The Fighting Illini football team was fired up for its first spring scrimmage. This was the first time the number one offense has gone head to head with the number one defense with full contact, so offensive statistics suffered. The Illini now have a mature, confident defense, and the first group is especially stout.
Still, there were some offensive standouts.
Juice Williams was slow out of the gate as he misconnected on his first five passes. But his game improved after that, his overall unofficial passing statistics ending a decent 10 for 22 for 105 yards. There was nothing spectacular about his passing, but he threw no interceptions and kept the team moving. Juice ran for an additional 30 yards in three carries, but he also lost 25 yards in five sacks.
Eddie McGee had an unusual day as Juice's primary backup. On the positive side, Eddie completed 12 of 14 passes for 111 yards, including a 20 yard catch-and-run TD by Regis Benn. And he gained 35 yards in four rushing attempts.
However, McGee also experienced four fumbles, three of which were fumbled snaps, and he gave up one interception to Vontae Davis in the end zone near the end of practice. In addition, he lost 20 yards on three sacks. In his defense, McGee was not wearing a red shirt on this day, so perhaps knowing he would be hit prevented him from relaxing. Without the turnovers, McGee's day would have been a quality effort.
Billy Garza played briefly, completing his only pass for 16 yards. Walkon Mark Venegoni had one of his best days as an Illini, completing four of six passes for 50 yards.
Ten players caught passes, led by freshman Regis Benn who caught nine balls for 108 yards and one touchdown. He also ran the ball three times for 33 yards and one touchdown.
Benn impressed everyone present with his strength and running ability after his catches. He is extremely difficult to tackle, and he fights hard for extra yardage. Several when he added yards to catches with determined runs against hard-hitting defenders. Benn was probably the offensive star of the scrimmage.
Chris James also played well, catching five balls for 42 yards. Joe Morgan had the best yards-per-catch average, catching three balls for 48 yards. Kyle Hudson, playing because the Illini baseball team's double header with Ohio State was postponed due to cold weather, also garnered three catches for 29 total yards. Marques Wilkins, Erique Robertson, Frank Lenti, Will Judson, Russ Weil and Jeff Cumberland all had one catch apiece.
Rashard Mendenhall had only three carries on the day, and one big loss on a failed pitch netted him negative yards for his effort. He sat out the rest of the scrimmage nursing a minor hamstring strain. He is the clear-cut number one running back, so he had nothing to prove on this day. This gave Rashard's older brother Walter a chance, and he became the leading ground gainer on the day with 87 yards on 22 carries. Walter ran for touchdowns of 33 and 30 yards and showed more quickness and cutting ability after losing some weight in the offseason.
The second leading rusher was Erique Robertson, the second semester freshman enrollee out of Maple Heights, Ohio. In his first week after switching from linebacker, Robertson showed a strong running style and decent speed. He ended up with 67 yards in 11 carries besides the nine yards he gained on his one pass reception.
Walkon Mike Mucha was a workhorse for the reserves, gaining 54 yards in 12 carries. Walkon Justin Ijei gained 20 yards in six tries, Mark Venegoni had three yards in two attempts, and Will Judson scooted six yards in his only attempt.
Overall, the offense had its moments, but this was not one of its best days. There is still some uncertainty in the offensive line as both Ryan Palmer and Chuck Myles were tried at right tackle but were inconsistent. Coach Eric Wolford is working hard with them, teaching after each play, so it is hoped one of them will emerge with time.
Defensively, there was much to brag about, although two long runs by Walter Mendenhall against the first team defense were surprising. Overall, the quarterbacks were under duress most of the day, and defenders with numbers in the 90's were especially prominent.
Derek Walker, Antonio James and Jerry Brown each were involved in two tackles for loss. Others with tackles behind the line included Doug Pilcher, Dave Lindquist, Chris Norwell, Mike Ware, Anthony Thornhill, Travon Bellamy and Antonio Steele.
Rodney Pittman, Rahkeem Smith, Sirod Williams and Brown all recovered fumbles. Vontae Davis had the day's only interception. Kevin Mitchell had possibly the hardest hit with a smashing tackle of Chris James. And the following defenders all caught our eye with good defensive stops: Lindquist, Pittman (5 times), Tyler Rouse, Rahkeem Smith (twice), Brown, Sam Carson, Bo Flowers, Anthony Thornhill, Conor Gillen, Ware, Drew McMahon, and Antonio James.
Senior place kicker Jason Reda is a known quantity, so practice time has been devoted to his alternates. Walkon kickers Jacob Hendee and Matt Brandabur were given an opportunity to kick field goals in live action. Both kicked the short ones accurately, but Hendee struggled when the yardage measured 37 yards or beyond. He was long enough but missed all three attempts from 37 yards and his one attempt from 42 yards.
In contrast, Brandabur made everything including a 37 yarder that was difficult due to a bad snap and difficult hold. He also made a 42 yarder, splitting the uprights with significant room to spare. His kicks are remarkably high. He looks like a good prospect.
Jared Bosch was again given first chance to punt in live drills, and he boomed his attempts. Of course, actual distances are impossible to determine since most punts hit the ceiling indoors. Kyle Yelton continues to struggle this spring. One of his punts had too little hang time to touch the ceiling, and another went up so high so fast it was doubtful to gain significant yardage.
Anthony Santella, a freshman from Wauconda, Illinois, showed a good leg in his attempts. However, Justin Harrison zoomed up the middle to block one of Santella's attempts. The punter who gets his punts off the fastest will have an advantage in this competition.
Will Davis will be out for the rest of spring ball after having minor eye surgery this week. He is expected to be fully recovered before fall. Brit Miller did not play due to a sprained ankle.
A number of good looking recruits were there, including defensive tackle Brian "Buck" Lawson out of Rich East high school. Victor Brown, a late qualifying cornerback out of Washington, D. C. (Woodson) was an official visitor this weekend and might be offered one of the Illini's remaining scholarships for 2007. He is tall and slender, appearing to be taller than his listed 6'-2" height.
The Illini's offensive unit will learn and improve having to compete against their own defense every day. And the defense has plenty of skill players to worry about when facing the Illini offense. This is probably why we see extremes of play. One minute, the offense looks great, the next the defense looks great. Rather than assume they are inconsistent, we like to believe they are both improving to the point they are a difficult matchup for each other. At least, that is the hope.
There will be two more major scrimmages this spring. Next Saturday the Illini travel to Chicago to scrimmage each other at St. Rita high school at 1:00pm. And the final spring scrimmage will be the Spring Game in Memorial Stadium on April 21.