Your guide to Camp Rantoul

Your guide to Camp Rantoul

For the 13th consecutive year, the Illini football team will make the 15-mile trek north to the former Chanute Air Force Base. Beat writer Matt Daniels breaks down all things Camp Rantoul:

Veterans to watch

1. Josh Ferguson. He watched Walter Payton highlight tapes when he was younger. Ferguson won’t run over a middle linebacker from Ohio State this fall, but he could juke one out of his shoes.

2. Earnest Thomas. The possible linchpin to the defense this year is easy to spot, with some blond highlights at the bottom of his dreadlocks. The hard-hitting senior isn’t shy about mixing it up with his teammates and then letting them know.

3. Jon Davis. Making sure he stays away from injuries is key. Outside of Ferguson, the senior tight end gives Illinois the most versatility on offense. During one offensive series, he could line up in at least four different spots.

Dates to remember

1. Monday scrimmage. UI coach Tim Beckman said the Illini will conduct a half scrimmage, starting at 5:30 p.m. at the practice fields. No Bill Walsh Field this year, but this is the best chance for fans to see starters line up together in game-like situations.

2. Aug. 13 tailgate. Wives of the Illini coaches will serve pork chop on a stick, chips and Pepsi from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the practice fields. Donations will be accepted for the Community Service Center of Northern Champaign County. The center helps supply food and services to those who need them in the surrounding area. Players will be available to meet the public as well. It’s all for a good cause, so head out.

3. Aug. 18 practices. Illinois will close its stay in Rantoul with two practices — the first at 10:45 a.m. and the second at 5 p.m. — before heading back to campus for the rest of training camp. The yelling you’ll hear before the sun sets is one of relief from the Illini with another Camp Rantoul in the rearview mirror.

Must-have items the Illini will bring with them

1. A fan. “I can’t sleep without a fan. That’s kind of how I am.” — Wes Lunt

2. A cellphone with good Wi-Fi capability. “The Wi-Fi there is terrible. That’s really the only tool we have.” — Ralph Cooper 

3. A comfortable pillow for naps at the Quarters Inn. “It’s not a five-star hotel, but it’s Rantoul, and we love it for that.” — Cooper

Junior college transfer to watch

1. Jihad Ward. The man-child could start at defensive end. Bill Cubit wouldn’t use the former wideout during any special offensive formations, would he? Now that would intrigue the talking heads this fall.

2. Geronimo Allison. He’ll go up and get any pass from Wes Lunt. Deep balls. Intermediate routes. Jump balls in the end zone. The tantalizing possibilities Allison brings with him should excite fans who see him in person at Rantoul.

3. Carroll Phillips. The former Cincinnati recruit wants to make up for not signing with Bearcats because of academic issues. With no clear-cut starter at LEO, the Miami native could work his way into significant playing time on the edge.

Questions with Juice Williams, a Camp Rantoul veteran

1. What was going through your head before your first Camp Rantoul practice? I just had to treat it like the summer workouts that were held by the seniors and all the 7-on-7 drills we did with the other players. I knew it would be somewhat similar, but once we got to practice, I couldn’t anticipate that type of speed or movement with the guys playing for real. It was the next phase for my college career. I had heard so much about it, so I was excited to get to it. It looks like a football camp. There’s not many trees around, but you kind of need that. Thinking about things in hindsight, a lot of players might complain about it being hot or being long or being away from everyone, but I look back at it as a great opportunity for myself to learn the game and be around the game without any distractions.

2. What’s the best non-football-related memory from your days at Camp Rantoul? I wouldn’t say this is the best, but it’s one that sticks out all the time. My freshman year, I was highly rated coming out of high school, and you’re so used to playing well and being a playmaker for your team. Camp Rantoul is very humbling, especially for incoming freshmen. I had a rough time. That very first practice, I had a set list of plays. Out of 10 plays, I threw four interceptions and three incompletions. That was pretty much the trend for the first four days. I can recall sitting at dinner one day, and I had a biscuit in my hand. I threw the biscuit across the room out of frustration. I was just crying and had to ask myself, “Is college football really for me?” The coaches came up and embraced me a little bit. It was tough at the time, but it’s a funny memory now. I did some damage with that biscuit.  

3. What’s it like to be back at Camp Rantoul this year? It’s going to be different. Rantoul means the start of the season is just around the corner. I’m excited to see the guys come out and play. I tell people all the time, “This is the closest I can get to college football without having to actually put on the helmet.” The guys have worked so hard this offseason to get better and get prepared for this season.

Different ways to arrive at Rantoul from C-U

1. Go the conventional route and take Interstate 57 to Exit 250 for Rantoul. Drive past the new Mobil gas station on the left, swing a right at Tanner Street and wave to Rantoul’s Village Hall on the left before hitting U.S. 45 and then Wheat Avenue, where the practice fields are.

2. Get prepared for a bumpy ride along U.S. 45. Once you pass Eastland Suites Hotel and Conference Center in north Urbana, keep going north. Thomasboro, which just celebrated its 150th anniversary this summer, is along the way, and so is Boulder Designs (check out its work), but you won’t see much else besides farmland.

