First Full Practice at Memorial Stadium

The Fighting Illini football team was excited to get back to campus and practice within Memorial Stadium Thursday after nearly three weeks sequestered at Camp Rantoul. School begins Monday, students are swarming around campus, and there's the smell of another exciting football season in the air.

Practicing within the refurbished Memorial Stadium undoubtedly gave an energy boost to tired legs. With the new suites and press box rising majestically like a mountain above Zuppke Field, the simple clapping of hands produced a loud echo. Multiplied by 62,000 fans, the sights and sounds of game day can't help but produce a home field advantage.

Coach Ron Zook could feel a surge in his players' excitement levels throughout practice.

"Yeah, they were (more focused). We got a little sloppy in the 2-minute drill, but you could tell they were excited to get back here. They may not admit it, but they're excited about school starting. The energy on campus, I'm sure campus is buzzing today since it's moving day. I remember back in college, that's always a fun day."

Quarterback Juice Williams continues to show a consistently high pass completion percentage, as Zook confirmed after practice.

"You're a lot more accurate when you know where you're going with the football. And that's where he (Juice) has made great strides. He knows what to do with the football now. He was pretty sharp tonight."

Coach Zook seemed remarkably relaxed and even philosophical regarding the rigors of fall camp and the importance of upperclassmen leadership.

"Sometimes, the freshmen are just trying to get through it. The sophomores have an idea of what's coming now, and they want to be the best they can be. And of course, the juniors and seniors want to be the best they can be. The seniors and myself were the last to leave Camp Rantoul yesterday. Even though they say they don't like it, they know that's the last one.

"The tough times of camp, that's when the senior leaders have to come through, the juniors also. I've told Juice, Vontae (Davis) and those guys who've played a lot of football around here. They have to rise up and pull these young guys through. Let them know it's not as bad as it seems at times.

"This was a tough camp. Because we're a little bit better team, we probably went a little bit faster. I feel very good about our leadership on the team right now. The coaching staff and players are pretty close. They allow us to coach them hard and push them hard. Sometimes they get upset, but they know we love them and care about them. The bottom line is we all want the same thing, to be the best football team we can be."

Sophomore linebacker Martez Wilson was named to the Butkus Award watch list Thursday despite never having started a college game. Zook is pleased with his progress.

"He's a talented guy, and he's a better player than he was a year ago. He's gonna be a lot better player next year. But I really liked the way he's attacked this camp. Everybody matures differently, but he's a different guy this year than he was last year.

"He reminds me a little bit of Channing Crowder, a guy we had at Florida who plays for the Dolphins now. He enjoys practice. He likes to go out and practice. He works at it, and he wants to get better. After a scrimmage, he'll come to me and tell me what I'm gonna see. That means he's into it and knows what he's trying to get done."

Nearly all the positions on the team are still up for grabs, so competition remains fierce for playing time against Missouri and the rest of the season. Offensive Coordinator Mike Locksley discussed recently how he decides on an offensive game plan and how many plays each player should receive.

"We've got a lot of numbers in terms of options. As I've developed as a play caller, depending on down and distance, I've kind of gotten into calling plays based on players.

"Last year, when you looked at our offense, the four guys who could touch the ball were Rashard, Juice, Arrelious, and then Daniel Dufrene as a backup tailback. That would encompass about 80% of our snaps for the game.

"If Rashard touched it 25 times and Rejus touched it 15, Juice touched it 10 and Daniel touched it 10, that left about 15 plays for other guys. We were able to disperse the ball to some guys. Jeff Cumberland made some plays at the end, Jacob Willis made some plays.

"So the challenge with these guys, and they all know how we go about calling plays, is to prove to me you're a playmaker and a guy that deserves to get on that call sheet to get touches. And that's what I'm hoping to find out. Roles change daily, so one guy that started at the bottom of the touch chart could move up depending on how he practices, how he progresses and how he produces."

Coach Zook won't make predictions on the season, but he did offer a hint of what might be ahead.

"Any time you have a bunch of big guys who can run fairly fast and have played a lot of football, it makes you feel pretty good. Usually, your offensive and defensive lines are gonna have a lot to do with the kind of year you're gonna have.

"It's kind of where the game's played down there. Three years ago when we weren't very good, these guys playing now were freshmen. It's hard to do that, particularly in the offensive and defensive line."

The Illini offensive and defensive lines are loaded with experience and maturity going into the 2008 season. So there is definitely reason for optimism.


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