Illini Continue Two-A-Days in Milder Weather

A cool weather front wafted over Camp Rantoul Tuesday, giving the Illini football players a welcome reprieve from the extreme heat they worked through yesterday. It was easy to see more bounce in the players as they continue preparations for their upcoming season.

Practicing in shells and having split squads, most of the work these first three days is fundamentals. Shoulder pads will be added tomorrow, but full pads won't go on until Friday. That is when the real work begins, and that is when we discover who is best prepared to play this fall.

Quarterback Juice Williams continues to show improvement, as Coach Zook confirmed after practice.

"Juice looks so much more poised and confident. He knows what he's doing with the ball. If it's not perfect, he knows why, all the things you'd expect from a guy getting ready to start his third year."

The offensive line that must provide protection for Illini quarterbacks is still in a state of flux, but there is enough quality there to form a good group. Right now, the starters appear to be Xavier Fulton, Randall Hunt, Ryan McDonald, Jon Asamoah and Ryan Palmer, from left to right. However, this is not set in cement.

For one thing, senior Eric Block has earned playing time, and he is a factor at center and both guard spots. He may end up starting at left guard. However, right tackle is still uncertain. If Palmer isn't the answer, Asamoah might move over to tackle, allowing Block to play right guard and Hunt left guard. Jack Cornell, Craig Wilson and freshman Graham Pocic may be next in line for playing time.

The Illini appear to have recruited a good freshman class of offensive linemen. Besides Pocic, Ryan Sedlacek, Tyler Sands, Corey Lewis and Jeff Allen are all big and have potential. Allen was seen getting reps at right tackle to add depth there.

They all held their own in 11 on 11 drills, mostly against fellow freshmen and other young squadmen. However, freshman defensive tackle Corey Liuget gave the interior linemen fits with his pass rush. More will be learned once they don pads, but Liuget shows both athleticism and a good work ethic.

The Illini were spoiled last year by having Jason Reda available to placekick. Whenever special teams practiced, Reda would get opportunities for several increasingly long field goals out to 50 yards, and he would usually make each one. Efficiency and quality marked the daily sessions.

With Reda's graduation, there are now four candidates sharing reps, and they share kicks from 20-30 yards to test for consistency and accuracy. Matt Brandabur, Matt Eller, Mike Cklamovski and freshman Derek Dimke all received equal opportunities today, but no one showed a clear lead for the position.

All demonstrated leg strength, but all were inconsistent. A crosswind didn't help matters, but all of them had occasional problems getting their foot under the ball for maximum lift. Eller may have had the longest single kick, but Brandabur appeared the most accurate on this day. Dimke showed good leg strength, but several of his kicks were lower than ideal.

Tomorrow will likely see a different result, just like what happened this spring. There is quality at the position, but Coach Zook must hope one kicker takes charge and develops the consistency necessary to earn the position.

Fullback lacks depth. Rahkeem Smith is doing well there, but he is the Illini's only scholarship fullback. He needs to remain healthy. Fortunately, Smith enjoys the increased repetitions afforded him by having no one to share the position. Not even the heat discourages him.

"I like the game of football," explained Smith. "I like blocking, I like catching passes, I like opening up holes, so I don't care how many reps I get. It'll be fun. Anything I can do to get better."

These first three split practices are a great help for the freshmen. After the two groups are joined on Thursday, some rookies will have less opportunity to impress the coaches. But they have certainly made an impact so far.

Tight end London Davis was added to the group today after being cleared by the NCAA Clearinghouse. He is a big target with a strong base and good hands. He seems to be athletic, although he was just feeling his way trying to learn the complexities of the offense. Depth is needed at tight end, so hopefully he can get up to speed quickly.

Coach Zook doesn't want to praise the freshman this early because they have a long way to go. But he doesn't hide his excitement well.

"I told the staff last night, I don't think there's any question we've raised the athleticism of our football team. You can't get too high or too low too early on freshmen, just give them a chance to soak it all in a little bit. I think at the end of the three weeks, we'll have a better idea. Competition is what you want. You want guys who continue to push."

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