New Faces Highlight First Illini Workout

The Fighting Illini began what they believe will be an exciting football season with split practices at Camp Rantoul Monday. They faced oppressive heat and humidity but worked their way through it. Neither the heat nor the absence of four squadmen could dampen their enthusiasm.

Freshmen tight end London Davis and linebacker Evan Frierson, as well as receiver Brian Gamble and lineman Mark Jackson, were missing from the official first day roster. Gamble and Jackson missed most of the spring, and more work remains for them to regain their spots with the team.

"London Davis is on his way, he'll be here any minute," explained Coach Ron Zook after practice. "Frierson will probably be here a little bit later in the week. Both of them shouldn't be an issue."

"Gamble and Mark Jackson, they've got some issues. They're eligible, it's not that. There's just some issues they've got to get cleaned up. If they get done the things where I am comfortable everything's taken care of, then they will be (here)."

Good news more than compensated for the missing players. Those who were there showed the athleticism, strength and conditioning to give the team and its fans great hope for the season. The team was divided up into two equal groups to provide more individual attention for the newcomers, and they demonstrated why they were highly recruited.

Most of the first team offense met together, giving it a chance to develop cohesiveness while allowing upperclassmen to set examples for some top youngsters, especially at the receiver positions. Freshmen Cordale Scott, A. J. Jenkins, and Jack Ramsey were like young thoroughbreds, chomping at the bit to get started.

They benefitted from playing behind Jeff Cumberland, Arrelious Benn and Chris Duvalt, the likely starters. Those six are all outstanding prospects, so it was fun watching quarterbacks Juice Williams and freshman Jacob Charest playing seven on seven with them. All of them displayed excellent athleticism, and Scott was especially noticeable with his 6-4" frame.

Williams is now an upperclassman who has experience success, so he is relaxed and confident. He is starting off beyond where he left off last year. Further improvement during camp should prepare him for an outstanding year.

Charest has good passing fundamentals and a quick release. He was especially accurate with his long passes and looked like a top prospect for the future. Of course, his head was spinning with all that he was having to learn. Complexities of the run game and its many options will take some time to master.

Arrelious Benn is definitely a go-to guy. He looked strange without the red shirt that accompanied him all fall and spring, but it was good to see him healthy enough to participate fully. He could have an exceptional year, and it was obvious Juice was eager to pass to him. Showing the dedication that typifies his game, Benn was the only Illini wearing a long sleeve shirt under his jersey. He turned the heat into a tool to remain in top shape.

With Gamble unavailable, there is an opening behind Benn for backup slot receiver. Marquis Wilkins, walkon Alex Reavy and the freshman Ramsey will get every chance to produce there. Don't be surprised if Reavy wins that job as he continues to impress.

Daniel Dufrene has the lead for the running back position vacated by Rashard Mendenhall. He is definitely stronger, and he showed the confidence a year in the system allows. He ran assertively through his holes and understood his assignments. Freshman Jason Ford got his first action as an Illini, and he showed some good acceleration through the holes plus an obvious knowledge of inside running. But as a rookie, he still has much to learn.

Rahkeem Smith is the only fullback on scholarship, with only two walkons backing him up. And a walkon not yet on the roster was the second string long snapper behind Tad Keely. These spots could be vulnerable if injuries hamper Smith or Keely.

It was interesting to see where the freshman linebackers lined up. With depth minimal there, it is important they develop rapidly. Right now, Justin Staples backs up Martez Wilson at WILL, slender but athletic Russell Ellington is at MIKE, and well-built Nate Palmer begins at SAM.

Coach Zook was pleased with the effort.

"I like the attitude, of course you should like the attitude the first day. But I think it's good we got taxed a little bit. I think the heat index was 113 or 117, so it was hot. But they fought through it, and that's what they're gonna have to do.

"If you're gonna have heat to begin with, it's probably good because you don't have the equipment on. That's what camp's all about. It's not gonna be easy. It's like I just told the upperclassmen, 'You guys have got to lead.' That's where you're making sure you're pushing through that stuff. Mental toughness is hard for everybody."

Each year Zook has coached at Illinois, the team has shown improvement. He believes this year is no exception.

"The Orange team lifted after practice, and Lou (Hernandez) said it was phenomenal. This is a starting point, and we have to keep getting better. We should expect and demand more from those guys because of repetition. You are better as juniors and seniors than you are as freshmen and sophomores. We're so far ahead of what we installed the first practice today as opposed to two years ago, it's incredible."

The Illini practice the first three days in shells with no pads, and the two groups will come together Thursday when pads are added. Coach Zook understated his enthusiasm for the coming days.

"I like the athleticism of the team right now. You've got some tall, rangy athletes out there that can run pretty well. And you've got a bunch of defensive linemen. When we put them all together, I think it's gonna be fun."

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