Frequent storms and a little hail forced the Illini football team indoors today as they continued their spring practices. But the players were upbeat as they prepared for their normal Wednesday scrimmaging.
It seems the offensive line shows a different lineup every day as players receive promotions for their play and are tested for their aptitude at various positions. Today, Eric Block was the starting left guard since Martin O'Donnell sat out his second practice.
However, center depth became a concern as fifth year senior Ben Amundsen damaged his right leg. His prognosis is unknown at this time, but he was taken off the field on a cart. With Block playing guard, Mike Nabolotny was installed as the second string center to back up Ryan McDonald.
Other depth chart notes of interest include Rodney Pittman continuing to hold down the first string SAM linebacker spot. Brit Miller is practicing and goes in at middle linebacker in the nickel package, but his recent ankle sprain has given Pittman an opportunity. And it appears Pittman is taking advantage. In addition, Anterio Jackson appeared to be sharing time with Sirod Williams at one defensive tackle spot on the second unit.
Michael Cklamovski practiced kickoffs as senior Jason Reda continues to nurse a minor health problem. Cklamovski had one kick sail into the end zone on the fly despite kicking from the 30 yard line. And one kick was so high it nestled into the netting tucked into the ceiling at midfield.
No tackling was permitted during these kickoffs, but the diminutive Will Judson showed his amazing quickness by running one back for a touchdown untouched. The kickoff return team, although this might change considerably by fall, included the following players: Kevin Mitchell, Antonio Steele, Erique Robertson, Rodney Pittman, Justin Harrison, Jeff Cumberland, Michael Hoomanawanui, Tom Sullivan, Sam Carson, Rejus Benn and Judson.
The scrimmage was composed of situational work in addition to a regular scrimmage. The Illini practiced third down and short and fourth and short to begin the live portion of the day's work. The number one offense was paired with the top defense, and the second stringers faced each other, making this a highly competitive environment. And the top defensive unit dominated the offense on this day.
The running game was completely stuffed early. With Rashard Mendenhall on the sidelines working out with the Strength & Conditioning staff while healing a slight hamstring pull, Walter Mendenhall, Erique Robertson and Mike Mucha did the bulk of the running. And none of them faired well against the defense. Antonio Steele and Vontae Davis both made aggressive hits behind the line. The offense finally garnered a few first downs, but they were hard earned.
Both Juice Williams and Eddie McGee came out hot passing the ball in the game-type scrimmage. Juice completed his first five passes and Eddie his first six. Williams ended all the various scrimmage work with 8 completions in 14 attempts while McGee showed unofficial totals of 16 for 24 with one interception. That interception was on an ill-advised flat pass covered well by Chris Duvalt, who flew down the sidelines for an easy touchdown.
Derek Walker, Dave Lindquist and Antonio Steele each registered sacks on the day, but there were probably more than that as defenders had to limit their activity to avoid hitting the quarterbacks with the red shirts. Rodney Pittman, Doug Pilcher, Vontae Davis, Jerry Brown, Sirod WiIliams, Mike Ware, Antonio James, Derek Walker, Sam Carson, and Steele all made tackles for losses. Lindquist (2), Walker and Brown all broke up passes in the backfield. And Pilcher opened some eyes by pushing offensive tackle Xavier Fulton back into Juice Williams, forcing him to throw the ball away.
Perhaps the play of the day, the one that caused the biggest cheer from the players, was on a reverse to Kyle Hudson that netted only two yards. After pitching back to Hudson, Juice Williams laid a vicious block on Pilcher. It may not have helped the play, but it certainly aroused the team. In another instance, Rejus Benn showed good downfield blocking by leveling Bo Flowers to help Williams gain 22 yards on a run.
It was runs by Juice and Eddie that probably gained the most yardage for the offense. Options, quarterback draws and extemporaneous scrambles allowed these two excellent runners an opportunity to loosen up the defense. McGee may actually be faster than Williams, and the coaches seem eager to use him in this fashion.
The biggest problem with McGee, besides the fact he is just a raw freshman who is still maneuvering his way through the playbook, is his tendency to fumble. After three fumbled snaps last Saturday, he had two more today, although they both occurred with a substitute center doing the snapping. And he had trouble corralling a couple of shotgun snaps. McGee will need to eliminate turnovers to get significant playing time.
Among additional observations:
* Chris James seemed to be a favorite of whomever was quarterbacking. He is especially useful in short yardage situations as he can get open 5 yards downfield from his slot position to make first down catches.
* Dere Hicks showed some clever footwork in avoiding tacklers after one sideline catch. He only gained six yards, but one could see his potential to run after the catch.
* The offense showed some life near the end of practice during some red zone and goal line situations. Several touchdowns were scored during this segment. Jeff Cumberland got into the act with two nice grabs for touchdowns, and one must believe his height and athleticism make him a good target near the goal line. Quarterback options were also effective during this segment, although it is likely the defense let up to avoid hurting the quarterbacks.