Illini Practice In Rain And In Shorts

A light rain greeted the Fighting Illini football team as they began their third week of spring practice Tuesday. After a hard-hitting scrimmage Saturday, the players wore shorts to practice fundamentals and allow bruises to heal. Still, it appeared the coaches were more intense, realizing the players might be dragging a little bit. This is an important week for the team.

"This was the day you had to push and grind a little bit," coach Ron Zook said. "That's why we came out in shorts. Tomorrow we'll get after it again and scrimmage a little bit. Friday we'll come out and sharpen up, and Saturday we scrimmage in Lemont."

There were a few depth chart changes. Junior Antonio James was rewarded for his outstanding spring play with a first team berth at defensive end ahead of three year letterman Derek Walker. Martez Wilson appeared to have regained his WILL linebacker spot. And Garrett Edwards was getting first team reps ahead of Bo Flowers at one safety.

While awaiting the return of Xavier Fulton from a late class, Ryan Palmer played first team left tackle while freshman Graham Pocic played right tackle. Craig Wilson then replaced Palmer when Ryan had to leave early for a late class. Right guard Jon Asamoah returned to practice and regained his first team berth after sitting out a few days with a minor injury.

Players come and go in the spring. They must take classes they cannot take during the busy fall semester, so sometimes they are late for practice or must leave early for classes or exams. Practice continues unabated, but it can leave some positions short-handed.

It was good to see Arrelious Benn practicing with the receivers again after shoulder surgery January 8. Wearing a red shirt and banned from contact, Benn nonetheless was enjoying the opportunity to run routes, catch passes and reunite with teammates.

"This last month, I've been getting back in condition, just getting back into the mental part of things, plus running and cutting," explains Benn. "I've been catching passes. I'm just anxious to get back out there.

"They're all having so much fun. It's crazy when you're there, but when you're not there it's crazy how much you miss it. It makes you even hungrier. It's a heartbreak decision for a true baller to have to sit out."

Coach Zook said Arrelious could probably engage in full contact, but he sees no sense in risking a new injury with his prize receiver. Doctors have now given Benn clearance to begin weight training. Benn's ambition is rekindled as the light within his proverbial tunnel grows brighter.

"I still prefer the slot to outside. But I want to get the ball any type of way. I don't want to limit myself to just one position. I want to do everything."

The Illini are in good shape healthwise. Today, only running back Troy Pollard and defensive tackle D'Angelo McCray spent the entire practice with the Strength and Conditioning staff. Ironically, both were high school teammates in Jacksonville, Florida, and both endured recent knee surgeries. Zook says McCray's knee swelled up on him, but hopefully is limitation will be short-lived.

Quarterbacks Juice Williams and Eddie McGee frequently practice their long passing, and they did so again today. Their success rate was mixed at best. If they missed, they always missed long. Receivers didn't always handle the good throws, so the completion percentage was below 50%. But there were some notable plays.

Chris James has a definite aptitude for hauling in long sideline tosses over his shoulder. He had another one today. On two different practices in the indoor facility earlier in the spring, CJ made spectacular one hand grabs while keeping his feet inbounds.

Transfer Jarred Fayson is clearing off some rust necessitated by injury and is beginning to show his excellent athleticism. He has speed and good hands, and he runs perhaps the best routes on the team. He is nowhere near his most efficient best, but he'll be an important addition once eligible.

Rookie Fred Sykes made a fine grab of an Eddie McGee pass and held on despite sandwiched by Marcus Thomas and Sam Carson. But defenders were successful at other times, including Edwards hauling in an interception of an overthrown bomb from Williams intended for Cumberland. And safety Nathan Bussey closed quickly to break up a pass from Williams to James.

The Illini are still a work in progress, but Coach Zook was satisfied with present progress.

"I think we have come a long way. We're not really in game form, and we don't need to be. We've run a lot of plays, we've got an awful lot of offense and defense in, which has been good. It's been tougher for the seven new guys, but we're just making them catch up."

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