Defensive End Brown Returns To Practice

The Fighting Illini began their final week of spring ball Tuesday with one major addition -- defensive end Jerry Brown, who practiced for the first time in the spring. While undoubtedly rusty, Brown, who was suspended until this point for academic reasons, appeared in top shape and flashed some of his speed and aggressiveness in pass rush drills.

Also, as the team worked out in shorts and helmets, running back Troy Pollard continues his recovery from knee surgery. He was permitted to go through all the running back drills, including handoffs and pass routes. This is a wonderful opportunity for Pollard to shake some of the rust and excite his psyche after a long layoff. And seeing him flash some of his outstanding quickness undoubtedly buoyed the spirits of his teammates as well.

On the negative side, linemen Brandon Jordan and Mark Jackson still are not permitted to practice due to academic requirements. And receiver Brian Gamble was absent again, with Coach Ron Zook saying it was doubtful he would play Saturday. Concern is growing Brian may have wasted his golden opportunity to demonstrate his immense athletic talent on a major stage.

Coach Zook commented in his Tuesday press conference that the players called a players-only meeting a week or so ago, in response to the demands being placed on them by a coaching staff eager to help them reach their maximum potential. Zook saw this as a positive sign, saying it showed leadership by those who led the meeting and an eagerness by the players to prove their worth.

Probably as a reward for their hard work and perseverence throughout winter conditioning and spring practices, Coach Zook permitted hip hop music to be piped onto the practice field as the team warmed up. He also did this when the team was dragging last fall in Camp Rantoul, and the players responded both times by putting pep in their steps and smiles on their faces.

The drudery, aches and pains were forgotten, at least momentarily, permitting more concentration on the task at hand. Today, much attention was paid to fundamentals, going over what they learned previously and perfecting techniques.

With the absense of slot receivers Arrelious Benn and Gamble, it has become necessary to involve the tight end more in the passing game. The tight end has often been replaced in the past by a second slot receiver. But with numbers low at the slot, Mike Hoomanawanui and Tom Sullivan are getting more chances to see the ball and make plays.

Hoomanawanui was the leading receiver in the Lemont scrimmage, and he continues to draw rave reviews for his improved route running this spring. And Sullivan leaped high over cornerback Vontae Davis to haul in a Juice Williams pass in the end zone near the end of practice.

Dere Hicks had two interceptions in Lemont and could have had four, and he had another one today on the last play of practice. Coach Zook praised Hicks in his press conference as a pleasant surprise this spring, but he is not surprised with the interceptions.

"I told Dere last night, don't be surprised the ball's going to be in your hands. If you're doing the things the coaches are coaching you to do, the ball's going to be in your hands."

However, on this day safety Travon Bellamy was the star of the defense. Allowed to play since there was no hitting, the red shirted one grabbed three interceptions on the day. Rookie Ashante Williams nabbed one also, demonstrating the quality of Illini defensive backs.

In all fairness, the wind was strong, gusting and swirling in unpredictable ways, making passing difficult. But despite the wind and strong defense, the offense made some plays in the passing game as well.

Florida transfer Jarred Fayson made a leaping catch in the end zone while losing a shoe. Alex Reavy made a beautiful one-handed, over-the-shoulder grab of a long bomb from Juice. And Jeff Cumberland reminded onlookers of his importance to the offense with two excellent receptions, a one-hander on a long post route, and a second when he outjumped Vontae Davis in the end zone.

The eight newcomers are not permitted to meet the press to keep the pressure off them. But Coach Zook had high praise for all of them.

"We're very excited about the eight new guys we've brought in. You don't want to get too high or too low too early. Seven of the eight should be walking their high school halls right now, so it's been a whirlwind for them. Recruiting is not an exact science. (It's good) to get them out there and see how they're handling the pressures, that's when you begin to know what you have.

"And I can't say enough about all seven of the guys, and of course Jarred Fayson is a guy that's had some experience. They're all guys that are going to have a chance to contribute to this program and be awfully good players for us. It just makes you that much more excited to get the rest of them in here."

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