I know according to the calendar that it is supposed to be springtime. The way the weather has been recently, you could challenge that notion. Like the postal service, the Fighting Illini football team does their business in any weather climate, often moving inside during extremely nasty weather. I was able to make it down to practice last week to see the team up close and personal during their spring workouts, and came away impressed with what I saw. This team that is preparing for the annual spring game on April 25 is about as fast as any Illini team has ever been. Everyone knows about Arrelious Benn and Juice Williams being quick on their feet, but some of the other unsung heroes, as well as a newcomer this coming season may make opposing teams cringe. Jarred Fayson, who is now eligible after sitting out due to transfer rules, looks like the real deal and may be one of the fastest players to ever suit up for the Illini. He was lining up as the deep man on kickoff returns with A. J. Jenkins, and even though it was just drills they were running, either one of them looked capable of breaking one for a touchdown. Fayson, who came from Florida, gives Coach Zook and the Illini one more weapon in the arsenal of speed that will hopefully keep them in contention with the upper eschelon of the Big Ten Conference. As a matter of fact, Jenkins did break one for a touchdown last season, and Fayson seems as capable as anyone of duplicating that feat.
The running back corps returns everyone from a season ago, led by Daniel Dufrene and Jason Ford. Mikel Leshoure and Troy Pollard also are back from last season, as is local product Zach Becker. This stability will give Zook many different combinations to work with, including some multiple receiver sets that will empty the backfield, giving Juice any of about 5 or even 6 possible options on certain plays. Speaking of the signal callers, both Williams and Eddie McGee return for another season, but the position is far from barren. Redshirt freshman Jacob Charest appears to be the leading candidate waiting in the wings to be the heir apparent to McGee when Williams graduates following the 2009 season. Zook also has a very talented freshman coming in the fall by the name of Nathan Scheelhaase, who may be an instant cog in this very crowded wheel. A lot is still to be determined, but there is always the possibility that McGee might become a receiver, opening the door to either Charest or Scheelhaase to take the job when the Illini get to Camp Rantoul in August.
In the receiving department, the main cast of characters have already been mentioned. Benn, Jenkins and Fayson will be key ingredients to the mix, but there are also a few others that merit mention. Cordale Scott, yet another talented speedster from Glenville, Ohio, will join Fred Sykes, Chris James and Chris Duvalt in a position that is well stocked. Throw in the tight end position, led by seniors Michael Hoomanawanui and Jeff Cumberland, and sophomore Hubie Graham, and you have a group of players that can assemble in all kinds of multiple sets that will create tons of matchup problems for opposing teams.
The offensive and defensive lines both have new leadership this spring, led by Joe Gilbert on the offensive side of the ball. Keith Gilmore takes the reins on defense, and both of those groups should be markedly better for the remainder of spring ball and next season as well. Both of these coaches have a lot of enthuasism for their respective areas, and are adjusting very well to the new surroundings. Josh Brent, who continues to sit out a suspension that was imposed by Zook, watched practice from the stands. Brent continues to keep his attitude up despite the setback, and Zook has not made a decision as to the future of him. Only time will tell, I guess.
Fans attending the final game of the 2009 season at Memorial Stadium may need to consider upgrading their winter weather wardrobe. The game, scheduled for December 5 against Fresno State, will be the latest game at home in the history of the school, but not the latest for the stadium itself (that distinction belongs to the Bears and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who played on December 29, 2002, the season that the Bears played in Champaign while Soldier Field was being re-done). Two other games on the 2009 docket have been finalized for times and/or television purposes. The opening game of the season, set for September 5 against Missouri at the the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, has been designated for a 2:40 central time kick, and televised by ESPN. The game scheduled for November 28 at Cincinnati has been moved to the night before, now on Friday evening, November 27.
Fans interested in checking out the Fighting Illini and seeing for themselves what could be a return to greatness are invited to attend the annual Spring game, set for Saturday, April 25th at 1:00 pm.
Next week's installment will include a recap on the Orange and Blue Scrimmage, as well as what the baseball and softball teams have been up to so far this spring sports season. Stay tuned!