Illini looking to improve slow starts on Saturday

By Derek Barichello

The Illini have had trouble getting off to a good start in both of their games this season.

In each game, the Illini have gone four and out in their first possession, including a blocked punt against San Jose State that led to a 19-yard touchdown drive.

“Man, it was ugly,” said offensive lineman JJ Simmons.

Although the Illini have recovered and won both games, the first two games were against Rutgers and San Jose State, teams who combined for a record of 6-16 last season.

Sept. 17, the Illini will meet No. 15 California, a more formidable opponent. The Bears have jumped out to a 2-0 start, after defeating Sacramento State 41-3 and conference foe Washington on the road, 56-17.

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Simmons said California has a well-coached, aggressive defensive line that likes to penetrate into the backfield. This means that there will be more pressure on the Illini offensive line to perform well.

“A good team like that will jump on that and take more advantage of it than a team like San Jose State did,” Simmons said. “We just want to settle down, get all the jitters out of the way and play football.”

The offensive line has been working this week on improving its communication and pass protection so that this weekend will not be a case of deja vu.

“As the game goes on, guys are starting to get a better feel of the game and the situations,” Simmons said. “In our second year now, Martin (O’Donnell) and I have a better feel, and we’re getting after people a little more. Basically, the communication between the players has really improved a lot, even since our scrimmages.”

Last Week’s Best

The Illini announced its offensive, defensive and special teams Players of the Week on Tuesday.

Tim Brasic was named offensive Player of the Week, completing 17 of 22 passes for 199 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed for 20 yards and scored two touchdowns.

On the defensive side, linebacker Remond Willis was named Player of the Week.

“I think Remond has a chance to be a very special player,” Zook said.

When Willis came to camp, Zook said he was not sure if he was going to be a running back or linebacker.

“I remember telling him in the spring when I saw him run, that ‘you’re going to be a linebacker here if you like it or not, and it won’t be easy. We are going to demand you to play how you can play.’ There have been a few practices that he has been upset with me.”

On special teams, kicker Jason Reda was named Player of the Week. Reda was perfect on four field goal attempts and replaced Steve Weatherford on kickoffs.

Illini Injury Report

Zook is hopeful wide receiver Kendrick Jones will be ready to go on Saturday. He said Jones was wearing a boot because of his plantar fasciitis on Sept. 12, saying Jones was still sore and stiff.

“It’ll just take time, but we feel pretty good about him,” Zook said.

Punter Steve Weatherford is expected to play on Saturday, according to Zook. He said he has not shown any signs of his ankle injury from Sept. 10.

“He ran and did everything, so he should be ready to go,” Zook said.

Also, wide receiver Derrick McPherson has returned to practice and Zook said the coaching staff is working him slowly back into the lineup. It is uncertain if he will be able to play against Cal.

The same is true for lineman Jim Labonte. He has returned to practice, but is slowly being worked into the depth chart. It is uncertain when he will be able to return.

Zook said linebacker Anthony Thornhill’s ankle kept him from practicing Monday, but that he will be ready to go for Sept. 17.

Lastly, Zook said Justin Harrison is recovering and they expect him to be back within the next few weeks.

“Justin Harrison ran last night at the pool and some on the field this morning,” Zook said. “The thing with Justin is that we have to be smart and make sure that we don’t push him too fast.”