Special Teams Get Special Work At Camp

Camp Rantoul is nearing an end, and the Fighting Illini football players and coaches are eager to return to Champaign and their normal lives. But despite their split loyalties, they came out Friday and performed at a high level for their second to last practice. The day was highlighted by a special teams scrimmage.

Illinois has enjoyed a productive fall camp. There have been few injuries or other disruptions, and the players and coaches have remained focused on the task at hand. With one practice to go, Coach Ron Zook assessed the progress.

"It's been a great camp. If we can get through tomorrow and get back to Champaign, it will have been a success.

"Everybody's doing everything they can do. The coaches are working their tales off, the secretaries are working their tales off, the players are working their tales off. It's a business, and everybody's paying attention. When you've got everybody working in the same direction, it makes it a lot easier for everybody."

All the special teams got work done on Friday, and some of the personnel decisions are beginning to come into focus. With a strong Westerly wind crossing the field, it gave the specialists a chance to practice in adverse conditions. And the players benefitted from a better understanding of the importance of field position.

"I thought it was good," Zook assessed. "It helps them see what we are talking about in terms of field position, change in field position, what can happen. We had the wind, and you're gonna have the elements."

Time was spent on field goals and field goal blocks; punts, punt blocks and punt returns; and kickoffs and kickoff returns. With some players going both ways, Zook decided to give them a breather later in the practice.

"Some guys got a little bit tired because they were on both teams, so we had to cut short a 7 on 7 a little bit. The quarterbacks' arms are a little tired, and the receivers have been run to death. So we cut back on that."

Junior punter Anthony Santella boomed punt after punt. While the ball often soared toward or past the sideline due to the wind, the hang time and distance were sufficient to produce quality results according to Zook.

"I thought Santella punted real well. This last week or so, he's done the things we've asked him to do. And the coverage was good. We're not there yet, but I think we've made some progress on special teams."

The actual composition of the special teams won't be known until the Missouri game. But the following played with the first kickoff team: Travon Bellamy, Nate Bussey, Clay Nurse, Dustin Jefferson, Joelil Thrash, Garrett Edwards, Ashante Williams, Tavon Wilson, Patrick Nixon-Youman, Aaron Gress and kicker Derek Dimke.

The second kickoff group, a couple of whom may be with the first unit eventually, included Evan Frierson, Eric Watts, Supo Sanni, Walter Aikens, Zach Becker, Nate Palmer, Cordale Scott, Antonio Gully and three members already mentioned.

The first kickoff return team was composed of Bussey, Bo Flowers, Thrash, Jason Ford, Sanni, Michael Hoomanawanui, London Davis, Russell Ellington, Justin Staples and returners Arrelious Benn and Jarred Fayson.

The starting punt team included Santella, Josh Brent, Antonio James, Hoomanawanui, Scott, Sanni, Edwards, Martez Wilson, Mikel Leshoure, Tad Keely and Gress. Backing them were Nixon-Youman, Corey Liuget, Hubie Graham, Bussey, Zak Pedersen, Michael Buchanan, Jeff Cumberland, Flowers, Santella, Whitney Mercilus and Jefferson.

The punt return team appeared composed of Jefferson, Gress, Ellington, Thrash, Terry Hawthorne, Fred Sykes, Nixon-Youman, Leshoure, Bellamy, Nurse, and a returner rotation of Fayson and Jack Ramsey. Others in the mix include Palmer, Firerson, Justin Green, Tavon Wilson, Ashante Williams, Ian Thomas, and Scott.

Matt Eller and Derek Dimke handled live place kicks from different distances, again with a cross wind. At the beginning of practice, Eller was 5 for 5, and Dimke 2 of 4. Both of Dimke's misses began straight but were blown off course by the wind.

Besides straight punting and kicking, there were also a few fakes. The muddle huddle allows for a variety of run and pass options. There was also an opportunity to practice punt and placekick fakes. On one punt opportunity, Santella ran right, juked a defender and gained good yardage down the sideline. There will be less rush if the opponent fears the fake.

At the end of practice, there was a series of 11 on 11 plays. The wind adversely affected both the passers and receivers on some attempts, but Juice Williams and Eddie McGee found their targets often despite the weather. Benn was Williams' favorite target, including one 20 yarder where Benn outfought Bellamy for the ball.

Defensively, Buchanan's rush forced McGee into a throwaway. Mercilus dropped Troy Pollard for a loss on a rushing attempt. Jacob Charest was sacked by Bussey. Green was thrown for a loss by Daryle Ballew. And Donsay Hardeman garnered the day's only interception.

A number of seniors are becoming nostalgic, realizing their time at Camp Rantoul is nearing an end. Others are giddy with delight. Receiver Chris Duvalt is a little of both, cutting up in individual drills to both celebrate and mourn the ending of one phase of his life.

And Jon Asamoah watched practice from the sidelines. He is not yet sufficiently recovered from his illness to practice, but his presence reassured onlookers that he is going to be ok.

Zook would not confirm the time for the Saturday scrimmage. But if his players all return from their campus obligations on time and otherwise carry out the rest of their team assignments, it is likely Zook will move the scrimmage to sometime in the morning.

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