Football team ambitious as camp comes to an end

Adam Babcock

By Courtney Linehan

RANTOUL – Surrounded by cornfields and the remains of a closed air force base, the Illini football squad has spent two weeks intensely preparing for the season ahead. And as the annual stay at Camp Rantoul closes, players and coaches frequently repeat a mantra: “We’ve come far,” they say. “But still have a long way to go.”

“We’ve seen, obviously, that we still need work,” junior kicker Jason Reda said. “I can speak for myself that I still need a lot of work, and from a specialists point of view we still need a lot of work. But we’re doing well.”

Reda is part of an old guard taking on increased responsibility as a triumphed freshman class begins its run at Memorial Stadium. The kicker spent much of his time at Camp Rantoul working on his kickoffs – last year Steve Weatherford took care of those – but also instructing newcomers like freshman punter Kyle Yelton.

“These guys are really going to have to step up and make a difference for us this year,” senior quarterback Tim Brasic said of the team’s newcomers. “But they’ve shown so far that they’re very capable of it.”

One player who has begun prove he isn’t all hype is Isiah “Juice” Williams, the quarterback chasing Brasic for the starting spot. Williams is already a close second on the depth chart, and has had a good camp showing as he adjusts to the rigors of college ball.

“Both Juice and Eddie (McGee), right now there’s a lot of stuff going through their heads; we’re going fast,” coach Ron Zook said on Tuesday. “Right now Timmy’s not as consistent as you want him to be, but we’ve still got two and a half weeks to get him there. He’s made great strides.”

Another freshman who is shining at camp is tight end Jeff Cumberland, whose athleticism has led him to spend some practice time as a receiver and has sparked jokes of his ability to walk on to the basketball team. Players and coaches alike point to Cumberland as a player who has impressed them throughout preseason training.

Though the Illini continue to look to inexperienced players to right the team, they know the pressure is on the rest of the squad to lead by example.

“I think compared to last year we’re light-years ahead of where we were, but we’re still just getting these young guys caught up to speed,” Brasic said. “I feel a lot more comfortable, this whole team does. But at the same time, we’ve got a long way to go.”

INJURY REPORT

Through Wednesday, Camp Rantoul was largely injury-free, aside from a rash of hamstring injuries. Senior running back Pierre Thomas, freshman tight end Michael Hoomanawanui and sophomore receiver Kyle Hudson were among the players fighting hamstring injuries.

The offensive line sustained a tough loss as sophomore Ryan McDonald had to be hospitalized overnight after cutting his leg and requiring more than 25 stitches.

O-LINE

GETTING STRONGER

Before the injury, McDonald said he felt good about the progress his unit was making.

“Just looking at the offensive line, we’re got people in the right positions, we’re a lot more assignment-sound and we can focus more on our technique now, getting it right.”

A key personnel improvement is the addition of Akim Millington, from Oklahoma. Zook said that Millington brings size and talent to the offense, but also pushes defensive players to work harder in practice. Zook said sophomore defensive lineman Doug Pilcher is looking much improved over last year, which the coach attributes to competing against Millington.

“Going against Akim every day doesn’t hurt him either,” Zook said. “He has to play real hard just to survive.”

BIRTHDAY BLUES

Think your 21st birthday could have been better? Kicker Reda celebrated his on Wednesday by waking up at 5:45, taking the field for an 8 a.m. practice, sitting through team meetings all day and heading back to the field for a 6 p.m. practice.

One present he did receive was a nomination for the Lou Groza award, given annually to one of the NCAA’s top kickers.

FIGHT CLUB

This year’s training camp has been marked by several skirmishes on the field. Players have frequently taken swings at each other when drills get intense. Zook said that as long as the breakouts don’t interfere with practice and the players leave their emotions on the field, he’s happy to see some scrappiness.

“The last three days have been a little bit feisty, and I think it’s a couple things,” Zook said. “No. 1, everybody’s a little tired, a little sore. But the competitiveness is what I like. We’re competing. As long as they always leave it on the field, which they are, it’s just part of football.”