Football uses break to relax

The Fighting Illini huddle at the beginning of the game against Louisiana-Lafayette on Saturday. Erica Magda

The Fighting Illini huddle at the beginning of the game against Louisiana-Lafayette on Saturday. Erica Magda

By Daniel Johnson

Illinois’ last bye week came in 2005, but under highly different circumstances. The off week three years ago preceded a matchup against the same team, Penn State, that the Illini will face after their bye this season.

The 2005 team had two wins heading into its bye week, coupled with four losses after being dispatched by Indiana, 36-13. Illinois was unable to utilize the bye week effectively, or at all, as it was ignited by the Nittany Lions in front of a homecoming crowd, 63-10.

This year, Illinois heads into its bye week with two wins again, under different, but equally tenuous times in Champaign. Rather than facing the pressure in helping Coach Zook to keep his job, the players are now facing the pressure of elevating the program and proving 2007 wasn’t an anomaly.

But with Zook “turning up the wick” on players this week, the athletes are looking forward to getting away from the pressure, and from the Camp-Rantoul-like atmosphere of work and football in general after a less-than-ideal start to their year.

“It’s foreign, yes, but it’s welcome,” center Ryan McDonald said of the week off. “After the extra week in Rantoul, that was not easy, and the way we were just down last week, we just need to refocus. We needed to collect ourselves and find out who we really are.”

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After practicing Monday through Wednesday at a draining pace, the gridders will have Thursday and Friday off, giving them ample time to figure out who they are – among other things.

What is center Ryan McDonald, and seemingly every other player, planning for the short-lived break?

“Sleep,” McDonald said.

“It’s going to feel good to … catch up on some sleep,” fullback Rahkeem Smith said.

“I like it, you get off your feet a little bit and sleep,” defensive lineman Derek Walker said.

“I’m going to try to get as much rest as possible, first of all,” linebacker Martez Wilson said.

“Lay around and relax. I’m going to go to class, but other than that, I’m going to sit on my butt and watch television,” defense tackle Dave Lindquist said.

“I kind of forgot what it was like to have the week off,” left tackle Xavier Fulton said.

And with the foreign week off has come the opportunity for players to get back to being a student, more so than an athlete.

“It’s just weird,” defensive tackle Lindquist said. “You’re kind of a regular student for the first time, that never happens except in the offseason, and even then you’ve still got lifting.”

The days off are something that come as a welcome change to McDonald, an aerospace engineer.

“I think it will be a good thing, I have three homework assignments, each of which will take me six to 10 hours to do, so I’m not going to have much time. If we did have a full week of practice, I probably would want to kill myself,” he said, smiling. “So, I’m pretty happy.”

And when all of the work is said and done, the players will enjoy the weekend. A good deal will be going home to see family, others to visit with friends; Wilson will celebrate his 20th birthday, and Fulton will get to see his brother play at Homewood-Flossmoor Community High School. And for those that do stay, the ideal day might just be enjoying the weekend like other students do.

“Grilling out in front of the house, that’s what we usually do,” Lindquist said. “But we’ll see how the day suits us.”