First Rantoul Scrimmage Finally In The Books

The first Camp Rantoul scrimmage, postponed due to rain storms Saturday night, was completed at the practice fields Sunday. Both offense and defense did some good things; rookies made a big impression with fans. But there is still much to improve upon with another week of camp yet to go.

Illinois head coach Ron Zook felt the first scrimmage met his needs.

"I saw what you want to see for the first scrimmage. No one got hurt, except Jon Davis sprained his ankle and Evan Wilson tweaked his hamstring, which has been bothering him since this summer.

"Other than that, I think offensively we did some things. Defensively, we didn't tackle very well. We were horrendous tackling, but that's kind of what you expect when you haven't been doing any hitting. I'm pretty optimistic, to be honest with you."

The Illini offense appeared to have the upper hand Saturday night before storms ended the evening. It was obvious the defense was eager to make amends Sunday.

"We really came out defensively and got after the offense. The offense settled down and got it going, and it became a pretty good scrimmage. There was a lot of contact."

Sunday was supposed to be a day of rest, but the players reacted positively to the change of plans according to Zook.

"These guys just go to work. They do what we ask them to do. They understand there's adversity. There's things you don't want to do. They're unselfish; there was no complaining."

Each day, there's competition between UI offensive and defensive coordinators to outwit each other. The offense scored easily it's first possession Saturday. Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning blitzed early and often Sunday, disrupting offensive flow.

The first drive ended when safety Jack Ramsey intercepted a Nathan Scheelhaase pass. The second one saw consecutive sacks by freshman linebacker Henry Dickinson, shared with redshirt freshman defensive tackle Austin Teitsma, plus linebackers Ralph Cooper and Houston Bates, a freshman and redshirt freshman respectively.

"Early on, I was running what I would be in a game and being a little bit more liberal blitzing," Koenning explained. "But then you reach a point where you've got to get better with your base stuff too. So I kind of quit doing it and really worked on base defense.

"As a group, we started the scrimmage pretty good. When we got to the red zone section, we didn't do as well. It was more us not doing some of the things we need to do. I saw a couple assignment mistakes. We had a critical third and long we gave up because one of our linebackers covered the wrong guy.

"We've got some things we've got to work on. Some guys did some decent jobs."

Koenning is a perfectionist, so he will always find ways to improve. He is also highly competitive; Ramsey said Koenning had them fired up to begin the game.

"He called the second group scared, so we wanted to step up to the challenge early. The interception was huge for me, learning a new role at free safety. Coach told me to look for the dig, and I picked it off today."

Any success by the defense brings concern to the offense, and vice versa. Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino was pleased overall but found plenty of things that need improvement.

"In general, I thought the ones played real good. I thought they ran the ball well. We had a couple silly things. Nathan made a pass, and the receiver quit running that probably cost us scoring there.

"I was disappointed with the twos. They need to understand they are one play away from being a one. I didn't think they played real well."

But the offense pleased Petrino overall.

"We still did a lot of good things. Number one, we were tough. That's what we always tell them. I thought we ran the ball pretty well, and you saw some guys making plays.

"I've been happy with Darius (Millines) lately, he's making some plays. Those tight ends are playmakers. You've got a bunch of good running backs. (Ryan) Lankford didn't really show up today like he has been. He's been making all kinds of plays. Maybe that's my fault; maybe I didn't call enough plays. Overall, I thought it was pretty good."

A strong northwest wind affected the scrimmage Sunday. Petrino admitted to adjusting his play-calling because of it.

"A little bit. I probably ran a little bit more. Nathan's been throwing the ball great this camp. It probably made me run it more than I should have.

"I always want to walk off this field feeling we're tough. Sometimes in the middle of scrimmages I just get mad and run it a bunch of times in a row. That's just my personality. We're gonna be tough. If you're tough, you've got a chance to win every game."

Most observers will point with excitement to the play of freshmen Reilly O'Toole, Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson for the offense. Zook saw things he liked in the three playmakers.

"They look like they have a chance to be pretty good players. We've just got to keep grinding on them. I thought Reilly made some really, really nice throws. I was really impressed with some of the things he did.

"Obviously, Donovonn is a strong back and can do some things. But he's got to be able to stick it up in there rather than bounce outside. Those are things you have to learn when you get to college. Josh is quick as a cat, and he can do some things too. We're gonna have some weapons on offense.

