Lenthy Scrimmage Concludes Camp Rantoul

The Fighting Illini football team completed its Camp Rantoul practices with a scrimmage Saturday morning. The energy and intensity found throughout the camp was missing part of the time, but a lot was accomplished nonetheless. And most importantly, there were no serious injuries. The Illini now return to campus for the start of school Monday.

Illinois coach Ron Zook was less than ecstatic with his team's performance Saturday morning, but it did nothing to detract from the overall success of Camp Rantoul.

"I'm not as happy with the way things went. But I'm happy with the camp. I'm excited. We had 18 great practices. We got out healthy, and now we go back. We've still got another week before we get into game planning.

"The thing you maybe didn't see today was the energy. There were a lot of reasons for that. Number one, they were worn out. Number two, they get one eye on Champaign.

"The thing we take out of this is, we've got to be ready to play every day. There's a very thin line between playing the way you want to play and not."

Zook experienced the unexpected in warmups ahead of the scrimmage. Standing in the middle of the field trying to get some sand to fill a hole, Zook was run over by tight end Jon Davis on a pass over the middle from Nathan Scheelhaase. He bounced up quickly, more concerned about his receiver than himself.

"I just went over and asked Jon if he was all right. He said I didn't hurt him. That scared me a little bit for him. You don't usually see me in the middle of the field like that."

The second team defense pounded the first string offense to begin the scrimmage. Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino tried something different but reverted to his base offense when that plan fell apart.

"I didn't say I was gonna keep it simple coming in. I probably just got fed up in the middle and just went to our bread and butter stuff. That's when we started moving the ball better. We took a couple shot plays, and Nathan (Scheelhaase) didn't keep his eyes downfield. So we just went back to our basic stuff."

From then on, Petrino saw things he liked.

"Today, we didn't execute quite as well as we have all camp throwing the ball with the ones. The twos had their best day of camp. The twos were great. We had two quarterbacks live, which helps in our running game. Then Miles (Osei) can run around and make plays.

"I feel way better about our passing game now than when we came into camp. We still need to keep working on it. I think we've got a legitimate four receivers who can go make plays now. We've got a couple tight ends who can make plays.

"We've got to keep working on our different protections and come up with what are our best protections. But I feel good. I feel we'll be able to throw the ball a lot better than last year, no question about it. We've just got to keep running the ball real well."

Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning liked the beginning of the scrimmage.

"We came out and got some stops. The second group stopped the offense; we made some plays, had good pressure and had a good number of sacks."

It was all downhill from then on, disappointing Koenning.

"The first defense was against the second offense, and we had a zone read. We just kept missing tackles and didn't do a good job. Miles did a good job, and they drove it down the field. That's gonna be good for us to coach that.

"And then we didn't do as well in the third and long segment as we need to. Our offense is pretty tough to stop right there on the goal line. They get the ball on the three. I think we got one stop. Jay Prosch and (Jason) Ford ran through us. I hope he's as good as we made him look today. We have to improve our tackling. Hopefully, we won't go against too many guys like that."

Safety Jack Ramsey summarized Koenning's message to the defense afterward.

"We were pretty solid at the beginning, but we kind of let up. We lost our energy, and they started making plays. Our defense didn't stop the zone reads. We've just got to get better tackling and better energy overall."

Koenning was philosophical about his last day in camp.

"It looked like we got really tired the last half of it. We looked like we were physically drained. We'll take the good with the bad and go from there."

The scrimmage consisted of regular game action at the beginning, followed by red zone, goal line and third down situations. It concluded with a two-minute offense.

While statistics are completely unofficial, several offensive players had good days. First string quarterback Scheelhaase completed 13 of 16 passes for 180 yards and a touchdown. He also ran for 26 yards and a touchdown in five carries, not counting his five sacks.

Osei tried only two passes, completing one to Ryan Lankford, who took the short pass, juked a defender and sped downfield for 36 yards. But Osei confounded the first string defense by running draws, options and scrambles for 64 yards in twelve carries. He scored on a six yard scamper.

Freshman Reilly O'Toole was impressive throwing the ball, hitting on 11 of 13 passes for 185 yards and touchdowns of 20 yards to Spencer Harris and 48 yards to A.J. Jenkins. Freshman Chase Haslett hit only one of four passes for 19 yards in limited action, but two of his passes were dropped.

