Friendly scuffles mark first full pads practice for Illini football

It was 58 degrees and sunny on Saturday at Memorial Stadium as the Illinois football team headed outside for its third spring practice. After a bowl-less, 5-7 season festered all winter, the Illini were finally allowed to take out their frustration on the field in full pads for the first time.

“It feels like a new year,” guard Jon Asamoah said. “You forget what happened last year, and you start something new.”

Despite the clean slate, the Illini, padless for four months, had some frustration lingering after their season-ending loss to Northwestern. This became particularly evident when the team took part in the Oklahoma drill, a blocking intensive drill that involves two linemen — one offensive and one defensive — a quarterback and a running back, pitting offense against defense.

The team gathered around the middle of the field as players on each side of the ball enthusiastically cheered their respective units. Several scuffles between the offense and defense ensued, usually accompanied by laughter.

“That definitely livens up practice,” senior defensive back Dere Hicks said. “We just want to bring enough energy as we can, so practice goes by faster.”

These fights were little more than fun between teammates, but they showed the intensity of a team that ended last season with something to be desired.

“Whenever we do Oklahoma drill, or have a full-go period, that competitive edge that all of us have on this team comes out,” senior center Eric Block said. “Everybody’s just going at each other, which is great, you get better that way.”

Block is one of five returning players that started every game last year in what turned out to be, by the team’s own standards, a disaster of a season.

Block and Asamoah will be in charge of protecting quarterback Juice Williams, who returns for his senior year with chances to break Illinois records for passing yards, passing touchdowns, starts at quarterback and total offense.

Williams knows what it takes to lead a team back to a high-profile bowl game, having started in the 2008 Rose Bowl for the Illini.

“I think this is a more serious tone than last year’s team,” Williams said. “I think we were still stuck on a high after the Rose Bowl. I think we just kind of felt as if we were destined to go back to the Rose Bowl. This year, guys are coming out more determined. We’re doing whatever it takes to be successful.”

When asked for a season prediction, Williams simply responded, “Sky’s the limit.”

Block wasn’t so cooperative.

“You’re not going to get me to put my foot in my mouth,” Block said. “We’ve got to see how much improvement we can make in the spring. That’s where we’re at, we’ve just got to take care of spring ball, get as better as we can and just improve, and we’ll see where we’re at after the spring game.”