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Illinois focuses on sustained success
By Lindsey Willhite | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 8/23/2008 11:38 PM

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CHAMPAIGN - Practice at Camp Rantoul had been through for an hour. The sun, no longer making everyone uncomfortable, rested just above the tree line on the horizon.

Illinois' skill players, required to get in a lifting session after practice, attacked the weights and then achily ambled back to their rooms at the Quarters Inn for some rest before dinner.

All of them except a pair of receivers: sophomore Arrelious Benn and highly touted freshman Cordale Scott.

They ventured out into the quiet street between the fields and the weights. Then Benn, one of 35 young men on the Walter Camp national player of the year watch list, conducted his unscheduled class.

With Scott staring at every move he made, Benn performed a series of mini-routes, hip and shoulder wiggles and other tricks every wideout should know.

Then, like a rebounder in basketball, Benn leaned his sculpted, tattooed body against Scott's slender frame and showed him how to shield a defensive back from breaking up a pass.

"I was like that a year ago, but I really didn't have too many people to show me," said Benn, who went on to become Big Ten Freshman of the Year.

"I just had to go with what I had to go with and learn from my mistakes. He's benefiting from it real well. He's showing more confidence in what he's doing."

Ron Zook wasn't anywhere near Benn's Rantoul tutorial, but he would have been giddy to see it.

After losing 12 of the 24 players who started in the Rose Bowl on January 1 - including Big Ten offensive player of the year Rashard Mendenhall and all-conference seniors J Leman and Martin O'Donnell - Zook worried throughout the off-season whether new leaders might take root.

Here's Zook on the eve of Camp Rantoul:

"We're going to find out what kind of leaders that this senior class is," he said. "The reason I say that is, we've got two (recruiting) classes that think, 'I come to the University of Illinois and go to the Rose Bowl.' Well, that's not how it works.

"The seniors and the juniors, they're going to have to make sure those guys remember what they went through with the 2-10 and 2-9 (seasons). There was an awful lot of work and an awful lot of heartache."

Now, here's Zook on Thursday - the day after Camp Rantoul concluded:

"In camp, when it was tough, when guys were trying to just get through it, that's where your senior leadership has to come through," he said. "And your junior leadership also."

And, judging by Benn's actions, sophomores, too.

"This was a tough camp," Zook said. "Because we're a little better team, we probably went a little bit faster. I feel very, very good about the leadership right now."

With one week until No. 20 Illinois' opener with No. 6 Missouri at St. Louis, Zook and his staff have figured out how to fill most of the holes opened by graduation, early NFL entry and injuries.

Junior Dan Dufrene, who was timed at 4.41 in the 40-yard dash during the spring, earned the running back job that belonged to Mendenhall.

"People already know about my speed," Dufrene said. "But I just want to show that I can be a power back, too."

Senior Brit Miller slides over from strong-side linebacker into Leman's spot in the middle.

"I think it's going to be easier," Miller said. "I feel more comfortable knowing where everything's at. I'm a guy that has a nose for the ball."

Sophomore Martez Wilson, a prep All-American, steps into Antonio Steele's weak-side linebacker spot, where everyone's expectations have placed him on the Butkus Award watch list.

Senior Eric Block and sophomore Randall Hunt used Camp Rantoul to cement spots at left guard and right tackle, respectively.

With junior split end Jeff Cumberland out for at least a month with a stress fracture in his foot, junior Chris Duvalt has joined Benn and sophomore Chris James as starting receivers.

Ballhawking sophomore Travon Bellamy and junior-college transfer Donsay Hardeman have the inside line on the safety jobs vacated by Justin Harrison and Kevin Mitchell - "Donsay, he's put himself into position to have some knockout blows more than anybody I've ever seen during camp," Zook said - but sophomores Bo Flowers, Nate Bussey and Garrett Edwards remain in the mix, too.

The biggest question mark might be at kicker where a trio of walk-ons (Derek Dimke, Matt Eller and Matt Brandabur) are struggling to live up to Jason Reda's productivity as the school's career scoring leader.

Zook, who has been conducting daily competitions, might not decide on his kicker until moments before Illinois and Mizzou kick off.

"One of them will come through," Zook said.

Illinois Fighting Illini

Coach: Ron Zook (4th year, 13-23).

2007 record: 9-4, 6-2 (tied for 2nd); lost to USC 49-17 in the Rose Bowl.

Last bowl miss: 2006

All-Big Ten candidates: QB Juice Williams, WR Arrelious Benn, LT Xavier Fulton, C Ryan McDonald, DE Will Davis, MLB Brit Miller, OLB Martez Wilson, CB Vontae Davis.

The Illini will go to a bowl: As long as all of last year's good karma and hard-earned breaks (think: no turnovers and 1 penalty in the upset at No. 1 Ohio State) must not be paid back this year. Can they repeat either the Penn State or Wisconsin wins when they face those teams on the road?

BCS finish the last five years (2007 listed first*): 13th, 100th, 88th, 96th, 102nd.

* Ratings (courtesy CollegeBCS.com) are pre-bowls.

- Lindsey Willhite

Schedule

Aug. 30, Missouri (at St. Louis), 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 6, E. ILLINOIS, 11 a.m.

Sept. 13, LOUISIANA-LAFAYETTE, 11 a.m.

Sept. 20, Open

Sept. 27, at Penn State, 7 p.m.

Oct. 4, at Michigan 2:30 p.m.

Oct. 11, MINNESOTA, 11 a.m.

Oct. 18, INDIANA, 7 p.m.

Oct. 25, at Wisconsin, 11 a.m.

Nov. 1, IOWA, TBA

Nov. 8, Western Michigan (at Detroit), 11 a.m.

Nov. 15, OHIO STATE, TBA

Nov. 22, at Northwestern, TBA