Senior running back Ford was a man Saturday. He gained 86 yards in 16 carries, scoring once. That one score was highly impressive as he tried the right side from four yards out but found his way blocked on a tackle attempt by Steve Hull. He proceeded to break that tackle and run to the opposite side of the field in time to turn the corner and score.

The rest of the time, Ford was bobbing and weaving through small openings in the defense, frequently carrying tacklers for extra yardage. He also caught a pass for 22 yards.

Freshman running back Donovonn Young confirmed his likelihood of early playing time, pounding the defense for 115 yards and two scores in 21 carries. He also caught a 15 yard pass. His biggest run was a touchdown for 32 yards, although a quick spin move on his three yard TD jaunt was just as impressive.

No Illini running back lost a fumble throughout the entire Camp Rantoul, until the last play of the scrimmage. Walkon safety Ben Mathis put a vicious hit on Young, forcing the fumble at the five yard line in a two minute drill.

Freshman Josh Ferguson also saw extended action, and he didn't disappoint. The speedster gained 65 yards in 17 carries, much of it against the first team defense. He scored on runs of 3 and 6 yards. Senior Troy Pollard added 30 yards in 7 carries.

Sixteen different Illini caught passes Saturday, led by A.J. Jenkins with five grabs for 83 yards and a score. Harris continued his outstanding play with four receptions for 58 yards and a touchdown. Darius Millines added three catches for 22 yards, and Davis gained 31 yards in two tries. Brandon Clear caught only one ball, but it was a high lob to the corner of the end zone from O'Toole.

For the defense, Trulon Henry was credited with two sacks. Jake Howe, Jonathan Brown, Eaton Spence and Earnest Thomas added one each. Craig Wilson, Wilson Onyegbule and Houston Bates each recorded tackles for loss. Cornerback Justin Green had pass breakup, and Miami Thomas, Tim Kynard, Henry, Brandon Denmark, Earnest Thomas, Ralph Cooper and D.J. Woods all made quality hits of note.

Brown feels the defense progressed at camp.

"I feel like we made big strides, but we've got a lot more strides to make if we want to be the defense we know we can be. Overall, I think we had good improvement. A goal for the defense before camp was getting to the ball. I feel like we started doing that a little bit more towards the end of camp."

Offensively, Young and Ferguson continued to demonstrate their readiness to contribute as freshmen. Zook wants to make sure they can handle football and school before penciling them in for too much activity in games.

"Both of them have had a great camp and are very athletic guys. It's gonna be important this week to see how they handle school. When they've had one thing to think about, they've done a great job. Now, we put an awful lot on their plates. How's it gonna be then? I think you have to look at that first."

Petrino was just as complimentary.

"Oh yeah, they're gonna be on the field. They're playmaking Jessies. They can run and cut. They'll be fine. They're good football players."

Scheelhaase, whose glassy eyes afterward reminded how tiring camp can be, saw much more to like in Camp Rantoul than last year.

"This time, I feel we got a lot better. I thought we improved on things we needed to. It's great to have competition every day with the defense, going back and forth with those guys. It makes us a better football team."

Scheelhaase was asked the biggest eye-opener for the offense this camp.

"I'd say the attitude in general. I think offensively, we had a great mindset throughout camp. We're real proud of our confidence so far. That's something you want to have as an offense. You want to be confident you're gonna go down and score every time you get the ball. It's something I really feel good about. We're really reaching for the top.

"I feel I definitely threw better the last couple weeks. As an offense, you've got to be able to run the ball and pass the ball. We feel we've got that this year. I'm looking forward to our receivers, our backs, our tight ends. I feel we've got a lot of weapons. It's something that can really put our offense over the top."

Above all else, this Illini team needed to stay healthy this camp. There are 4-5 positions on the team that have less depth than the others. Injuries may have been Zook's biggest concern, but he feels the plan he and his coaches used paid off.

"I think the reason we're healthy is that we practiced so hard. We went after it. Usually, when you try to keep from getting hurt and take it easy, that's when things happen. Even in the spring, they were getting after each other, pounding on each other and playing hard. That's probably the reason we were fortunate enough to stay healthy."

Zook feels the scrimmage, although not an aesthetic success, gave his staff plenty to coach the next two weeks. And it was an excellent reminder no team can let up its focus and play well.

"The thing we take out of this is, we've got to be ready to play every day. There's a very thin line between playing the way you want to play and not."

Illini Inquirer Top Stories