Illini Football Team Still Working Hard

The Fighting Illini practice week combined preparations for Indiana with a continuing self-analysis of what is wrong and what changes can be made to win games. There were some encouraging signs second half of the Michigan State game, so that is something upon which both the offense and defense can build. They are making the effort in practice.

Illinois coach Ron Zook is still searching for answers to his squad's doldrums. He reached out to every member of the staff and team to get their take.

"It's not that I'm not looking at Indiana, I am. I'm just spending more hours trying to once again try to find things we can do to help our football team as well. I've talked to every one of our players. Trying to get their ideas, their thoughts and what can they do, what can I do, what can the staff do, what can we do. They want to get this thing right as bad as all of us do."

Speaking Tuesday, Zook said Monday night's practice was encouraging.

"Believe it or not, I think we did make a little progress this past week, and obviously we have an awful lot of progress to make. These guys are the same guys who started the 5th of August, and they are frustrated like we all are. But I think we made a little progress.

"Judging by practice last night they haven't quit believing, and they haven't lost confidence either. They went out there and did exactly the things that we asked them to do, and they got after it pretty well. We went out in shells, and we had to back them off a little bit. They ran well and did all of those things. They're continuing to work hard."

Center Eric Block said the offense in general and specifically the offensive line continues to make mistakes that must be corrected. But he believes the offense gained confidence with their two late touchdown marches in the MSU game.

"Yeah. We looked better the second half, and we did some good things the fourth quarter. We know we can move the ball, we know we can score. We just have to do it from the get-go. We can't wait until the fourth quarter."

One encouraging sign for the offense was the play of Mikel Leshoure last week.

"I don't think there's any question that he did well," Zook says. "If he consistently does the things that he's capable of doing, then I think you're going to see him more. We'd all like to have one feature running back, but even with that being said, it's hard to have one guy nowadays.

"There's no question that Mikel deserves some more playing time. The thing that Mikel is doing as well is playing well on special teams. Consistency is the thing, and he's only a sophomore and has a chance to be a good football player."

Defensive tackle Josh Brent felt the defense finally learned to play with intensity and pride the second half, and that should carry over to the rest of the season. Cornerback Dere Hicks seconded those thoughts.

"I think the defense is coming along pretty well," Hicks believes. "Coach Zook really reminded me of the year we went to the Rose Bowl. We really didn't care about too many things because the year before we were 2-10. We really were going after those teams that we had lost to the year before and just played for pride and for ourselves.

"I think things are really gonna change and turn around. I believe we can get on a roll. Once we get that one win, things are gonna start clicking."

True freshman Walter Aikens provided a spark at safety when Garrett Edwards reinjured his neck on an attempted interception against the Spartans. The Illini will have to live through his growing pains, but Zook was pleased with his progress.

"Walter is a guy who I really feel is coming on and is getting better, so we need to get him in there. We talked about it Friday night and during last week. When it (Edwards' injury) happened, we stuck him in there and he made some things happen.

"You like to see the energy, and you like to see the excitement. As all young guys do, he has a lot to learn. But I was very impressed with the way he played. It's funny because last week in practice, he would get up on a guy and the defensive guys were like, 'Wow'. It's what you want to have, and he responded."

Fellow safety Donsay Hardeman is also impressed with Aikens.

"Walt Aikens is a great player. We always talk about opportunity. When opportunity comes your way, don't pass it by.

"Walt is a young guy, a freshman, so he's still making mistakes. Like I told him in the game, I'll be the teacher and you be the student. If I have to tell you what to do each play or tell you how to get lined up right, I will. He showed people he can play in his debut."

The Illini still have problems. The quarterback position remains a concern, Arrelious Benn has not yet had a game where he was perfectly healthy and able to make plays, the offensive line has some weaknesses, the linebackers are all young and inexperienced, and the defensive backs still need to improve.

A win is vital to develop the confidence necessary for the players to play relaxed and show their true ability. The Illini practiced this week with that thought in mind.


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