Hard-Hitting Highlights First Day in Pads

Pads were popping as the Illinois football team enjoyed its first day of full pads at Camp Rantoul. Coach Ron Zook and his staff are cautious to limit hitting to prevent overuse or injury, but they also enjoy getting the team fired up for hitting sessions.

Such was the case as the first Oklahoma drill of the fall gave the team reason to get their adrenalin pumping. More than anything, football players love contact. The Oklahoma drill is ideal for testing blocking and tackling, something the players have waited impatiently for since the end of spring ball.

Doug Pilcher, Clay Nurse, Corey Liuget, Anterio Jackson, and walkon defensive end Wisdom Onyegbule were among defenders who dominated opponents. Liuget had his way both with Jack Cornell and fellow rookie Tyler Sands.

Josh Brent, Reggie Ellis, Tavon Wilson and Whitney Mercilus also had some success. Mercilus seems to make good plays every day, showing the value of entering school a semester early.

Offensively, linemen who kept tacklers off ball carriers included Jon Asamoah over Dave Lindquist, Eric Block splitting with Brit Miller, Arrelious Benn over Travon Bellamy, Ryan Palmer splitting with Glenn Foster, and Michael Hoomanawanui holding off Rodney Pittman.

Freshman tight end London Davis is making an impression so far, and he manhandled Nate Palmer on one occasion. And rookie fullback Zach Becker, a walkon from St. Joseph-Ogden, put a big stick on Ian Thomas.

Unfortunately, the players were just as eager as the fans and media to observe the event. As things got more heated, egged on by opposing coaching staffs, the players circled around and blocked the view for outsiders. So some of the best battles went unreported.

The Illini also got in some quality work with a 9 on 7 scrimmage in red zone situations. There was hitting but limited tackling. Of course, some hits were unavoidable, like Martez Wilson shooting a gap and pancaking Daniel Dufrene for no gain. Later, Wilson used his great speed to catch Dufrene on a sweep.

Other top defensive stops included defensive end Derek Walker forcing a sweep to create a Dufrene fumble, Mercilus catching Jason Ford in the backfield for a big loss, and Lindquist, Liuget, and Brent completely disrupting runs by Troy Pollard, Mikel LeShoure and Ford respectively.

The offense also showed its mettle in this action. Dufrene scored twice, the second with the aid of a great block by fullback Rahkeem Smith. LeShoure scored twice, once by breaking a tackle on an inside run and the other by bouncing outside and racing the defense to the pylon. Mikel also showed a good power burst on a five yard gain. And Ford broke contain to score down the sideline.

Quarterbacks Juice Williams and Eddie McGee were both on target consistently in two different 7 on 7 periods. Williams completed 13 of 18 passes, including five of his first six. The one miss was a drop by the normally sure-handed Chris James. Juice's only real mistake was when he threw a little behind Benn, who tipped it twice before Dere Hicks grabbed it for an interception.

Williams' two favorite targets were Benn and Will Judson. The diminutive senior Judson caught three balls and continues to battle gamely for playing time. One of Benn's catches was a long bomb down the sideline that would have resulted in a touchdown.

McGee completed 10 of his 13 tosses. Chris Duvalt was on the receiving end of four of them, including a great diving catch 20 yards down the sideline. Marquis Wilkins also made a quality catch, stretching out to grab the ball before going out of bounds. First year quarterback Jacob Charest was 3 for 7 in limited action.

McGee also engineered the best play in the 11 on 11 no tackling session that ended the day by finding Duvalt alone deep down the sideline for a long touchdown. Freshman receiver A. J. Jenkins made a couple good catches during this action. He still must be reminded of formations, but he is a fluid athlete with excellent hands.

Vontae Davis and freshman cornerback Pat Nixon were given first crack at kickoff returns on this day. Davis was placed in the primary receiving position. As fans know, Vontae is excellent on returns when he hasn't just finished a long defensive stand. Pollard and Jenkins were lined up with the second kick return team.

Nathan Scheelhaase, the star Kansas City (Rockhurst) quarterback who has committed to play ball with the Illini beginning next year, came to practice accompanied by his father Nate Creer. Charest and fellow freshman tight end Hubie Graham benefitted from having their fathers trek to the practice from North Carolina and Pennsylvania respectively.

Jeff Allen returned to practice, so his ankle sprain was minor. Right now, the only injured Illini is offensive lineman Mike Garrity. The hard luck Garrity tore a quadriceps muscle in his leg this summer, and he reinjured it early in the camp. Since he was also injured most of last year, Garrity is far behind his fellow linemen.

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