Quarterbacks Shine in Saturday Practice

The Fighting Illini football team held its first double session of Camp Rantoul Saturday on a cool, cloudy day that kept players fresh and motivated. The Illini have more of their offense and defense installed at the same stage than any previous time in Coach Ron Zook's coaching tenure.

Zook was generally pleased with the way the first week has gone.

"I think we're making progress. We've got to continue to push and keep getting better. They got after it pretty good tonight, which was good. The weather's been great, so we've just got to keep pushing through it."

One of the bright spots so far has been the passing attack and the accuracy of quarterbacks Juice Williams and Eddie McGee.

"We felt like it was gonna be," understated Zook. "Players are gonna be better as juniors and seniors than they are as freshmen and sophomores."

There was one injury of note. Late in the evening session, defensive tackle Sirod Williams was helped off the field with what looked like a knee problem. He was carted off to the lockers, so Coach Zook was unsure of the nature of the injury or its severity. Daryle Ballew was backing up Sirod most recently, so either he or Josh Brent may get more playing time should Sirod be out awhile.

The morning was a learning session without full pads, but there was still plenty of activity. Quarterbacks Juice Williams and Eddie McGee continue to pass with great efficiency. In one 7 on 7 segment, the two combined to complete nine straight passes, and the tenth one was dropped before McGee misfired on his next pass. Williams was six for six, each to a different receiver in that segment. Freshman Jacob Charest was two for two in limited action.

Depth charts are in a state of flux, but Jeff Cumberland, Chris Duvalt, Cordale Scott and Fred Sykes in that order manned one outside receiver spot. The other outside receiver showed Chris James ahead of Will Judson and A. J. Jenkins. Competition is equally fierce at slot receiver behind starter Arrelious Benn, with Alex Reavy presently playing second string ahead of Greg McClendon and Jack Ramsey.

The offensive line had Eric Block and Randall Hunt splitting time at first string right guard. Xavier Fulton, Ryan McDonald, Jon Asamoah and Ryan Palmer continue to toil with the first team as well. The second team line Saturday showed Corey Lewis, Craig Wilson, Mike Nabolotny, Jack Cornell and Graham Pocic left to right. Jeff Allen rotated with Cornell as he recovers from an ankle sprain.

Despite no tackling, the 11 on 11 segment to conclude morning drills was spirited. Among the best offensive plays were a couple quick darters by Daniel Dufrene plus a sideline pass from Juice for good gains. Williams and McGee both had long option runs.

Rookie running back Jason Ford chewed up ground on a slant and a well-developed screen pass from McGee, and Charest found Jenkins over the middle for a 20 yard gain, although d-tackle Corey Liuget may have had a sack with full contact.

Arrelious Benn took in a sideline bomb from Williams for a long TD in the 2-minute offense. McGee found Duvalt for 25 big yards in his turn. However, Dere Hicks just missed an interception of McGee's next pass, and fellow cornerback Vontae Davis dominated Duvalt twice to prevent completions on third and fourth down.

Coach Zook said Chris James and Troy Pollard were withheld from the morning session. They were a little sore after knee surgery last year, and the coach didn't want to risk any damage during double sessions. Zook also noted that both players learned by teaching their teammates in the session.

The evening session included full pads, but there was still no full go hitting. Some tackling occurred, but players were instructed to stop at quick whistles to help prevent injuries. The Monday evening scrimmage at Rantoul High School will be their first extensive hitting of the fall.

There was some 9 on 7, 7 on 7 and 11 on 11 in the evening also. Highlights of the 9 on 7 run offense in the red zone included Dufrene, who broke free untouched for a long gain and also showed power by breaking a couple tackles on a tough 6 yard gain. Pollard gave a tackler a limp leg to free himself for a long gain and had a second long gainer later.

Mikel LeShoure broke tackles on three hard runs, including those of Ballew and Justin Staples. And Ford showed two quick inside cuts to free himself for a TD and knocked a tackler backward on one five yard gain.

The defense had their share of success as well. Martez Wilson, Brit Miller and Sirod Williams each stopped Dufrene for little of any yardage at different times. Brent swallowed up LeShoure at the line. And Clay Nurse broke free to earn a tackle for loss.

There was less 7 on 7 action than the morning, but individual excellence shown through. Cornerback Pat Nixon earned Coach Woodford's praise twice on one play. First, he didn't bite on the fake stop and go by Chris James, flipping his hips to stay with James as he sped downfield. Then, he used perfect technique to keep his eyes on James before reaching up to knock down the pass at the last second. Even experienced corners have problems at times with this play.

Also, fellow freshman cornerback Tavon Wilson completely smothered A. J. Jenkins on a long pass route. And Miami Thomas leaped up to make a big interception, a play reminiscent of his big fourth quarter pick against Todd Boeckman and Ohio State.

Jeff Cumberland made two plays that are typical of his potential. On one long sideline pass, Jeff reached high to corral the ball one-handed before going out of bounds. On another similar pass, he caught the ball as safety Nate Bussey charged into him. Cumberland held onto the ball as Bussey bounced off and landed on his back.

Juice Williams had a rare down cycle in the 11 on 11 session that concluded the long day. After hitting Arrelious Benn on a slant pattern, he proceeded to throw two interceptions. Travon Bellamy caught the first on a tip off the outstretched hands of Chris James.

And Bo Flowers found a ball land right in his bread basket on a rare overthrow. Juice made up with it with a clever inside option run for long yardage, and he stayed in the pocket beautifully to find Will Judson in the end zone in 2-minute work.

Senior Dave Lindquist was one of those helping inspire the defense, and it obviously helped. Bellamy stopped Dufrene cold on an option pitch. Staples caught up with speedy slot back Jack Ramsey for minimal gain. And defensive end Jerry Brown sacked McGee. A long pass completion from Charest to Cordale Scott was one of the few big plays given up by the defense in that segment.

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