Camp Rantoul is a beautiful place, if you like flat lands with no shade in the middle of summer. But the scenery is not important. The Illinois football team needs an isolated location where it can get its work done and be free of outside distractions. It is fed and cared for well in Rantoul, so the camp becomes a blessing for Coach Zook, his staff and players.
There are still two weeks before the Missouri game, and much work remains. But we can begin to discuss what has happened so far and what we've learned about the 2009 Fighting Illini football team.
The overall theme that runs through all the players and coaches is a hunger to prove that last season's 5-7 record was a one-year aberration. To a man, they are all determined to meet all obstacles head on as one unit. In that regard, this year's camp rivaled 2007 for its intensity and focus.
"I feel that way, but we'll have to wait and see," Ron Zook states. "The overall feeling's been different. These guys have had intensity, they enjoy practice, there hasn't been any complaining, and they've tried to get after it. Camp's hard, there's no way around it. We've talked about how to make it more enjoyable, but I don't know how to do that really."
There is no media spotlight, no special recognition by the Big Ten Network, no targets on their backs like 2008. This is a team that has talent and athleticism but is looking to regain the identity it first created during the Rose Bowl year. By necessity, a new level of leadership and commitment is needed according to Zook.
"We've been looking for that since we started last December. We've told them this is their team. We're gonna be as good as they decide we're gonna be. Successful teams are player-driven and not coach-driven.
"The leadership is the best it's been since we've been here. I told the coaches, let's just guide them. We're along for the ride. There's enough guys out there that want to be good. Of course, you can't talk about it, you've got to do it. But up to now, they've done everything they're supposed to do.
"The older guys are helping the younger guys. When they have questions, they're actually helping coach them. Great teams have great leadership. I feel like we're developing more and more every day."
The Illinois offense is expected to be the strength of the team. Given the number of quality quarterbacks, receivers, and running backs available, that should be a truism. But the offense revolves around senior quarterback Juice Williams. If he allows his teammates to share responsibility for their success rather than taking on that burden for himself alone, he could have his best year ever.
Has Zook talked to Williams about the fact the four year starter is in his last campaign?
"No I haven't talked to him about it. We talk about how fast it goes, and he's made a couple comments about how this is his last year. I said, 'Yeah, I remember when you were crying.' I want him to enjoy this year. He's done a great job, he's done some great things. There's a lot more out there he wants to do.
"It hasn't been any day at the beach for him. The situation we stuck him into as a freshman was hard, before he was ready. But he handled it well, he matured from it. You know, guys can go two different ways from that. They can lose their confidence for good, or they can come back. I think he's come back stronger."
Williams showed more confidence and passing accuracy than ever this camp. Will that translate into his best season?
"You hope so. Fourth and fifth year players should be better than their first or second year. If he makes a normal progress you'd expect him to make, it should be his best year."
According to unofficial statistics kept the last few years, Williams had to throw more balls away in practice than in the past. On the one hand, he has learned how to take better care of the ball and not force it into coverage. On the other hand, it appears the Illini defensive backfield has improved and forced Williams to give up on more passing plays.
"I feel good about the way the defense is playing. Everything has progressed at the speed you would want it to progress. There's no doubt in my mind we're covering better and throwing better. We don't count throwaways, but there might be more. I think it's good that Juice knows to take care of the football, and the defense knows you can't give up big plays."
Those were two of the biggest issues Zook said were needed to be addressed this fall. If the trend continues into the season, the Illini will indeed be improved over last year.
For all the talent on the offense, perhaps the most notable improvement in camp came from the defense. Their competitiveness began noticeable the last two weeks of spring, when they realized they could stick with the potent offense. That continued into Camp Rantoul, allowing both offense and defense a challenge that made both sides better.
There were a couple health issues on the offensive line. Star guard Jon Asomoah has sat out the last week with an undisclosed illness. And his backup Jack Cornell twisted his ankle. There is little quality depth at center. And the quarterbacks couldn't gain yardage on running plays because they couldn't be tackled.
These situations helped the defense compete with the offense during camp. But the defensive line held its own even when everyone was healthy. New middle linebacker Martez Wilson showed a new level of knowledge, intensity and aggressiveness not seen previously. SAM linebacker Ian Thomas made numerous big plays. And the defensive backfield appears more consistent and athletic.
