Illini Finish Preparations for La.-Lafayette

The Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns bring a strong option attack to Memorial Stadium Saturday to face the Fighting Illini. While he cannot play until next year, Florida transfer Jarrod Fayson is helping his team prepare for the game. If the Illini defense can corral the speedy Fayson, perhaps they can slow down their opponent's offense also.

Fayson has emulated Louisiana-Lafayette quarterback Michael Desormeaux for the Illinois scout team this week. As a prep quarterback, Fayson has the background and athleticism to run a college option attack. When he moves to running back or receiver, former quarterback Jack Ramsey replaces him. While he will be a receiver once he gains eligibility, Fayson's diverse talent has been invaluable according to Co-Defensive Coordinator Curt Mallory.

"He's definitely given us a great look. We need that. Jarrod's done a great job the last three weeks, giving us a great look."

Media and fan discussions this week have centered around the play of the Illinois defense the first two weeks. Thought to be the team strength, the defense has had tackling issues and given up big plays. Coach Ron Zook says his defenders have worked this week to correct mistakes while preparing for their upcoming opponent.

"Defensively, we've got to tackle better and make sure everybody takes care of their responsibility. We've got to continue to improve on everything. We want to become a sharp team and get ready for the Big Ten run."

Some may have forgotten, but it took last year's team awhile to play their best ball. The game right after a heart-breaking loss to Missouri is especially difficult to play.

"I went back and looked at my notes after Western Illinois," Zook reminded. "We gave up a couple big plays, we didn't tackle worth a crap, all the same things.

"We're a better football team (than last year). We're better offensively, defensively, and in the kicking game. But like I told the defense, until we stop the run people are gonna question us. And that's fine. We've got to rise up to the challenge and do it. We're gonna have a big test this week."

Inexperience is a factor since both safeties and two of the three linebackers graduated off last year's team. But Mallory explains it is only part of the problem.

"You're gonna have some of that, but probably the disappointing thing last week was the big plays. We'll get that corrected and bounce back. Something we stress to all our players is doing your job. We'll get better."

Injuries have also been a factor. With cornerback Miami Thomas lost to knee surgery, freshman Tavon Wilson has been brought along to spell starters Vontae Davis and Dere Hicks. Safety Travon Bellamy could also play there, but that is not the plan at present according to Mallory.

"Hopefully, we can stay healthy, so we can go with the three who have played. Obviously, if something happened we could move Bellamy to corner. But right now, we're gonna go with the three. Tavon's actually playing earlier than Miami did last year, so he's gotten good experience. He just has to continue to learn."

Illinois has demonstrated a potent offense, but that group must continue to grow as well. Each week brings an opportunity to attack different defensive concepts. The Ragin' Cajuns play against an option running team every day in practice, so Offensive Coordinator Mike Locksley knows they are prepared for the Illini.

"I would imagine, if their team has quarterback runs and spread concepts, it gives them an added benefit because they see it every day in practice. We're going to take what the defense gives us. That's been our mantra since I've been here.

"If they force us to run, like we had a cover 2 last weekend, we'll run the ball. Missouri played man so we had to throw the ball. We've created a little more balance and progressed offensively to where we don't have to force things or put square pegs in round holes."

Illinois' offense starts with quarterback Juice Williams. He gets beat up when he runs the ball, but he also metes out punishment. A twelve game season can take its toll on his body.

"My legs are doing fine. It's still early in the season. I only ran the ball 16 times (against Missouri), and last week I only ran about 19 times, so I felt pretty good. I took a few shots, but that's football. I live to make contact like that, and I'm prepared for it."

Williams is advancing up the career charts both as a runner and passer. He was asked if he had a preference.

"I love doing both. But as a quarterback, what I'm here to do is pass the ball. Running backs aren't known for doing trick plays. I try not to think about numbers. You don't want to be thinking in a game, 'I've got to get this many yards.' The added pressure might make me break down. I'm happy I'm doing well, and I'll be able to appreciate it more when I get out of college. But that's something I try to avoid thinking about right now."

Receiver Chris Duvalt leads the Illini with three touchdown catches on the young season. After much frustration last year as a defender, Duvalt has had a rebirth on offense. He is excited about what the future holds.

"We have a lot of potential. We have playmakers on the outside, playmakers in the backfield, the freshman Mikel LeShoure came in and got some carries and looked pretty good. Jason Ford also. We've got a lot of talent. It's gonna be crazy when we get (Jeff) Cumberland back. He's just another big weapon on the outside."

Duvalt knows Louisiana-Lafayette will be fired up for the Illini.

"We know they're gonna come out with amazing intensity, just like Eastern came out the first half. They have a difficult defense to read as a wide receiver. But once we get that down, we should be all right."

Block I members visited practice Thursday to cheer on their beloved Illini. Arrelious Benn led them in a loud, "I-L-L...I-N-I." Juice Williams, Rodney Pittman, Jon Asamoah and Derek Walker were asked to stay awhile to visit with the group.

As expected, Juice took center stage. He continues to show the charisma, poise, maturity, and bright persona of someone destined for greatness.

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