Offense Has Upper Hand At Tuesday Practice

The Fighting Illini football team fought through tiredness and soreness to complete a highly competitive practice ahead of time Tuesday. These might be considered the dog days of Camp Rantoul. Heat and the monotony of the daily grind can reduce energy levels. But Illini coaches would not permit any letdown as preparations continue for the 2011 season.

Camp Rantoul saw the return of higher temperatures Tuesday, and there was minimal wind to cool down the Illinois players. Regardless, they fought through it and had a hard-hitting practice.

Illini coach Ron Zook said the offense appeared to have the upper hand. That is why the defense went to a separate field afterward to regroup.

"It's funny. If one side gets the upper hand one day, the next day the other side gets it. It's what makes you better. They're competing their tails off.

"I think they're more upset with themselves than anything. The energy level was the biggest thing. The offense came out with a little higher energy level because the defense had a little better day yesterday.

"That's what makes us better because each day you're competing against each other. Tomorrow, they'll come out here ready to go. That's what we have to have."

There was only one injury of note during the hard-hitting practice. Hearts dropped when defensive tackle Akeem Spence was late getting up from a scrum. Fortunately, it was a minor problem that will set him back only briefly according to Zook.

"Akeem Spence sprained his ankle a little bit, but he's all right. It probably scared him more than anything. He's smiling, so I think he'll be all right."

The defense got a chance to attack a live quarterback as freshman Chase Haslett took off his red shirt early in the practice. The defense dominated much of the period. Haslett completed only one pass, but it was a long sideline toss to a leaping Brandon Clear.

Other plays producing positive yards for the offense included freshman running back Donovonn Young breaking two tackles for a big gain; senior running back Troy Pollard fighting through defenders for 10 tough yards; And frosh back Josh Ferguson using a quick burst for a long gainer that would have been a touchdown had Terry Hawthorne not caught him downfield.

The offense caught fire in red zone action. Running backs Jason Ford, Pollard, Young and Ferguson scored two touchdowns each. Several of the plays saw runners look inside and then bounce outside of contain to reach paydirt untouched. The defense saved a little face with first defensive end Glenn Foster and then defensive tackle Wisdom Onyegbule fighting through blocks for tackles for loss.

There were several impressive individual plays by the offense in 7 on 7 and 11 on 11 action late in the day. A.J. Jenkins ran a short hook route and then reversed direction after the catch for a big gain down the sideline. Jenkins later caught a touchdown pass from Nathan Scheelhaase.

Reilly O'Toole found Spencer Harris on a long crossing pattern. Spencer caught four other passes, including a short flat pattern he turned into a long gainer and a touchdown grab from Scheelhaase.

Freshman tight end Matt LaCosse continued his fine play. He caught two passes, one where he held on despite a hard hit by linebacker Ian Thomas, and the other where he stretched out his 6'-6" frame parallel to the ground.

Freshman receiver Kenny Knight caught a touchdown pass from Scheelhaase. Both Ford and Pollard had long gainers. O'Toole hit receiver Anthony Williams with a short pass over the middle, and Williams hung on despite a safety draped over him. Ford scored on two short bursts. And freshman Taylor Zalewski booted a 36 yard field goal.

The final segment of practice was a situation where the offense was leading 25-23 with a minute to play. The defense was challenged to get the ball back and score in the remaining time. Despite extra incentive by the defense, the offense calmly gained two first downs to secure the victory.

In the first instance, Pollard bounced off defensive end Whitney Mercilus to gain three important yards. He then broke two more tackles for another six yards. Bandit Michael Buchanan hit Ford hard on third down, but he pushed forward the one yard needed.

Onyegbule threw Pollard for a one yard loss on first down. But Scheelhaase then calmly completed a seven yard toss to Ryan Lankford before Ford bounced a run to the outside to gain more than enough for the first down as time ran out.

The defense had its moments as well throughout the practice. Cornerback Tavon Wilson and safety Jack Ramsey each broke up two passes, and safety Steve Hull broke up one. Buchanan and tackle Craig Wilson had sacks.

Linebacker Brandon Denmark had a sack and shared another one with fellow linebacker Jonathan Brown. Foster and fellow defensive end Tim Kynard shared a sack as well. Safety Supo Sanni threw Young for a one yard loss.

In other news, freshman lineman Chris Boles has finally been cleared by the NCAA and should report by Thursday. Unfortunately, defensive tackle signee Willie Beavers has enrolled at Western Michigan. He was cleared by the NCAA but not by the Illinois administration.

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