Extreme Heat Mars Fighting Illini Practice

The Fighting Illini practiced during the heat of the day Friday as the coaches wanted them to have 24 hours before Saturday evening's scrimmage at Rantoul High School. The Illini got some unexpected flyovers as Coach Zook tries to make camp more fun. And a top running back from South Carolina visited today.

The Illinois football team endured its hottest practice Friday. The heat index was recorded variously between 103 and 110 degrees, making concentration difficult according to head coach Ron Zook.

"We weren't quite as mentally tough as we need to be. It was real hot. This was the first time we've held the whole practice in heat like this. The last two practices were excellent, but we had to push through this a little bit. So we have to learn that we can't let up."

Tempers flared at times. The Illini have been working hard. Heat and tiredness contributed.

"Yeah, you get irritable and so forth. Coaches were hollering. It's just kind of part of it."

Zook tried to liven things up with some extracurricular surprises. Thursday, two military helicopters flew slowly over the fields. That didn't grab the players' attention. Friday, a single engine plane buzzed and then circled the field, arranged by football staff. That also went unnoticed by most players.

However, when a jet flew low over the fields twice, everyone noticed. The noise was so loud, everyone had to stop and watch. It was a nice but temporary diversion from hard work.

Walkon Chris Willett is making his presence felt. He played last year for Missouri but is immediately eligible. Zook explained.

"Because of the rules, he's eligible to play this year. He was an unrecruited walkon, so he has a one-time exemption. He can be eligible to play right now. He's been here all summer."

Zook has been pleased with Willett's play.

"He will help us. He's doing a nice job. Fullback, tight end, H-back type guy, special teams too. Tough guy, I'm excited."

Offensively, the execution lacked the precision of previous days. Starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase missed more passes than usual, although several were dropped. Chandler Whitmer was on target a number of times and continues to find freshman tight end Evan Wilson for timely gains. But he also threw an interception to Terry Hawthorne.

Wilson continues to impress. One of his catches was a leaping grab over the middle. On another one, he held on as he was sandwiched between two defenders including Nathan Bussey.

The defense appeared to hold the primary ground when the Illini worked on run offense near the goal line. But the running game made some impressive gains in scrimmage work. Freshman receiver Ryan Lankford made a big gain down the sideline on a reverse after Scheelhaase scrambled for good yardage.

Justin Green had a couple quick openers. On the second, Jack Cornell made a big block to free him for a long gain. Likewise, Mikel Leshoure had some impressive runs. Ryan Palmer opened a huge hole for him on one run, causing defensive coordinator Vic Koenning to go crazy in disbelief.

There were a few other good offensive plays. Scheelhaase completed a sideline bomb to Lankford. Eddie McGee fired a successful bomb to Jarred Fayson. Steve Hull and Fred Sykes scored touchdowns in redzone work on passes from Scheelhaase.

And McGee grabbed a bomb from Scheelhaase in 2-minute offense, scoring a touchdown. Going for two, Scheelhaase dived into the end zone and was mobbed by his excited offensive mates.

South Carolina running back Brandon Wilds visited practice with his parents. He is the type of big back the Illini are seeking.

The Saturday evening scrimmage begins at 6:30 pm. There will be some regular scrimmaging, but most of it will be run like a practice.

"We'll drive a little bit," Zook relates. "Also emergency situations coming in and out, third down, short yardage, goal line, two minute. No (scoring), we're just trying to get better."

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