Defense Continues To Shine At Rantoul

Competition between offensive and defensive units heated up Thursday as the Fighting Illini football team went through another high-energy practice at Camp Rantoul. As good as the offense is expected to be, the defense refuses to back down. Each unit is helping the other prepare for a rigorous 2009 schedule.

Illinois head coach Ron Zook continues to be pleased with the progress of his team.

"We had two really good practices yesterday, so the energy got going for what we had to do, and we ended up on a good note today."

Small, good-natured skirmishes dot the practices as individual battles heat up. Most of it is playful, but no one is willing to back down, even to teammates. Football is a contact sport, and the Illini players are itching for more action.

"Once they get competing, they enjoy that," Zook understated.

Much has been written about the receiver corps, and it is the squad's deepest and possibly most talented unit. One of the individual drills receiver coach Jim Pry puts his players through involves moving back and forth between cones placed approximately one yard apart. They are to move their feet quickly back and forth as they alternately move right and left around the cones.

The idea of the drill is to work on foot movement and hip flexibility. The players are supposed to flip their hips back and forth while continuing to look downfield. Most of the receivers have good hip rotation, but the one with possibly the most pronounced rotation is freshman Steve Hull. He is proving to be an outstanding natural athlete.

There was no all-out hitting, but the Illini worked extended periods of situational drills with 7 on 7 and 11 on 11 groupings. The defense rose to the occasion repeatedly throughout the day.

In the first 11 on 11 action, nickel back Travon Bellamy made a couple outstanding plays. First, he extended himself to break up a Juice Williams pass. And then he blitzed Williams, forcing him into an incompletion. Defensive end Clay Nurse was credited with a sack on Williams later in the period. And rookie end Michael Buchanan forced quarterback Jacob Charest into a throwaway.

Buchanan also received praise for his work in red zone defense against running plays. He looks like he may be able to get some playing time this fall. But the most consistent defensive stoppers appeared to be middle linebacker Martez Wilson and strongside linebacker Ian Thomas. They are a hard-hitting pair. Weakside backer Russell Ellington also made a couple big stops.

Offensively during this segment, running back Troy Pollard powered through tacklers for a ten yard gain. Rookie running back Justin Green made two lightning fast slants for big yardage against reserves. And he broke free from an Eric Watts tackle for another impressive gainer. Green is getting plenty of reps, a sign the Illini coaches plan to get him ready for game action.

Scrimmage action and position drills are alternated during practice. In one segment, the offensive linemen were competing against each other at the large punching bag apparatus. One lineman got into his stance on each side of the bag, and the one who was slower to lift up and punch the bag with his hands had to do an up-down.

Among those who won several matchups were Jon Asamoah, Mike Garrity, Jack Cornell and Ryan Palmer. Freshmen Andrew Carter and Leon Hall also showed quickness at least once.

Starting center Eric Block was dressed but watched the practice. In his absence, Tyler Sands, Ryan Sedlacek, and Garrity took turns with the first unit. Perhaps Block's absence helped the defense on this day. If there is one position where there is uncertainty on the second unit, it is at center. Hopefully, one of the three will prove worthy of that designation.

Anthony Santella is still leading for the punting job, but backup Kyle Yelton got a number of reps in one special team drill where half the defense was rushing the punter at a time. Yelton repeatedly boomed punts high and long, a sign he may be improving as a senior. Half a rush is less threatening than a full one, but Yelton did well.

More 7 on 7 and 11 on 11 situation work concluded Thursday's practice. Both offense and defense had their moments, but the defense made the offense work for every success.

Juice Williams completed only 3 of 7 passes in 7 on 7 red zone offense, with one going for a touchdown. But three of the four misses were catchable. Backup Eddie McGee continued his fine play, completing 6 of 8 passes for three touchdowns, including a leaping grab by Jarred Fayson. Jacob Charest completed 3 of 4 for one touchdown. Jeff Cumberland made a fine leaping catch.

The final 11 on 11 segment was the most competitive of the day. The situations for the offense were 1st and 10, 2nd and five, and 3rd and 9, and they made first downs about half the time. Among the highlights, McGee made a great juke of a couple charging linemen to turn a loss into a gain.

Also, running back Jason Ford burst to the outside and sped down the sideline, running over Miami Thomas and knocking off his helmet. The offense cheered loudly as the big-talking Thomas was put in his place.

Green continued to star, running two straight plays into the end zone and gaining good yardage on a sweep. Mikel Leshoure powered for a couple first downs. Arrelious Benn, Williams, and Charest all made good plays in that segment.

Defensively, Wilson and Ian Thomas were in the middle of the action and made numerous good plays. Defensive tackle Ugo Uzodinma sacked Charest; Ashante Williams and Buchanan forced a Pollard sweep into a loss; and safety Garrett Edwards broke up a pass and met Ford at the line for no gain on a fourth and two situation.

Also, defensive tackle Corey Liuget stuffed a run in the backfield; defensive ends Antonio James and Doug Pilcher caused a Leshoure loss; middle linebacker Evan Frierson did likewise with Ford; and safety Supo Sanni met Fayson at the line for no gain on an end around.

Practice continues Friday with double sessions, and Saturday evening is the scrimmage at Rantoul High School.

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