Illini Defense Shines During Double Sessions

The Fighting Illini football team held its first double session of Camp Rantoul Wednesday. A cool front came through overnight, providing more pleasant conditions for the players. It was a good day for the defense, both against the run and the pass.

Illinois continued its Camp Rantoul experience with double sessions. The defense had a good day, although both offense and defense get after each other aggressively. They appear to be evenly matched.

There have been no major injuries among the players as yet, but two assistant coaches are struggling with ailments. Offensive line coach Joe Gilbert has had four surgeries on his knee, and his knee cap isn't remaining in its normal groove. He is wearing a brace and icing his knees after practice.

Ron West tore a calf muscle yesterday, necessitating a walking boot. He limps considerably, but his tone of voice remains strong and authoritative. Both he and Gilbert use a cart whenever possible, but they tough out the practices on their feet.

Fundamentals were emphasized during the morning session, held without full pads. Among position experiments, freshman Valdon Cooper was working at nickel back and saw reps with the first unit. Jack Ramsey remains at safety to provide depth there. And freshman Scott McDowell is sharing second team reps at offensive tackle with Nate Swanson.

Running backs and wide receivers are required to sprint at least 30 yards downfield on each play that comes to them. For running backs, this sometimes means bouncing off multiple tacklers or getting off the ground to complete their runs. Receivers keep going regardless also. On one play, linebacker Jonathan Brown was seen holding onto and running with fleet frosh running back Josh Ferguson as both motored down the field.

Highlights of the morning 7 on 7 and 11 on 11 action included Ryan Lankford making a diving catch of a Nathan Scheelhaase throw. Also, frosh tight end Jon Davis stretched out for a diving grab of a long toss over the middle. He landed on the ball and lost his breath momentarily, but it was a tremendously athletic play. Davis caught a couple other balls as well, one where he reached up high with a defender draped over him.

In addition, Scheelhaase scrambled on a pass attempt and burst upfield for a long gain. He appears quicker this year, although some of that may be attributed to his confidence level and experience in the system. Receiver Brandon Clear received a big hit from middle linebacker Ian Thomas as he caught the ball. He held on.

The defense stuffed several runs. Akeem Spence was prominent along the defensive line. Valdon Cooper made a great diving effort to break up a pass from Scheelhaase intended for Clear. Jonathan Brown, Miami Thomas and Brandon Dawson also broke up passes. Zeph Grimes and Michael Buchanan were credited with sacks.

The evening session continued the same pattern. The offense and defense both made big plays, but the defense came through when needed most. Offensively, Ferguson showed his quickness on a couple runs. Jake Kumerow, who continues to be a frequent receiving target, took a short Scheelhaase toss on a crossing pattern and completed a long gainer down the sideline.

Also, receiver Anthony Williams made a nice catch of a Scheelhaase pass and held on despite a collision with cornerback Justin Green. Receiver Spencer Harris caught three straight passes, one each from Scheelhaase, Miles Osei and Reilly O'Toole.

Scheelhaase had another long gainer on a scramble. Running back Troy Pollard had a big gainer late in the practice, while compatriot Donovonn Young burst through a hole to score in short yardage. On the first play of two-minute offense, Scheelhaase scrambled to the sideline and found Darius Millines wide open for a long TD.

Overall, Scheelhaase had more incompletions Wednesday than usual. In his defense, three of his passes were dropped. Several others required special plays by the defense to prevent catches. Osei continues to show improvement over last season, except in two-minute action, and O'Toole seemed more relaxed.

Defenders were statistic stuffers in the evening. Valdon Cooper and Miami Thomas each broke up passes in one-on-one drills, while Tavon Wilson garnered two. Safety Steve Hull intercepted a Scheelhaase pass during 7 on 7's. Terry Hawthorne, Whitney Mercilus and Akeem Spence all had sacks.

There were several other pass breakups as well. Among the players to accomplish this feat in 7 on 7 or 11 on 11 action were Hawthorne three times, Eaton Spence, Brandon Denmark, Supo Sanni, Green and Brown.

The Illini continue practice Thursday at 3:30 pm.

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