3. This one has you eventually passing by Thomasboro again, but head north on Market Street in Champaign and get out in the country. Then make a right on Leverett Road and wind your way through acres of farmland. If you’re feeling adventurous, make a right on Chandler Road before turning left on Century Boulevard and arriving at the practice fields off Wheat Avenue.

Recruits you'd love to see in Rantoul

1. Terry Beckner. More a pipe dream, but East St. Louis defensive tackle is state’s top prospect. 

2. Quinn Oseland. Three-star offensive tackle from Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin remains a priority for Illini.

3. Dre Brown. DeKalb running back is already on board, but he isn’t shy of talking up Illinois to other recruits.

Assistant coaches to watch

1. Bill Cubit. He’s not a big screamer and yeller all the time like some coaches. But he will have his eyes most of the time on the progress of the quarterbacks and will put them in the best possible position to rack up big numbers this season.

2. Mike Bellamy. Hard to believe 25 years have passed since the former Illini caught passes from Jeff George. His unit doesn’t have a proven commodity, but he enhanced his reputation with what he was able to do with last season’s group.

3. Tom Brattan. The newest hire on staff is helped out in transition by having quite possibly the most experienced position group on the team. He brings wealth of experience with him.

Questions with Jill Alred, Rantoul resident and Illinois QB Club member

1. As a fan, what’s one item regarding the Illinois football team you’ll be watching closely at Camp Rantoul? I always enjoy watching the competition among the quarterbacks.

2. Who’s your all-time favorite Illinois player you’ve watched at Camp Rantoul and why? I really enjoyed watching Vontae Davis. He was so athletic, agile and quick. He caught my eye from the first time I saw him, and I knew he was going to be something special while at Illinois.

3. The Illinois Quarterback Club will host a Ladies’ Day event from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Wednesday at the Hilton Garden Inn in Champaign. Why should people go? Ladies’ Day is a great way to get to know our coaches’ wives. It’s also a chance to win raffle prizes, bid on live auction items and receive an Illini gift with the new logo. The food, program, atmosphere and conversing with other Illini friends is a wonderful way to spend a Wednesday afternoon.

Illini who will get plenty of autograph requests

1. Wes Lunt. Rocket arm. Check. Prototypical size. Check. Engaging personality with young fans. Check.

2. Josh Ferguson. Quiet, yet isn’t about to turn away from a youngster wanting a few moments of his time.    

3. Austin Teitsma. His personality alone elicits a laugh from anyone around him.

Position groups to watch

1. Quarterback. By the time camp ends, Beckman might have named Lunt the starter. Even if he doesn’t, enjoy watching the way the ball comes out of his hand. Or the way Aaron Bailey runs on an option-read play.  

2. Strong safety. Taylor Barton’s hold on the starting spot might be tenuous, at best, by the time Illinois heads back to campus for good. Eaton Spence could find himself receiving more reps here.

3. Right tackle. Austin Schmidt could become the starter — by the time the 2015 season ends. Looks like Michael Heitz will get first crack there, which causes other shifts along the line if the left guard holds down Corey Lewis’ old spot.

Questions for Luke Humphrey, Rantoul Rec Department director

1. How are the practice fields looking? The grounds maintenance staff has done a tremendous job over the past 12 months, and our fields are in great condition. We are hoping Mother Nature blesses us with beautiful weather, and if she could, just hold off on the rain until we get through camp.

2. How much do you stress about the field conditions leading up to Camp Rantoul? The three fields we use for camp are managed year-round. We do our best to keep the turf pristine, as we do with many other fields in our department. When it comes to actual conditions, we cut to height and irrigate based on what the Illinois coaches request.

3. What’s the best part of Camp Rantoul for you? The best part of Camp Rantoul is being part of an event that not many recreation departments and towns across the U.S. can say they host. This camp allows us to showcase not only our recreational facilities but the village of Rantoul as a whole.

Freshmen to watch

1. Mike Dudek. The Neuqua Valley product dazzled in almost every spring practice he went through four months ago, only to have a hamstring strain sideline him at the spring game. His biggest contributions this fall could come in the return game. 

2. Nick Allegretti. The U.S. Army All-American arrived this summer and could find playing time if a starter falters. The former high school wrestler is already an ace student and comes from a stout Lincoln-Way East program.

3. Malik Turner. The first scholarship player from Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin to land with the Illini in quite some time, Turner has done nothing to hamper the solid reputation he brought with him to Champaign.

WDWS radio shows to check out

1. “The News-Gazette Sports Page.” Stop by T&T Tavern in downtown Rantoul, right off Century Boulevard. Marcus Jackson, Bob Asmussen and Matt Daniels will entertain folks with this award-winning show from
5 to 6 p.m. Monday.

2. “SportsTalk.” Steve Kelly will bring his expertise to the Camp Rantoul practice fields from 5 to 6 p.m. Tuesday, with Loren Tate airing his opinions and years of knowledge as well.

3. “SportsTalk.” Kelly will broadcast live Wednesday from 5 to 6 p.m. again at Illinois practice, with Daniels joining the fray.

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