Illinois football training camp begins in heat and humidity

By David Mercer

RANTOUL, Ill. – It was 90-plus degrees when Illinois opened preseason training camp here Monday. And humid, too.

But senior linebacker J Leman didn’t want to hear about it.

“That’s no excuse,” he said after a so-so practice, shaking his head in mild disgust. “We play on hot Saturdays. We just weren’t as sharp as we could have been.”

That was Leman’s version of vocal leadership, which the returning starter and All-Big Ten selection said the Illini need from their more experienced players.

The season, which starts Sept. 1 against Big 12 North favorite Missouri, is just more than three weeks away. And Illinois may have one of its most talented teams in years, including a strong recruiting class lured to Champaign this season.

But the biggest thing that separates this team from last season’s 2-10 model is another year of experience under the helmets of players like Leman, junior running back Rashard Mendenhall and sophomore quarterback Juice Williams.

“You can give them a lot of things, but you can’t give them experience,” said defensive coach Dan Disch, who coaches Illinois’ linebackers.

Head coach Ron Zook said while he could tell many of players spent their summers thinking about and working on football, some of the young talent on the field Monday needed to work harder.

He singled out sophomore defensive back Vontae Davis, one of the better returning defensive players from a strong defensive team last season.

“He’s gonna do it or he ain’t gonna be out there,” Zook told reporters after practice. “I’m gonna go in there and tell him that in a minute.”

Special teams, an ongoing source of frustration last season, also struggled – particularly the punt team, which had more than one attempt blocked.

Zook said, realistically, his players aren’t going to be as sharp or as in shape as they need to be this early. Illinois started practice last week, and will continue in Rantoul through Aug. 18.

But Leman’s not buying that, and he said Zook isn’t either.

The coach told his players that, for an average team, Monday wasn’t a bad practice, according to Leman. “He said, ‘We don’t want to be average, we want to be good.'”