Greetings from Camp Rantoul! After a few sweltering days in central Illinois, this morning's practice was not bad at all. Amid cloud cover and a fairly steady breeze, the Illini suited up for their first of two paractices on the day. Offensively, the Illini look as good as ever with signal caller Isaiah "Juice" Williams running the team. Juice, who seems to be the clear-cut favorite right now, could eventually get some competition from Eddie McGee or Billy Garza. Mark Venegoni and true freshman Phil Haig are mired too far down the depth chart to warrant any consideration at this time. It was Haig, you recall, that was brought in at the last moment when Clint Brewster was granted a release from his letter of intent, due in part to his father, Tim, becoming the head coach at Minnesota. Running the ball should not be a problem for the Illini this year, as the Mendenhall brothers, Rashard and Walter, return to anchor a back corps that are going without E. B. Halsey and Pierre Thomas, both lost to graduation. Charles Bailey and fullback Russ Weil figure to get some touches as well. What may have impressed me the most though, was watching freshman Troy Pollard scamper. Pollard, who is not very big, can move pretty well and warrants watching this season.
On the receiving end of things, the Illini figure to be in great shape as well. The recieving nucleus centers around true freshman Arrelious Benn, who seems to be adapting to the offense well. If you have not seen this kid play, then it may be worth the price of admission just to see him in action. Benn brings speed and agility that has not been seen at Illinois since the days of David Williams. He has great mobility, as well as great hands, only missing a couple of balls thrown his way in the early practice. Benn reminds me of an NFL receiver already with the way he moves and sees things upfield. Sophomore Joe Morgan, as well as DuJuan Warren and Marques Wilkins also are looking good early on. Will Judson, Jacob Willis, and Frank Lenti Jr. also should get their share of attempts, as will Chris James and two-sport star Kyle Hudson. In talking with people this morning, it appears that Benn may also line up in the backfield, as well as possibly even taking a direct snap or two. Lining up at the tight end position, the two clear-cut favorites right now have to be sophomores Jeff Cumberland and Michael Hoowanamanui, the two main players at the position last year. Tom Sullivan and former basketball player C. J. Jackson may also see time at one point or another.
The offensive line has been an issue in the past few seasons, and figures to be much improved this season over last. Although no position is safe according to Zook, Randal Hunt, Ryan McDonald, and Jon Asamoah were running with the first team today, while Martin O'Donnell should also figure prominently as well. Akim Millington and Charles Myles, two players that logged a lot of minutes a year ago, filled in, but was not with the regular group.
Defensively, the Illini hope to be much stronger than in past seasons, as their front line became porous, allowing teams to run wild on them. Anchoring the defensive line are veterans Chris Norwell, David Lindquist and Derek Walker, as well as Doug Pilcher. Daryle Ballew, freshman Josh Brent, Will Davis and Clay Nurse may also see some action to spell the front-liners. At linebacker, the Illini once again appear very strong, as they return a lot of players at the position. Brit Miller and J Leman anchor the linebackers, with Anthony Thornhill and Kevin Mitchell seeing quite a bit of action as well. Keep an eye out for Martez Wilson, another of Zook's much hearalded freshman class. Tez, who is built like a rock, is starting to see some playing time in practice, and could become a factor sooner rather than later. In the defensive backfield, some new faces join some veterans to hopefully turn around a crew that gave up more than their share of long plays last season. Chris Duvalt, Justin Harrison, Sam Carson III and Justin Sanders will be the prominent pieces, but look for newcomers Antonio Gully and Bo Flowers to make some noise as well. Dere Hicks and Trayvon Bellamy will also see their share of action early in the season.
Special teams are an integral part of football, and for the Illini to effectively turn the corner like they want to, the punting game needs to improve, and get better fast. So many times last season, the punting tandem of Kyle Yelton and Jared Bosch took the Illini out of games by their poor punting averages. This year, however, freshman Anthony Santella looks to be the frontrunner, and if watching him in practice is any indication, things may in fact get better in a hurry. Placekicking duties will still be handled by Jason Reda, but Matt Brandabur might be called on for situational kicking duties.
In watching practice this evening, it appears that the Illini are "hungry", as evidenced by several scuffles between the offense and defense. A couple of these melees had to be broken up by Zook, and after practice he said that "where sometimes these fracases are good, you don't want to see them get out of hand". Personally, I think that the Illini are growing tired of the mediocre performances, and want to make the move onward. Zook also said that the team got better this evening, but there is always room for improvement. In observing practice, I tend to agree with him that the Illini are definitely on the road and headed in the right direction. So have you been out to practice yet? Tell me what you think!