Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Sightlines from Illinois practice
By ESPN.com staff
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
RANTOUL, Ill. -- I rolled up to Camp Rantoul just as Illinois players finished stretching before Wednesday's morning practice. Though the team worked out in shorts, the workout had plenty of intensity -- and four-letter words from a geeked-up coaching staff.
Here's a closer look:
- First, the injuries. Backup running back Troy Pollard sat out with an ankle injury and starting tackle Xavier Fulton missed practice with an ankle injury he sustained in Monday night's scrimmage. Both players are expected back soon.
- During the first set of team drills, true freshman running backs Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure rotated with the second-team offense behind projected starter Daniel Dufrene. Though Ford didn't join the team until preseason practice -- LeShoure practiced during the spring -- the standout from Belleville, Ill., seems to be catching on quickly.
- Arrelious Benn is fully healthy for the first time since the first few practices of last summer, and Illinois plans to take advantage. The sophomore wideout often lined up in the backfield and took option pitches from quarterback Juice Williams. He also remains Williams' top passing target, as he showed by catching several touchdowns in 7-on-7 drills.
- Williams looked good overall, consistently finding Benn and several other targets. He still has the tendency to throw too hard, gunning the ball to Marques Wilkins on a 5-yard slant [Wilkins somehow held on]. After Williams was forced to scramble during a play in team drills, offensive coordinator Mike Locksley asked, "Where's your outlet, 7?"
"He came back ahead of the game," Locksley said. "He's come in in awesome shape. Like most quarterbacks at this time, he's got a little bit of sore arm, so we're resting it up a little bit by limiting his throws. But mentally, he's right where we want him to be. The leadership part of it is there."
- Backup quarterback Eddie McGee seemed to struggle Wednesday, particularly near the goal line. He threw an interception to sophomore safety Garrett Edwards. Then Ashante Williams stepped in front of a receiver to pick off a McGee pass in the end zone. "You can't make mistakes in the red zone like this, 10!" Locksley shouted. Williams also broke up a Juice Williams pass to Chris Duvalt, and cornerback Dere Hicks recorded an interception.
- Illinois lost both starters at safety and rotated several players at both spots on Wednesday. Sophomore Travon Bellamy is the likeliest candidate to start, but Donsay Hardeman and Bo Flowers are also getting reps with the first-team defense.
- The receivers could be better than many have forecasted, including yours truly. They'll create matchup problems with Jeff Cumberland, a 6-foot-5, 251-pound junior, and boast speed with both Duvalt and Chris James. Cumberland and James likely will start alongside Benn. Wilkins seemed to be getting a lot of work Wednesday. And look out for Alex Reavy, a sophomore walk-on who is working heavily with the second-team offense. True freshman Cordale Scott looks ready to play at 6-foot-3 and 208 pounds, and coach Ron Zook expects all the freshmen wideouts -- Scott, Jack Ramsey and A.J. Jenkins -- to play this fall in an accentuated passing attack. Ramsey and Scott also could be factors in the return game, as Illinois might want to rest star cornerback Vontae Davis as much as possible.
"Right now, they're swimming a bit," Zook said, "but once those guys get it down, which they will, it's got a chance to be a deep group, a very explosive group. That's exciting."
- Running backs coach Reggie Mitchell had an animated exchange with fullback Rahkeem Smith after a carry during 7-on-7s. "Hey dog, how much you weigh?" Mitchell asked the 255-pound junior. "You go and run full steam."
- Early in practice, pairs of reserve offensive linemen went through resistance training by attaching what looked like a bungee cord between them. Things were going well until Randall Hunt's cord came off the harness, nailing teammate Ryan Palmer just above the groin. Ouch.