As the calendar turns to August, thoughts begin to ponder students returning to school for the fall semester, leaves turning colors and eventually falling, and ..football. Yes, I'm talking Illini football. Ron Zook begins his fourth season as Illini coach and expectations are running higher than ever this season as training camp begins. The Illini, fresh off a trip to the Rose Bowl and a 9-4 season, Illinois and Zook have a lot to prove that 2007 was not a fluke. Sunday afternoon was Illini Media Day at Rantoul, and Zook spoke to several media members in attendance, stressing that one good season does not necessarily propel a program to turn the proverbial corner. Zook also said that it is up to this year's sophomore class and incoming freshman class to instill in future recruiting classes that you just don't simply show up at Illinois and go to a Rose Bowl. The upperclassmen that have been with the team two and three years went through some rough times, but all of those subpar seasons ultimately led to the success that the Illini experienced last season. Zook will have the nucleus back this season, led by quarterback Juice Williams and top flight receiver Aurellious Benn. The Illini will have some big shoes to fill with the departure of Rashard Mendenhall to the NFL, but guys like Daniel Dufrene, Mikel LeShoure and Troy Pollard will try to rise to the occasion. With training camp set to begin on Monday, a lot of questions remain in regards to who will be battling who for certain positions, but one thing is clear, with the talent level Zook and his assistants have brought in, there will be talent aplenty ready to wage war for their positional battles.
If you haven't purchased tickets for the 2008 season yet, you might want to act quickly because tickets are going fast. Tickets for the Ohio State game on November 15 and Iowa on November 1 are already sold out, while tickets for the Indiana and Minnesota games are nearing sellout status. Tickets in the horseshoe section are already sold out for the season, due largely in part to $77 for the season package. The first five rows of Memorial Stadium, normally blocked off due to poor sight lines because of players standing on the sidelines, have been opened up for the Indiana and Minnesota games and expect to be gone soon.
September 6th figures to be a landmark day for the Fighting Illini for many reasons. Deemed the Illinois Renissance Celebration and rededication of the renovation to Memorial Stadium, many former Illini are expected to be in attendance. Several former players have already announced that they will be attending the event, among them Craig Swoope, Dana Howard, Joe Rutgens, Kurt Kittner, Rich Kreitling, Mike Martin, Jack Trudeau, Dick Butkus and Don Thorp, with many others soon to follow. The former greats are part of the 10 greatest players at each position, with each group being recognized at one of the 8 timeouts during the game. To further enhance the festivities, the current Illini squad will be donning throwback jerseys for that game.
All news from the Illini nation is not good, however. Oft-troubled shooting guard Jamar Smith, who was reinstated to the basketball program after a school imposed redshirt stemming from the February 14, 2007 accident that seriously injured former Illini player Brian Carlwell, was once again caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Smith was on probation from the incident and last weekend was picked up once again for underage drinking. Coach Bruce Weber issued a brief statement saying in effect that Smith has been dismissed from the team, but would not further comment on the situation due to court legalities. Smith, who was expected to be one of the Illini's best shooters, has had a rough time since the incident involving Carlwell on that snowy night nearly a year and a half ago. And it's a shame too, that the young man has chosen this course for his life. It brings to mind other former Illini players such as Larry Smith and Ervin Small, both who saw their careers come to an end because of bad choices. My hope is that Jamar will decide to get his life back on track and decide that what has happened is not the way he wanted things to go. I do think that Weber made the right decision, and still stand by my opinion that he should never been given a second chance after that first incident.
Upcoming blogs will preview the 2008 Illini football season and the happenings from Camp Rantoul as the season opener draws closer.