Are You Ready For Some Football?

The Fighting Illini football team begins preparations for the 2008 season Monday at Camp Rantoul. Excitement is high, both for the team and the completion of renovations of the West main stands of Memorial Stadium. We are in the midst of an exciting new era of Illini football.

The 2007 team surprised everyone but themselves by producing a 9 and 4 record that included a Rose Bowl appearance. They enjoyed the extra excitement and crowd noise generated by the new North End Zone. The 2008 team now has a chance to duplicate or improve on that record as it helps baptize the massive new construction project on the West side.

One must wonder if Athletic Director Ron Guenther was inspired by the movie Field Of Dreams when he committed the UI to the new construction at Memorial Stadium. Certainly, he is discovering the truth of the mantra "build it and they will come" as sellouts are becoming common again after years of substandard attendance at home games.

When James Earl Jones spoke so brilliantly to Kevin Costner in the movie about why he needed to keep the baseball field, Guenther may have heard that famous speech in a slightly different way:

"Ron. People will come Ron. They'll come to Memorial Stadium, for reasons they can't even fathom. They'll turn into the parking lot, not even sure why they're doing it. They'll arrive at your door, as innocent as children, longing for the past.

"Of course, we won't mind if you look around. It's only $225.00 per person for season tickets ($77.00 for the horseshoe). They'll pass over the money without even thinking about it, for it's money they have and peace they lack.

"They'll walk off to the bleachers, sit in shirt sleeves on a perfect afternoon. They'll have reserved seats, somewhere along the sidelines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes.

"They'll watch the games, and it'll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick, they'll have to brush them away from their faces.

"People will come Ron. The one constant through all the years Ron, has been Illini football. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard and rebuilt once again. But Illini football has marked the time.

"This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ron. It reminds us all of what once was good and could be again. Oh, people will come Ron, people will most definitely come."

Besides attending the games, a number of fans will also travel to Rantoul for open practices these next couple of weeks. In some ways, it will be even more similar to the images from the movie as the practice fields are not far from corn fields and can become quite dusty during the dog days of summer and double sessions.

Fans will sit in temporary bleachers or stand behind the cyclone fence to get a peak at heroes like Juice Williams, Arrelious Benn, Jeff Cumberland, Brian Gamble, Xavier Fulton, Ryan McDonald, Will Davis, Josh Brent, Brit Miller, Martez Wilson, Vontae Davis, Travon Bellamy and numerous others.

They will also sneak a peak at the many outstanding rookies getting their first taste of football Ron Zook style. How good are highly rated prospects like Corey Liuget, Donsay Hardeman, Jacob Charest, Cordale Scott, A. J. Jenkins, Jason Ford, Hubie Graham, Justin Staples, Corey Lewis, Patrick Nixon and Derek Dimke? Can any of them help out this year?

The Illini return a large nucleus of top players from last year's team, but they must replace a number of senior leaders who have now graduated. Will others step up and take charge of the team? Will the younger players, more gifted athletically, be able to learn the system fast enough to play with the same efficiency as those they are replacing?

Who will take charge of 1st round NFL draft pick Rashard Mendenhall's important role at running back? Will quarterback Juice Williams continue his growth as a passer to take pressure off the young running backs and diversify the offense? Who will replace the nearly perfect Jason Reda on place kicks? Will Brit Miller compare favorably with fan hero J. Leman at middle linebacker?

Will adequate depth be developed at the three linebacker spots? Who will take responsibility for the important leadership provided last year by safeties Kevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison? Will the new offensive line mesh cohesively after losing Akim Millington and All-American Martin O'Donnell to graduation?

These are just some of the many questions that will be on the minds of coaches, players and fans as Camp Rantoul progresses. It should be an exciting time. If answers can be found, the foundation for another outstanding season will be built in these next few weeks.

After all, national power Missouri looms on the horizon less than one month from now, beginning an arduous schedule. Will those who are compelled to drive to Camp Rantoul and/or Memorial Stadium find the happiness and peace they seek? Stay tuned.

Illini Inquirer Top Stories