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ILLINOIS REPORT

Team puts in time in the great outdoors

December 27, 2007|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

There was something unusual about Illinois' first practice in Southern California on Wednesday.

No roof.

For more than a month, the Fighting Illini have remained indoors, huddled against the cold and snow of a Midwestern winter. Now they have a chance to venture into sunlight at their temporary home, the Home Depot Center in Carson.

"It was a good experience to get back outdoors," quarterback Juice Williams said. "It's just a lot different."

Though Illinois has a modern, spacious indoor facility, the artificial surface is unlike the natural grass at the Rose Bowl. And the ceiling is too low for punts and punt returns, so special teams have some catching up to do.

"That was probably the biggest thing today," Coach Ron Zook said. "We caught an awful, awful lot of punts. . . . We wore two of the punters out."

Otherwise, it was a fairly routine day.

The team started its final week of preparation for USC by practicing in split squads for an hour, then lifting weights. Zook thought his players looked tired after flying in on Christmas night but said there were no injuries of note.

"It was important that we get on it," he said.

Afterward, they joined USC at Disneyland, where Williams talked to reporters about the Trojans defense, massive linemen stuffed themselves into the teacup ride and star running back Rashard Mendenhall politely deflected questions about whether he will enter the NFL draft in the spring.

Mendenhall preferred to talk about the excitement of playing in a bowl game, something his program had not enjoyed since Jan. 1, 2002.

Zook wants the Illini to appreciate the lengths they have progressed from a recent span of history -- from 2003 to 2006 -- when they won a total of eight games.

"We can't forget," the coach said. "We've still got a ways to go, but I think they understand that."

Some of the seniors have taken it upon themselves to remind freshman receiver Arrelious Benn -- repeatedly -- that he did not have to endure the misery that preceded this 9-3 season.

"They've been on my back about it," Benn said. "I just tell them, 'I helped you all get here.' "

david.wharton@latimes.com

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