Big Ten: Rahkeem Smith
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Last season, Illinois fans got a taste of good Juice (total offense records in three stadiums, including the Big House) and bad Juice (nine interceptions in the last five games).
Those in attendance Wednesday at a blustery Memorial Stadium for Illinois' full-pads scrimmage saw both sides of Juice Williams but left with a slightly sour taste about the Illini senior quarterback.
Williams looked solid in 7-on-7 red zone drills, firing touchdowns to Jeff Cumberland and dynamic Florida transfer Jarred Fayson. But Williams threw at least four interceptions, two of which went to cornerback Travon Bellamy, who appeared to injure his neck after making a pick in the end zone. Walk-on cornerback Nattiel Perkins also picked off a Williams pass.
"We got the best of him out there," cornerback Tavon Wilson said with a smile. "We compete like that every day, though."
Illini fans shouldn't be too concerned about Williams, who has loads of experience and a ton of weapons at his disposal. But seeing that limiting turnovers was one of head coach Ron Zook's top two goals for spring ball -- limiting big plays on defense was the other -- Wednesday's mistakes shouldn't become a habit.
There were several bright spots at the practice, and here are my other observations.
- Illinois' rushing game will be much better in 2009, and Williams shouldn't have to carry such a large load as a runner. Sophomore backs Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure both performed well in the scrimmage, delivering just as many hits as they took. The physical development of both players is obvious -- more on that in the coming days -- and as bigger backs, they can do some damage this fall. Ford broke free for a big gain late in the scrimmage, and LeShoure rocked Patrick Nixon-Youman after catching a screen pass.
- Ford and LeShoure rotated with both the first- and second-team offense because both Daniel Dufrene and Troy Pollard are banged up. Don't be surprised, though, if the two sophomores are Illinois' primary backs this fall.
- The Illini should have the Big Ten's top wide receiver corps this fall. Even without All-America candidate Arrelious Benn, who had class Wednesday and missed practice, the Illini receivers showed plenty of promise. The 6-5 Cumberland is a huge target, and Fayson already looks like one of Williams' favorite targets.
- Former NFL coaches Jim Haslett and Rick Venturi attended practice for the second straight day. Haslett, the former Saints and Rams coach, will coach the Orlando franchise in the newly formed United Football League. They were in town to see Zook, their former colleague from the New Orleans Saints, and the three spent a lot of time breaking down film.
- Several Illinois coaches raved about Tavon Wilson's progress when we talked earlier in the day, and he didn't disappoint. The sophomore defended a screen well during the red zone portion and rocked LeShoure on a run, eliciting cheers from his fellow defenders.
- After playing two years at outside linebacker, junior Martez Wilson worked mainly in the middle on Wednesday. It makes sense since he's by far the team's most experienced linebacker. Wilson, who has recovered from a stabbing incident in December, still looks huge at 6-4 and 240 pounds. He had some good and bad moments during practice but teamed with Rahkeem Smith to drop LeShoure for a loss.
- I was impressed with third-string quarterback Jacob Charest, who made several nice throws to Cordale Scott.
- Suspended defensive tackle Josh Brent was at practice, watching from the sideline and hanging out with several recent Illini players, including former defensive lineman David Lindquist. The feeling is that Brent is expected to rejoin the team at some point.
- The first-team offense: Williams at quarterback, LeShoure and Ford at running back, wide receiver Cumberland, wide receiver Chris Duvalt, wide receiver Fayson, tight end Hubie Graham, offensive lineman Corey Lewis, offensive lineman Jeff Allen, offensive lineman Eric Block, offensive lineman Jon Asamoah.
- The first-team defense: defensive lineman Rahkeem Smith, defensive lineman Antonio James, defensive lineman Clay Nurse, defensive lineman Corey Liuget, linebacker Martez Wilson, linebacker Russell Ellington, linebacker Ian Thomas, cornerback Tavon Wilson, cornerback Patrick Nixon-Youman, safety Bo Flowers, safety Garrett Edwards.
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.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
CHICAGO -- It started out as a directive from the coaches but quickly turned into a spirited competition between Illinois players.
During the offseason, Illini strength coach Lou Hernandez instructed linebacker Brit Miller and several of his teammates to slim down to 240 pounds. Miller had swelled to 258 pounds following a foot injury and needed to drop weight before training camp. Inspired by the TV show "The Biggest Loser," Miller and the others initiated a competition to see who could reach 240 first.
Other competitors included fullback Rahkeem Smith, linebacker Sam Carson III and wide receiver Greg McClendon.
"Every day, there were weigh-in sessions, fighting weight," Miller said. "It kept the summer fun. We'd always try to get each other to go out to eat, and nobody would do it. They'd be like, 'Aw, I'm not going out to eat with you.' And there were guys trying to exercise at times when nobody would be in there. You'd catch guys doing some weird stuff."
So, who won?
"This guy right here, dude, the biggest loser," Miller said, raising his arms in victory. "I was the first to get to 240."
Miller's svelte frame will help him lead an Illini defense looking to replace All-American middle linebacker J Leman. After playing on the outside last year, Miller shifted over to the middle this spring. He recorded 62 tackles last year, a number that should increase in his new role.
The weight loss could present a problem in training camp, as Miller tries to retain his title as the team's best belly-flopper. A little history: Illinois trains in Rantoul, Ill., a rural town located about 15 miles north of Champaign, and the team practices next to a water park. The players head there during the third week of workouts for the annual competition.
"There's no trees or anything," Miller said. "It's us getting just murdered and mauled every day and then all these kids having a lot of fun at the pool 100 yards away. It's that tempting thing, like, 'Don't cross the gun line' from the movie 'Life.' That's the gun line for us right there. Somebody breaks, they're just gonna be swimming in their pads, like, 'I can't take it, coach.'"
Miller has won the belly-flop competition the last two years and is planning something special this year.
"If done correctly, my back won't even get wet," he said. "Just hit the water and stay on the top."
Could his new lack of padding hurt his chances?
"Dude, I can still throw it down," Miller said. "One time I lost like 35 pounds in college, on purpose, too, and I still had a belly. The belly goes nowhere, just everything else."