Chris James making a great one hand catch over his shoulder of a long sideline bomb; Brit Miller manhandling Ryan Palmer on a run blitz; Daniel Dufrene showing quickness running up the gut to paydirt in goal line action; and the confident and aggressive Michael Hoomanawanui making a long sideline grab.
The Illini usually conclude practice by having the first and second offensive units work their way down the field with their two-minute offense. Eddie McGee maneuvered the second unit close enough to the end zone for Matt Eller to kick a successful field goal. Rookie Fred Sykes kept the drive alive by making two difficult sideline catches.
Passing Game Work Continues Indoors
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