Illinois scrimmaged for more than one and a half hours in Memorial Stadium Saturday. It wasn't a full game as there were many situational drills. Both the offense and defense had good moments, but mistakes and penalties marred the action at times. Overall, head coach Ron Zook saw positives in the effort.
"I think we're making progress. We're doing some of the things we need to do. We've got to improve the passing game, which we will. We tackled better in the first scrimmage than what often happens in the first scrimmage, but we've got to continue to do that."
Zook felt neither side of the ball held a major advantage over the other.
"There were too many big runs, which was good for the offense, bad for the defense. We didn't throw the ball well early, which was good for the defense and bad for the offense. Both sides have got a lot of work to do, but I feel good about where we are."
Zook didn't hesitate to pick out a WILL linebacker for player of the day.
"I thought Houston Bates was probably the guy that showed up the most. I think he's probably worked himself into the position where he's gonna play an awful lot of football."
Bates was prominent throughout. He stuffed a Troy Pollard run for no gain and held Bud Golden to one yard on a pass from Miles Osei. But he ended his day with a fluorish. Playing with his hand on the ground in a nickel package during a 2 minute drill, the former defensive end drilled Osei for sacks on three straight plays to conclude the scrimmage.
Bates likely earned a starting berth from his play, but he got his chance with the first unit when Jonathan Brown, who also suffered an ankle sprain, was taken out of the game after committing a personal foul. Zook says this is a continuing problem for the Memphis youngster.
"He swung and hit somebody. It was kind of a bogus thing in the Michigan State game last year. The guy hit him first, and he swung back. But that's the second time this spring. He's got to learn; we can't just keep telling him. I don't care if they hit you first or not, you can't swing at them.
"We've got to correct it; otherwise he won't be in there anyway. What he fooled around and did was lost his position. Houston Bates came out here and took his position. That's fine with me. He'll have to fight his way to get it back."
Penalties marred the action. Holding calls were especially prominent, especially when aggressive defenders went up against reserve offensive linemen. But Zook took issue with some of the calls.
"They had a clinic going on, and they called it pretty tight. We've got to learn from it."
Second team quarterback Miles Osei was live throughout, and he took a lot of hits. Nathan Scheelhaase wanted to go live also, but calmer heads prevailed.
"Yeah, (Osei) probably more (hits) than he should have. That makes a big difference for those guys. Once he settled down, he did a nice job."
Osei isn't challenging for a starting berth, but he appeared to play better as the day went along. He completed 13 of 28 throws for 221 yards and one touchdown. He also threw an interception to Brandon Denmark, who returned it 51 yards for a score. Osei ran for 87 yards in 11 carries, not counting his 8 sacks.
Scheelhaase had trouble finding open receivers early, settling for positive yards with his patented scrambles. He ended up gaining 54 yards on 6 carries. He suffered three sacks, four if you count an obvious Justin Staples grab that was not called.
Scheelhaase ended up with better than 50% completion percentage, hitting 9 of 16 for 85 yards and one touchdown, but he did not look comfortable with the passing attack.
One must not pay too much attention to these unofficial statistics, skewed because much of the scrimmage was limited to situational drills. For instance, several early possessions began 99 yards from paydirt. There were also a number of 3rd down situations plus red zone work. Play-calling many times required running plays or short passes. This affected both the running and passing game.
With Jason Ford resting a sore knee, both Troy Pollard and Bud Golden had positive moments. Pollard ran hard, even moving a pile five yards on one occasion. He combined strength with quickness and maneuverability to gain 110 yards in 20 carries and one touchdown.
"Troy is healthy this year, for the first time really," Zook reminds. "I've always felt that Troy has a chance to be a really good back."
Golden operated against the first string defense much of the time but ran over people when possible. He gained 40 yards in 16 carries and added a short TD. Ean Days, in only his second day with the offense, scored a touchdown and added 19 yards in 9 carries. He was guilty of the day's only fumble. And walkon Arshan Pouladdej gained 32 yards in 3 carries against deep reserves.
Ryan Lankford was Scheelhaase's go-to receiver, netting 70 yards on 6 receptions. Tight end Eddie Viliunas was popular with Osei, catching four balls for 31 yards. Anthony Williams, making up for a frustrating day Wednesday, had three receptions for 18 yards against double and triple teaming. Jake Kumerow and Spencer Harris had 3 grabs each, for 51 and 33 yards respectively.
Others with receptions included Golden, fullback Chris Willett, Justin Lattimore and Fritz Rock. Senior Fred Sykes only had one reception, but it was a big 60 yarder over the middle where Steve Hull prevented a touchdown at the five yard line. Tight end Evan Wilson caught only one ball, but it was a 6 yard touchdown.
Illini defenders besides Bates made big plays as well. For instance, defensive tackle Craig Wilson stuffed the middle on several running plays and was credited with a sack. In addition, he knocked an Osei pass back into his face.
"That's the advantage of a 6'-4"+ plus guy rather than a 6'-1" guy," defensive coordinator Vic Koenning stated.
Wilson is far from a finished project, but Koenning says he has potential.
"Any time someone moves to a new position, there's some growing pains. He's a little older, and thank goodness we've got him. He's gonna have to be a guy that steps up and penetrates, plugs the middle and eventually learns how to get off blocks and make tackles. We're not there quite yet."
Zook also found positives with Wilson's play.
"We've got to help him, but standing back there I felt him a lot. He's a tough guy, and he made some strides."
Besides Bates, other Illini with sacks included Whitney Mercilus and Dawson with two each plus Akeem Spence, Tim Kynard and Glenn Foster. Spence had two other tackles for loss. Earnest Thomas, Brown, Ian Thomas and Foster also enjoyed TFL. Kynard tipped a pass and Earnest Thomas, Trulon Henry, Tavon Wilson and Miami Thomas all broke up passes.
Koenning found positives for his crew. The experienced and deep secondary appeared to have a good day for the most part. But he wants perfection, and the Illini are far from that at this time.
"We've got to get tougher and a whole lot faster. We've got to create some habits with running the ball that we don't have yet."
"It doesn't need to come from me. If it does right now, it does. But it can come from Ian Thomas, from Whitney (Mercilus), Mike Buchanan, those three to start with. Terry Hawthorne and maybe Tavon Wilson may be closest to it in the secondary.
"I could probably go on and say anyone in the right jersey who feels like they're brave enough to give the effort their mouth is. If they want to lead by their mouth, then they've got to back it up. Their actions speak louder than anything they say.
"Right now, we've got to get some guys to step up. Just be tough guys. Jump up and be tough. 'You go as fast and as hard as I do.' That's what we need."
Koenning always speaks his mind, but he's not as stressed out as this time last year. He's saving his sleepless nights for fall. And he is willing to consider outside influences such as the warmer day when evaluating his players.
"We've been practicing when it's been 35, 45 or maybe 50 degrees. This was obviously a welcome sight, but I'm sure some of those guys had heat issues toward the end of it."
In the kicking department, Derek Dimke boomed a prodigous field goal that went far longer than the intended 35 yards but was wide left. Matt Eller got good hang time on his two 35 yard punts.
All in all, this was as good or better than most scrimmages after two weeks of spring ball. It was something on which to build. At the same time, the numerous mistakes can serve as excellent teaching moments. Zook knows more progress is ahead.
"It was a lot better than the first big scrimmage last year, but there are a lot of things to correct. The thing of it is, this group has done a pretty good job of getting better every day, and they will."