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Rugged 'Rantucky' tough starting spot for Illini
By Lindsey Willhite | Daily Herald Staff

Ron Zook


Associated Press

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Published: 8/3/2008 11:36 PM

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RANTOUL - Nothing in this struggling town 15 miles north of Champaign bears the slightest resemblance to the glorious sights of Pasadena, Calif.

But Camp Rantoul, with its three sunbaked football fields on the prairie, is the place where No. 19 Illinois starts to decide its final destination for the 2008 season.

If it turns out to be another trip to the Rose Bowl nestled in the San Gabriel Mountains, then the Illini will have done something right over the ensuing fortnight.

Starting at 2:30 p.m. today, Ron Zook leads the Illini through 23 practices in 19 days in preparation for the Aug. 30 opener versus Missouri and beyond.

"The rules are," said fifth-year defensive tackle David Lindquist, "you wake up at 6 (a.m.) and you pretty much don't do anything but football until 10 at night, when you're back in your room."

"It's a grind," said senior defensive end Will Davis. "A lot of people don't look forward to it, but they do look forward to it. It's a love-and-hate relationship with Rantoul."

Zook loves this place that many of the Illini veterans refer to as "Rantucky."

The players receive just 90 minutes off on practice days, as well as several hours off on Sunday.

But they're so exhausted by the nonstop football treadmill - the Illini are perpetually on the move between the football fields, the shed that serves as the temporary weight room, the cafeteria and the Fanmarker Inn - they spend their treasured free time sleeping instead of fun-seeking.

That's the ultimate atmosphere for Zook and his coaches.

While they privately believe the Illini are pointed toward the rarefied air of the nation's finest programs, there are several questions that need to be addressed over the next three weeks before they can project their next BCS trip.

Zook sees his pass-catching corps as the team's most pressing issue. Sophomore Arrelious Benn (54 receptions) is the only returnee who caught more than 16 passes last year.

Freshmen Cordale Scott and Fred Sykes are expected to contribute immediately alongside Benn, Jeff Cumberland (12 catches), Chris James (injured in 2007) and others.

"With the young freshmen coming in," Zook said, "we know they're very, very talented and so forth. But that's probably the one position where we're not very sure."

Most Illini fans consider running back to be at least as iffy as receiver.

Junior Daniel Dufrene (47 carries, 294 yards) leads the four-man race to replace Rashard Mendenhall.

"He was a great back," Dufrene said. "But I think we're up for the challenge _ all of us."

Redshirt freshman Troy Pollard and true freshmen Mikel LeShoure and Jason Ford are the other candidates to start against Missouri.

"We're going to find out if it's going to be running back by committee," said offensive coordinator Mike Locksley. "Or if Daniel Dufrene is going to seize the opportunity, which he's going to have every chance to do."