Illini return from training camp

Juice Williams, 7, rushes in the spring football game at Memorial Stadium on April 21. Williams and the Illini open against Missouri on Sept. 1. Erica Magda

Juice Williams, 7, rushes in the spring football game at Memorial Stadium on April 21. Williams and the Illini open against Missouri on Sept. 1. Erica Magda

By Jason Grodsky

With the conclusion of Camp Rantoul and the season’s first game against Missouri less than two weeks away, the Illinois football team returned home to Champaign on Sunday for Fan Appreciation Day at Memorial Stadium.

The Illini wrapped up their two-week camp on Saturday with a scrimmage that had players and coaches excited for the start of the season, but also focused more on areas that need to be improved before they take the field in St. Louis, the neutral site for the showdown against Mizzou on Sept. 1.

“I thought we were a little sluggish, but if you go back to past scrimmages that’s how they are sometimes,” head coach Ron Zook said. “I thought our execution was good, but we just didn’t play with the emotion that we need to play at in two weeks, and the guys understand that.”

A lot of focus during the camp has been on the improvement of sophomore quarterback Juice Williams, who has looked more confident and comfortable taking snaps.

In Saturday’s scrimmage, Williams completed nine of 18 passes for 95 yards and three touchdowns.

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His only blemish was an interception by fellow sophomore Dere Hicks.

“It’s good to have another Camp Rantoul under my belt and another summer of experience,” Williams said. “It was great here to be away from Champaign with no distractions and I’m just ready for the season to start.”

Williams is aware of the expectations and pressure that come with being the Illini’s quarterback, and Zook has been impressed with the way the Chicago native has taken responsibility and has improved since the end of last year.

“We want perfection out of him,” Zook said. “He has done a lot of good things and you can tell he has a grasp for the offense now and is in control of what’s going on.”

A large factor in Williams’ progress has been the improved play of the Illini’s wide receivers.

While a lot of the hype has been built around highly touted freshman receiver Rejus Benn, other new Illini wideouts like freshman Brian Gamble have made a positive impact on the offense.

With Benn sitting out the Illini’s scrimmage nursing a sore shoulder that he injured earlier in the week, Gamble picked up the slack, snagging five catches for 81 yards and two touchdowns.

“Brian has done a nice job,” Zook said. “He’s a freshman so he’s learning the offense, but he has some natural skills and can do some things you like to see and is really tough, and I think he’s going to be a good player for us.”

Now that the Illini are back from camp, their attention has turned toward the season opener against Missouri.