Fighting Illini Don Pads For First Time

The first spring practice in pads was intense as the Illini football team took out a winter's worth of frustrations on each other. Football players love to hit, and getting to don the pads arouses their football instincts and soothes their inner fire. It was an excellent beginning for the spring practice period.

Illinois coach Ron Zook was pleased with his team's progress through the first three days.

"I think we're on course. I feel good about the attitude and intensity. I think they're having fun. The one-on-one stuff was fun today. They've continued the same attitude they had with our winter program. They want to be good."

Zook put his players through an Oklahoma Drill, which is designed to test a blocker versus a tackler in a confined space. This drill is always a team favorite and arouses passions. There was some good spirited competition, as some of the highlights attest.

For example, tackle Jeff Allen had his way with defensive ends Jerry Brown and Antonio James (twice) but lost a major tussle with Clay Nurse; senior guard Jon Asamoah showed his tremendous talent by handling promising young defensive tackle Corey Liuget three straight times; Nate Palmer controlled Hubie Graham; Liuget manhandled Randall Hunt; and Travon Bellamy had his way with Jack Ramsey.

Other matchups that had apparent winners included Rahkeem Smith over Eric Block; Randall Hunt over Reggie Ellis; Arrelious Benn over Ashante Williams; Whitney Mercilus over Craig Wilson; Graham Pocic over Ian Thomas and Martez Wilson; Dustin Jefferson over Tyler Sands; Jack Cornell over Russ Ellington; Ryan Palmer over Clay Nurse; Justin Staples over London Davis; and Aaron Gless over Zach Becker, although Becker evened things up later.

Also, Anterio Jackson over Ryan Sedlacek; Corey Lewis over Glenn Foster, Whitney Mercilus and Doug Pilcher; Cordale Scott over Bo Flowers; Garrett Edwards over Jeff Cumberland; Block over Nate Bussey; Ellis over Cornell; Sands over Rahkeem Smith; Pat Nixon-Youman over Chris Duvalt; Craig Wilson over Foster; Ian Thomas over Sedlacek; Evan Friersen over Mike Garrity; and Supo Sanni over Fred Sykes.

There was also some light hitting in scrimmage situations, although tackling was not permitted. Juice Williams showed excellent accuracy in one 11 on 11 period. He hit A.J. Jenkins, Chris Duvalt, Mike Leshoure and Jarred Fayson three times without an incompletion.

Eddie McGee was one for three, hitting Jack Ramsey but missing on another target while throwing a ball away on a strong pass rush from Bussey and Mercilus. Jacob Charest hit Ramsey for a good gainer while seeing his pass to Duvalt dropped.

In 7 on 7 action, Mikel Leshoure burst through on a quick hitter that would have gained big yardage had it been allowed to continue. Tight end London Davis caught a short pass from McGee between two defenders and burst forward for a good gain. Juice was wide open down the sideline on a scramble. Charest hit Ramsey for a 45 yarder along the sideline. And Juice found Jeff Cumberland open for 20 and 15 yard gains.

One interesting note in the brief goal line situation, reserve linebacker Eric Friersen put a shoulder into walkon running back Mark Burgess, and Burgess went flying backward. Otherwise, both Jason Ford and Mikel Leshoure showed power and quick cuts on touchdown jaunts.

Friersen later made another good play, tipping a McGee pass into the air. He missed a golden opportunity to catch the ball, but he deflected it into the waiting arms of teammate Justin Staples. McGee was also intercepted in situational 11 on 11 drills by Russ Ellington, who might have scored had the play been allowed to continue.

The offense is ahead of the defense at this stage, but there were some good defensive plays as well. Whitney Mercilus stopped Ford with barely a one yard gain. Pat Nixon-Youman did likewise on Chris James after a sideline grab of a toss from McGee.

Tavon Wilson is playing with much confidence. Among his highlights was a breakup of a pass from Juice to Jenkins. Walkon cornerback Nattiel Perkins broke up a pass from Charest intended for Ramsey.

In a two minute drill, Martez Wilson stuffed Ford for a minimal gain in the red zone. Ellington sacked McGee, although Eddie continued the play and hit Fred Sykes. And Bo Flowers ended the day on a high note for the defense by intercepting a McGee pass to thwart his drive and end the practice period.

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