Illini Prepare For Saturday Scrimmage

The Fighting Illini football team waded through another double session at warm Camp Rantoul Friday. Illini coaches continue to install the offense and defense rapidly thanks to the maturity of the team. Intensity and enthusiasm remains high as the team prepares for its first live scrimmage Saturday evening at 6:30pm at Rantoul High School.

Fifth year seniors Sirod Williams, Doug Pilcher and Eric Block were allowed to skip the Friday morning session. Coach Zook said they had earned the time off, and it allowed other players more reps. Garrett Edwards was in the starting defensive lineup, replacing Bo Flowers at safety. Edwards has been playing well and earned the promotion.

Jon Asamoah played first string center Thursday after Block suffered a mile concussion, and he was back there today. Jack Cornell moved up to first string right guard, backed by Mike Garrity. If needed, the Illini can move Graham Pocic to the right side. Pocic has lost some weight and has made progress.

There was a lot more action Friday morning than Wednesday morning. There was no full contact, but the team did a lot of scrimmage work.

Some highlights of 7 on 7 redzone practice included Chris Duvalt making a leaping grab over the top of Miami Thomas. Jack Ramsey appeared to make a tremendous leaping grab of a touchdown pass, only to lose the ball when he hit the ground hard. Defensively, Flowers broke up a pass intended for Arrelious Benn, and Supo Sanni intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown.

Action heated up with the 2 minute offense. Juice Williams led the first team down the field to score, but it was a tense battle all the way. Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui helped encourage his teammates by singing one of the songs bands use to fire up the crowd. With the Illini defense much improved, the offense needed all the encouragement it could get.

Highlights included Jarred Fayson grabbing and holding onto the ball despite a simultaneous hit by Tavon Wilson. Williams scrambled for a first down with a quarterback draw on fourth and long to keep the drive alive.

Williams then hit Mikel Leshoure on a swing pass, and the running back made it to the 2 yard line. Ramsey, who suffered a hip bruise on his previous end zone reception attempt, leaped high to make a great one hand catch in the back of the end zone to complete the drive. The second unit got a big pop up the middle from Daniel Dufrene, but the brief drive ended when Miami Thomas intercepted an Eddie McGee pass.

Defensively, Antonio James and Corey Liuget combined to sack Williams. Tavon Wilson broke up a pass. Cornerback Joelil Thrash diagnosed a screen, tossing Troy Pollard for a loss. And defensive tackle Rahkeem Smith sacked McGee.

Derek Dimke boomed three straight kickoffs into the end zone during special teams work. There was no wind, but he obviously has a stronger leg than last year. One of the practice visitors was Dimke's mentor Tim Williams.

Williams was an outstanding place kicker for Ohio State in the early 1990's and was recruited by Illinois coach Ron Zook. His placement holder for three years at OSU was Kirk Herbstreit. Williams runs the Illinois summer kicking camp and was visiting coach Zook and checking on Dimke, whom he has known and encouraged since his sophomore year in high school.

In other special teams work, the Illini practiced running options off the muddle huddle they use for placement kicks. While they rarely have the chance to use the plays, any team not prepared will be burned. Jarred Fayson gets the first reps at punt return, but Jack Ramsey, Terry Hawthorne and Dere Hicks all seek that opportunity.

The first three players used as backfield blockers in the new punt formation were Hoomanawanui and big defensive linemen Clay Nurse and Antonio James. Liuget replaced Nurse when the latter practiced with the punt return team. Whitney Mercilus and Hubie Graham also took turns there.

Another good crowd watched the evening session. Zook wanted to keep his players fresh for the Saturday scrimmage and gave more reps to the reserves. However, there was some live action as quarterbacks Jacob Charest and Nathan Scheelhaase temporarily removed their red shirts for live drills with an all-out pass rush. Zook explained his reasoning.

"It's for the offense and the defense. Because you don't want them hitting the quarterback, we don't want them rushing in hard. Our offense needs to feel what the full speed rush is, and our defensive guys need to feel the full speed rush also. It's hard to simulate it.

"We thought it would be good for Nathan and Jacob to get that experience. It's different standing back there with a red shirt knowing you're not gonna get hit. If it looked like there was gonna be a collision or hit, I would have blown the whistle quickly."

One of the best plays during the evening was another quick burst by freshman running back Justin Green. Green also distinguished himself with a good downfield block to spring McGee for a long gain. Freshman running back Bud Golden weaved his way through the line for a touchdown in redzone action. And Charest hit freshman tight end Justin Lattimore for a nice gain.

Defensively, middle linebacker Martez Wilson was again prominent against inside running plays. He stuffed running back Jason Ford for no gain as one example. And Flowers made an over-the-shoulder interception on a pass slightly underthrown from McGee intended for Duvalt.

Defensive tackle Josh Brent sat out the evening session. He became dehydrated after the morning workout, so he was held out as a precaution. He should be fine for the scrimmage. Coach Zook said everyone should be ready to go for the scrimmage except tight end London Davis, who is recovering from an apparent concussion.

Afterward, Illinois coach Ron Zook continued to express pleasure with his team's effort.

"It's going well. I'm pleased with the way they've worked. They're competing. That's the thing. They're having fun, they're learning, they're getting better. Camp is a testament of trying to survive. It's a necessary evil. But I don't think we could ask them to do any more than they're doing right now. We're gonna be as good as they decide they want to be."

Next up is the scrimmage at Rantoul High School. It will be the first time for full tackling, so the risk of injury is always possible. Zook had a simple request when asked if he could do anything to prevent injury.

"We need everybody out there praying. Unfortunately, it's a necessary evil of the game. You see across the country a lot of guys are getting nicked up. Remember two years ago Rejus (Benn) got his shoulder separation, C.J. (Chris James) tore his knee up. You try to protect them as much as you can.

"They'll be competing and getting after it. Usually, when you're competing, you're all right unless its a freak thing."

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