Defense Dominates In Rantoul Scrimmage

Tonight the Fighting Illini football team held their first scrimmage of the Ron Zook era. A crowd of roughly 1000 people looked on as a wild new offense and a seemingly improved defense clashed for a solid 90 minutes on the Rantoul High School football field.

The headline of this report could be misleading. Truthfully, in a setting like this it is difficult for an average fan - such as myself - to determine if a good defense is the result of a bad offense, and vice-versa. All one can do is observe what is taking place on the field and try to make sense of it. Let's get started...

As of this writing, it appears the first team defense will consist of Charles Bailey and Alan Ball at the cornerback spots. Morris Virgil and Kevin Mitchell complete the secondary. J Leman, Remond Willis III and Anthony Thornhill will line up at linebacker in the traditional 4-3 scheme. In the Nickel package, James Cooper replaces Willis. Up front on the defensive line, Derek Walker and Xavier Fulton start on either side of tackles Ryan Matha and Chris Norwell. This is of course subject to change, especially since we're all waiting to get word of star DT Ismail Abdunafi's eligibility. Abdunafi is missing valuable practice time. Considering few, if any, Illini fans have seen Abdunafi play it's hard to say whether he will start over either Matha or Norwell once (if) he is cleared to play. Is he good enough to miss this much time and still start and be effective?

Effective tonight was the Illini defense. The line appeared to get good penetration and also provide great help against the run. The linebackers all played better tonight than I had seen at any practice at Camp Rantoul previously. Leman was particularly impressive. Trying to slow down a no-huddle, fast-paced passing offense can't be an easy task bu, for the most part, the Illini secondary did very well for themselves tonight. Again, Travis Williams impressed. I watch Travis continue to make plays and wonder to myself "how is this guy not starting?"

OK, "what about the offense?" you ask. The most honest answer I can give you is "I don't know." Seriously. I could pretend to know whether or not the offense looks good, but I would be lying. I don't know if the offense looks good. It is such a dramatic change from what we have seen over the previous eight years I don't know how anyone not on the coaching staff can make a determination about its progress. All I know is that it is fun to watch. Ron Turner loved to lull defenses to sleep then bust out the play-action bomb. I have yet to see that from this offense. This offense seems more intent on getting back to the line as fast as humanly possible and rushing to get the next play started. The ball is spread all over the entire field. Each time the ball is snapped and the QB goes back to throw, you literally have no idea which direction the ball could be headed. Which back is going to carry the ball? Who knows? Is Pierre Thomas going to stay back and protect the QB or is he going to run into the flat and wait for a pass? For those of you who grew weary of the West Coast offense, I have a message: wake up! Open your tired eyes and try to keep up.

Random notes and innate observations:
  • At 6:15 there were maybe 150 observers on hand. When I first arrived around 6:00 there may have been 50. I'm not quite sure too many Illini football fans "believe" just yet.
  • Travis Williams's mother is nuts! (But in a good way.) Those of you who were wondering who the crazy lady was that you heard clear on the other side of the field - that would be her.
  • In warm-ups before the scrimmage, Steve Weatherford put on a show. He has several punts travel 65 yards in the air and at least 3 or 4 that reached 70. Again I say - in the air.
  • Defensive lineman Adam Wilk went down with what at first appeared to be an ankle injury. He later came back on crutches with his knee wrapped, so stay tuned.
  • Justin Harrison, the safety from Bloomington, is one mean-looking dude. "Ripped" doesn't quite capture it.
  • DB Sharriff Abdullah made a great play on a reverse when he dove into Pierre Thomas just as he was in the process of flipping the ball, resulting in a fumble.
  • Kendrick Jones may have had the "ooh, aah!" play of the night when he leaped, parallel to the ground, to snatch a pass on the sideline. He somehow managed to stay inbounds resulting ina completion. It was a pro play to be sure.
  • Kicker Jason Reda, who struggled as a freshman, looked long and accurate tonight.
  • All-purpose back E.B. Halsey looked tough. He ran very hard was difficult to bring down at times.
  • However, J Leman did put a very good hit on E.B. to knock the ball loose. Leman was very active and looked very good in coverage. He kept up with Halsey step-for-step on passing plays.
  • Fellow linebacker Anthony Thornhill had a nice INT on a poor pass by Chris Pazan.
  • Speaking of Pazan, he might be the best passer on the run on this roster. He showed very good accuracy and surprising zip when forced out of the pocket, or on designed bootlegs.
  • Receiver DaJuan Warren, who looks to be starting, also made a great catch when he reached out at the last nanosecond to pull in a laser beam over the middle. It was very impressive to say the least.
  • Walk-on offensive lineman Stuart Patchin, a true freshman from Richard King High School in Corpus Christi, TX is HUGE. He's not real tall, but he's also not just a fat guy. He's built like a Mack truck.
  • There were many, many false starts on the offensive line tonight. However, this is something I expect to be resolved by the time the season begins.

  • In wrapping things up, I would say tonight was very beneficial for the defense and it gave me hope that the much-maligned group is headed in the right direction. I think we have more depth on the line than we've had in years, especially if Abdunafi shows up. The linebackers actually don't look like "mules vs. race horses" as one opposing coach put it a few years back after an embarrassing Illini loss. There's also quality depth in the defensive backfield - if Travis Williams is coming off the bench, you must be pretty good.

    I wasn't sure I'd say this before this scrimmage started, and a lot of you who were there may not agree, but now I actually have more questions about the Illini offense than the Illini defense - and isn't that a change?

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