Gamble Returns, Now on Defense

Coach Ron Zook put his entire Illini football team together on the practice field for the first time this fall, and it was something to behold. There are more good athletes prancing around out than anytime in recent memory. And squad numbers swelled with the addition of Brian Gamble and Mark Jackson.

Both Gamble and Jackson are behind, but there is still time to catch up. And Gamble is now wearing the blue jersey of the defense. His first love has always been safety, and he is getting the chance to prove himself there after impressing as a receiver last fall.

"They've got to go through the two days with shorts and helmets, and the two days of shoulder pads, and then full pads," explains Zook. "They're light years behind, particularly Gamble. He wants to be on the defensive side of the ball, so he's way behind. We've got a pretty good group of kids there (at safety).

"It's more important that we get them straight about what they need to do, and the football will take care of itself. I always tell them, the better you live your life off the field, the better you'll do on the field. If you're gonna put time into coaching them and get them ready to go, they need to be there every Saturday."

Illini coaches have become increasingly intense each succeeding day. They know they have the makings of an outstanding team, and they want players to give everything they have. They also want to speed things up, especially with the new 40 second rule forcing offenses to get each play off faster than in the past.

And with the onset of whole-group practice, there is more focus on preparing for the season than the indoctrination that occurred the first three days. For example, at one point Zook reminded reserve receiver Greg McClendon, "Split sessions are over. When you catch the ball, EXPLODE upfield!"

While full pads hitting won't begin until tomorrow, the offensive linemen had the chance to practice both their run and pass blocking against defensive linemen. The first team offense includes Xavier Fulton, Eric Block, Ryan McDonald, Jon Asamoah and Ryan Palmer from left to right. They showed their experience by consistently neutralizing the defensive charge.

Fulton and Asamoah in particular are exceptionally athletic for their size. There aren't many offensive linemen in college football who are quicker than them. And since they now are experienced, they could have excellent seasons. Asamoah controlled defensive tackle Dave Lindquist on a run block, and Fulton neutralized both Will Davis and Doug Pilcher.

In pass blocking drills, defensive tackle Josh Brent had one dominant bull rush over the top of McDonald, although he was less successful in a second effort. Block, who held off Brent on one run play, got pushed back toward the quarterback by Sirod Williams. Ends Clay Nurse and Jerry Brown applied great pressure to rookie tackle Graham Pocic. Will Davis sped around Randall Hunt, and Whitney Mercilus did likewise with fellow freshman Corey Lewis.

The Illini running backs held their own in pass protection drills against the linebackers. Daniel Dufrene and freshman Jason Ford both looked good. Ford got two compliments from running back coach Reggie Mitchell after adjusting to hold off onrushing blitzers. Mikel LeShoure aggressively pushed Conor Gillen back from whence he came, but he got run over by Martez Wilson.

In other action, the battle between fullback Rahkeem Smith and middle linebacker Brit Miller was a draw. Troy Pollard held his own against Rodney Pittman despite giving up 45 pounds. And freshman walkon fullback Zach Becker laid a good hit on rookie Justin Staples.

Freshman place kicker Derek Dimke continues to receive the first kicks in field goal practice. He hit three straight from 22 yards. With a strong wind at his back, his kicks were not real high, but they all travelled a long distance. Matt Brandabur was successful from 28 yards, and Matt Eller kicked two through the uprights from the same distance.

Punt returners were abundant on this day. Arrelious Benn, Will Judson, Daniel Dufrene, Jack Ramsey, Dere Hicks, Chris Duvalt, and Troy Pollard all took turns. There are some outstanding returners in this group, so it is believed the Illini will be in good hands there.

Keep an eye on the freshman Ramsey. Besides being one of the top candidates for punt returner, the fast and shifty Ramsey was also getting many reps at slot receiver. He has excellent hands, and he is impressive running from the backfield. He may be able to help enough to allow Gamble to stay on defense. Coach Zook couldn't hide a big smile while talking about Ramsey after practice.

"Jack's got a little talent, no question. He's a quick guy, a competitor. He's a funny guy. He's always got a smile on his face. I like to be around happy people."

In action against the defense, Juice Williams and Eddie McGee both had good completion percentages. Juice found good friend Chris James several times, although he utilized a number of receivers. His biggest play was a long sideline toss to a wide open Jeff Cumberland.

McGee hit Chris Duvalt over the middle on a play that might have resulted in a touchdown, as safety Donsay Hardeman was late cutting in front for the interception. Hardeman made up for it with an interception where Cordale Scott tried to catch a long pass with one hand and tipped it into Donsay's waiting arms.

All four running backs made good plays in both the run and pass games. Dufrene continues to run hard, but he is getting good competition from Pollard, LeShoure and Ford. It will be interesting to see how their competition progresses. Ford showed quickness on one play, popping to the outside for a good gain, but he also was stuffed once in the backfield on a screen pass when Mercilus diagnosed the play perfectly.

Zook also heaped praise on his three freshman cornerbacks.

"We've got three freshman corners in Tavon (Wilson), Ashante (Williams), and Pat Nixon that I think can be special. Safeties the same way. We've got some talented guys back there, some big guys who can run. We've just got to get them caught up with everything we're doing."

The team's health is still excellent. Only freshman lineman Jeff Allen missed today's practice. He worked out with Strength and Conditioning Coach Lou Hernandez, so hopefully his leg injury is minor. Coach Zook reminded that, after spending the day with Coach Lou, Jeff might prefer to get back out to practice.

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