August 4, 2006
Champaign, IL (CSTV U-WIRE) -- CHICAGO - The Fighting Illini will look a little different as they head to Camp Rantoul on Sunday.
For one thing, defensive end Melvin Alaeze - once ranked the No. 4 prep player in the country - will have joined the squad.
The Department of Intercollegiate Athletics confirmed Thursday that Alaeze, a former Maryland signee, will wear orange and blue this fall.
Alaeze will join three other transfers and 20 freshmen as newcomers to the Fighting Illini squad. But during Big Ten Media Day on Wednesday, senior E.B. Halsey said the returning players are anticipating the start of the season as much as their new teammates are.
"We're excited to get into camp and really get things going," the running back said.
Halsey said summer 7-on-7 and workouts have shown the team's ability to improve and have produced major strides from many of the new players. Halsey pointed to Vontae Davis and Jeff Cumberland as freshmen he expects to be major factors this fall.
"You look at (Davis) and you think he's a sophomore already; he's got the body structure and understands what he's doing," Halsey said. "(Cumberland) poses problems for linebackers because he's so fast he can run back and fourth across the field, but he's so big that safeties and corners can't handle him."
Fellow senior running back Pierre Thomas said the rookie he's most impressed with is an obvious choice, quarterback Isiah "Juice" Williams. Thomas said Williams appears to be living up to his hype as one of the best high school quarterbacks in the country.
"I saw him one day at practice launch an 80-yard bomb into the end zone," Thomas said. "A lot of people talk about that on his highlight tape, but when I saw that in person, I was like 'Man, this kid has an arm.' He's amazing."
Thomas said the veteran players tried to build team unity throughout summer workouts, and strove to encourage newcomers rather than tearing them down. He said coaches stressed that knowing each other on and off the field would make for more success on game day, and players worked to build those bonds.
"We wanted them to have confidence coming in," Thomas said. "There are times out there when you mess up, and you've got to have confidence and keep playing."
Camp Rantoul will feature two weeks of intensive workouts for the Illini before they return to campus on Aug. 20. With 2-a-day workouts and strenuous conditioning, Rantoul will provide the Illini with one last push of preparation before the season starts against Eastern Illinois on Sept. 2.
Halsey said beginning camp means the team will finally get a good look at how the offensive and defensive lines have improved. While other positions have shown growth over the summer, Halsey said, it's difficult to measure the lines' improvement during the off-season.
"That's one thing you really can't evaluate during the summer in 7-on-7, how good the offensive and defensive lines are going to be," Halsey said. "What we have taken from spring, though, is that our offensive line is tremendous and our defensive line is only getting better."
(C) 2006 Daily Illini via CSTV U-WIRE