Young fought hard for yardage all day, often running against the first team defense. He ended unofficially with 101 yards in 21 carries and two touchdowns (counting Saturday's stats). Zook referred to a play on the two yard line where Young chose to reverse his field rather than plowing forward, losing yardage as a result. Petrino agreed with Zook's assessment of the freshman.

"He runs tough. He's got to not bounce it down there on the goal line."

O'Toole ended the day completing 13 of 17 passes for 205 yards and three touchdowns. While some of that came against deep reserves, he led an impressive two-minute drive against the first team defense and the wind. He didn't score, but he earned the confidence of his coaches and teammates.

"He's a good football player," Petrino described. "Things come real natural and easy to him. That's great to see. If we can get competition at every single position, that's what you want. We've just got to keep it going.

"He's really smart. He picks things up pretty quick. He has the intangibles and does some good things."

Second team quarterback Miles Osei did not fare well, but he usually went against the first team defense. He completed 3 of 7 passes for just ten yards, but he did gain 44 yards on the ground in six carries despite an early whistle to prevent injury. Petrino is not ready to choose between him and O'Toole.

"If you had to play a whole game with our backup quarterback right now, they'd both play. Miles does some good things running, and Reilly does some great things throwing. That will continue to be evaluated."

Koenning was also sensitive to how statistics can be misleading in an intrasquad scrimmage.

"When you've got the running back from Houston against some of the threes, he's gonna get some yards and touchdowns. Some of the statistics become skewed a little bit."

Starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was the leader everyone expects from him. He completed 13 of 16 passes for 126 yards and one touchdown. He also ran for 33 yards in five carries, but like Osei his rushing totals would have been significantly higher without quick whistles.

Scheelhaase was impressed with O'Toole.

"It was good to see him. If you think about it, my first time setting up my freshman year, I was a little nervous. He stepped up and had a good day.

"That's a tribute to our coaching staff for getting us ready. Reilly has picked it up well. You've got to give him credit for studying a lot, doing a lot of things needed at the quarterback position."

Senior running back Jason Ford gained 83 yards in 15 carries and three touchdowns. He constantly battled for extra yardage, sometimes requiring half the defense to bring him down. Backup Troy Pollard totaled 55 yards in 9 tries plus one reception for 23 yards. Ferguson added 70 yards in 16 carries and one TD, the light but swift darter impressing on inside runs as well as outside sorties.

"I thought Jason Ford ran as well as he has," Petrino noted. "He's tough, Josh is quick, Troy made a couple nice cuts. I thought our number one line blocked pretty well."

Ean Days ran well in spurts also, gaining 32 yards in 8 carries. Sixteen different players caught passes. Millines led the way with six receptions for 72 yards. Freshman tight end Matt LaCosse continued to make his presence felt by catching four passes for 39 yards. Tight end Eddie Viliunas caught three balls, and Lankford and Ford had two each.

A number of defenders had good days also. Linebacker Jonathan Brown had two sacks and half a tackle for loss. Defensive tackle Akeem Spence was credited with 1.5 sacks and two other TFL. Bates had two tackles for loss, and Dickinson had half a sack and 1.5 TFL.

Linebacker Brandon Denmark had a sack and TFL, while Whitney Mercilus, Trulon Henry, Supo Sanni, Teitsma, Ralph Cooper, Craig Wilson, Ramsey, Earnest Thomas, Tavon Wilson, D.J. Woods and Michael Buchanan had one or the other. Frosh cornerback Eaton Spence made a resounding tackle for minimal yardage, while he, fellow freshman corner Valdon Cooper, Brown and Bates all broke up passes.

With Ian Thomas sitting out the scrimmage, Ralph Cooper started at middle linebacker. Dickinson also saw significant playing time at weakside linebacker. Zook is optimistic about their futures.

"Those freshman linebackers, you're gonna see them a bunch. They've got to learn to play, and they will. We're gonna see what they can do. When you get in school and have all that stuff, how are they gonna be? I like what I saw."

Koenning agreed Cooper is solid for a freshman and is playing ahead of Denmark at this time. But he needs Ian Thomas, idled temporarily by a sprained AC joint in his shoulder, completely healthy.

"He's a little banged up. I told Ian he's like a '67 Corvette, you keep it in the garage a little bit. He's got a lot of miles on."

Overall, it was a good first scrimmage. Now the team must continue to build on what it has learned throughout the second week of Camp Rantoul.

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