There is a concern about depth at a couple spots. Besides center, where Asamoah is listed as the only support for senior Eric Block, the backup linebackers are young and inexperienced. And with the injury loss of cornerback Miami Thomas, raw freshman Joelil Thrash now becomes the fourth option for the two positions.
But overall, there is more depth throughout the lineup than anytime in recent memory. A big part of that is last year's huge freshman class. Some of them gained experience on the field last year, but the others are all still around and are playing with more knowledge and confidence than they did as freshmen. They are filling the gaps nicely.
"That's the middle of your team," Zook agrees. "We feel like we're pretty good up here (at the top), now we're getting pretty good right in here (the middle). The best teams are good top to bottom."
Special teams were a major problem last year. But if Camp Rantoul is any indication, all six phases are improving. Matt Eller has been kicking field goals consistently all fall, and he now has a more than capable backup in Derek Dimke, who has learned to put more air under the ball and has a powerful leg. Dimke can consistently kick off into the end zone when there is no wind in his face.
Anthony Santella's punts have reminded onlookers of his boomers in the Rose Bowl. He appears to have regained his confidence, and his consistency helps prevent returns. The new punt formation incorporated this year also allows for better coverage downfield on punts. It will be more difficult for opponents to break long runbacks.
There is plenty of speed and strength available for kick and punt returns. Florida transfer Jarred Fayson is a natural punt returner with his powerful build and great speed. He can help on kickoffs also as he returned one for a touchdown in the 2008 spring game. Arrelious Benn and A.J. Jenkins provide a potent 1-2 punch at kick returner as both have returns for touchdowns under their belts.
Zook hasn't really worked longer on special teams than in past camps, but there is definite improvement.
"The amount of time we spend on special teams is the same as always. But there's a lot more intensity, more emphasis. It's getting the right guys in the right spots. For us to take the next step, our special teams have got to be the phase of the game that can help us win."
A highlight for Camp Rantoul onlookers each year is the play of the rookies. Everyone wants to check out the new talent, and there is plenty to watch.
"This is as good a freshmen class as we've had," Zook states. "Perhaps they don't stand out as much as at other times, but it's because our football team has gotten a little bit better, and we have a few more guys that are athletic."
Still, several have stood out. Running back Justin Green has more speed for the position than anyone in recent memory. And fellow freshman Bud Golden showed both power and speed in the final Camp Rantoul scrimmage.
Defensive end Michael Buchanan is slender, but he has a knack on pass rushing that may allow him some playing time this fall. Receiver Terry Hawthorne just recently was allowed full contact after hand surgery slowed him this summer. But he has been highly impressive with his fluidity, speed and attention to detail. And Thrash has done quite well for a rookie.
The main problem for freshmen is the overwhelming amount of knowledge needed for their jobs. A first college camp can be disheartening for anyone. Fortunately, this year's newcomers have had support from above as they adjust to major college football according to Zook.
"I think the freshmen overall have been impressive, even though they're ready to go home. I think it is a tribute to our upperclassmen who have kind of brought them along. They knew what they were going through and stuck with them. There haven't been any faraway looks and haven't had as many complaining. They've tried to do everything we've asked them to do."
There have been a few pleasant surprises. Junior receiver Chris James has made several acrobatic catches this fall and has regained his coaches' trust. Journeyman defensive lineman Anterio Jackson was moved by necessity to right guard and has been a quick study. Garrett Edwards is much improved and is now a likely starter at safety. And Daryle Ballew returned from shoulder surgery to challenge at defensive tackle.
Perhaps the best news coming out of Camp Rantoul is the absence of players underperforming, and the absence of squad turmoil that disrupted team unity last year. It seemed that last year, every day at Camp Rantoul there were questions about squadmen eligibility. There was always something interfering with the smooth flow of practice and the preparations for the season.
With the exception of the few injuries that always occur, each day was a positive one as the team continued to improve. Players notice these things, and so to those around them. If the season itself flows as smoothly as Camp Rantoul, the Illini football team will be blessed with a successful season.