- The temp was in the high 30s and the wind was in the low 20s-mph range. It wasn't a miserably cold night, not like we've had in the recent past, but it wasn't pleasant either. Since the whole idea was sparked and announced, I wondered how many people would show face. After snow put the chill on the numbers in Chicago, I knew weather would be a factor for the draw. With the cold and the gusts in mind, I set the over-under at 750… And anybody taking the over won. There was al least 1,000 people there, many of course there to watch Wes Lunt. He played high school ball at nearby Rochester and was greeted by cheers and signs scattered among those in the stands. The crowd was into the scrimmage, was loud and stayed for a good portion of the action.
- A few names of note… Jack Cornell was there. I didn't get to talk to him, but I heard another reporter speaking with the Oakland Raiders o-lineman. Cornell gushed about the Illini getting around the state to practice and said he's a big fan of current o-line coach A.J. Ricker. Also there: SHG's Malik Turner (signee) and Quinn Oseland (2015 offered). Both of those guys were pumped to be on hand and Turner said he's constantly recruiting his buddy to join him at Illinois next season… The hot rumor was that Gabe Megginson, from nearby Jacksonville, was going to visit, too. That didn't happen due to traveling back from a recent string of visits to Wisconsin, Ohio State, Penn State and N.C. State… Matt Sinclair was also there. He resigned his position within the program in late February and was probably on hand because he has family in the area.
- On to the good stuff… If I could sum the night up in one sentence it would be like this: The starters annihilated the guys that aren't starters… And that's how it should be. The No. 1 offense had explosive moments and scored quite easily, regardless of who quarterbacked the unit (mostly). The opening line-up went like this… Lunt. Josh Ferguson, Geronimo Allison, Martize Barr, Mike Dudek and Justin Hardee. Simon Cvijanovic, Alex Hill, Joe Spencer, Ted Karras and Michael Heitz.
A few things… No surprises there, except for the Spencer, Heitz, Hill shake-up. A) This gets Spencer more reps. Yay for the development of depth. B) This gets Hill and Heitz more comfortable at guard and tackle. C) This creates either a back-up plan if Austin Schmidt isn't ready or if D) Nick Allegretti is ready. Get all that?
Offensively, I'm buying it. I'm worried about depth, especially on the offensive line, but the starting group is impressive. Margin for error (in terms of attrition or injury) is slim. How many times have I typed that phrase since I moved here? THE MARGIN FOR ERROR IS SLIM!!!!!!! You know, I know. We know.
A few big plays by the offense:
Lunt to Allison for a 40-yard TD… This was near the beginning of the scrimmage and was probably the best play of the night, although that's certainly up for debate.
Lunt to Dudek for 40 yards - called back due to penalty.
30-yard catch and run by White… Pass over the middle, dodged a tackle and piled on the YAC.
17-yard TD run by Reilly O'Toole… Kept it on a read-option. He has more than decent wheels.
50-yard Allison catch from O'Toole. It's not hard. Allison is faster than you. He ran by you. You tried.
35-yard TD pass from O'Toole to Barr. Highlight reel here, with Barr juggling the catch in the end zone after a defender nearly swatted it away. Good throw by Reilly.
Aaron Bailey to Hardee for 45 yards. It was cancelled out by a holding call, but Hardee did a good job battling for position with Caleb Day to make the catch. Not an ideal throw (it could have gone in Day's favor if not for Hardee's physicality), but hell, it worked.
Reverse run by Dudek... Didn't gain much, but I want to point it out. His speed is a tool -- a tool that should be used in as many ways as possible. Lunt to Dudek for about 30 yards. I thought this was Lunt's best throw of the night. Perfect touch on a route with Dudek about 15 yards upfield and moving to the sideline. Lunt placed it perfect and Dudek ran for nearly 20 yards inside the red zone.
I came away knowing that Lunt will be the starter, not as disappointed in O'Toole as I might have been, blown away by Allison and Dukek, sold on Hardee stepping up and feeling pretty good about the first-team o-line. Also, I didn't mention the run game any, but Ferguson looked like Ferguson. He made a few nice spin moves and had that floating look on the edge, where he kind of jumps sideways for three or four yards to evade a tackler.
Still worried about depth, but yeah, that's probably not gonna change. Tyrin Stone-Davis and Allegretti will help though.
Defensively, man, I'm not big on the starters and couldn't possibly be OK with the depth. Here's the starting look…
Taylor Barton and Zane Petty at safety. V'Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence at corner. Earnest Thomas at star. Or Star. Whichever. Mason Monheim and T.J. Neal at linebacker. Woods and Smoot split time at Leo. A number of guys rotated on the d-line, including Teko Powell, Austin Teitsma, Jarrod Clements, Kenny Nelson…
The No. 1 defense did what it needed to do against the back-ups on offense. It's wasn't as prolific as the No. 1 offense, but here is the list of plays that stood out…
Smoot applying pressure on a particular third down. He didn't quite get the sack, but he caused an incompletion. He's the guy — I think he might have the highest ceiling on defense. I'm not going to lock that in just yet, but he's developing into the pass rusher those guys need.
Woods sacked Bailey. And then a few plays later, Bailey was sacked by Kenny Nelson. Nelson might have gotten to Bailey twice. Bailey had one series where nothing went his way.
I saw Teitsma make a few nice plays and Monheim had a couple rough-looking tackles as well.
I want to see how this unit looks when Jihad Ward and Carroll Phillips, but for now, there's not enough good enough players on this side of the ball. Safety and the defensive line are more than worrisome. A lot hinges on those JUCO guys and Teko Powell putting it all together.
And just for fun, Coach Beckman had all the former QBs on staff compete in ‘Who can throw the pigskin the farthest' at the end of the practice. Any guesses on who won? That's right, it was Juice. By a lot. By a mile.
Anyway, I guess the question is… Was it worth it? I say yes. No question. It was another practice session and who cares where that happens? And if it works out that Oseland or anybody in the future from the Springfield area chooses Illinois, this trip will be accounted for. There was nothing to lose, even if a so-so crowd showed up. Fortantely, a great crowd came out, including a top target, and the team put on an enjoyable show. I hear the staff will continue to use the spring to get out and practice around the state in the future. So be on the lookout — the Illini could be coming to a venue near you in 2015 and beyond.
Just to note — I had my first ‘Famous Horseshoe' at D'arcy's Pint, a well-known spot in Springfield. Whoa! I had the Deluxe, complete with a piece of Texas toast, french fries, ground beef, tomotoes, onions, bacon and cheese sauce — a lot of cheese sauce. Very, very satisfying. I pride myself on being a big eater, so I had to clean my plate. I finished the drill and will admit it was a challenge. Not sure how it was determined, but a good number of the players were treated to horseshoes and pizza on the way home. Good times.
Don't hesitate to head to the message board and ask me more questions, about the scrimmage or the team in general.