The Fighting Illini football team and assorted media made the 130 mile trek to Chicago St. Rita high school for their third spring scrimmage Saturday. Named after their legendary coach, St. Rita's Pat Cronin Field sported an excellent artificial surface and a seagull flight instruction school riding the updrafts of a strong northerly wind. The flock of Illini footballers successfully displaced the gulls long enough to have a hard-hitting practice in front of Chicago area Illini fans.
A number of past and future Illini were on hand. Besides several former Illini football lettermen including Kurt Kittner, basketball players Jerry Gee and Jerry Hester and Flying Illini manager Ryan Baker were in attendance. Incoming freshman Martez Wilson watched the scrimmage, and so did prospective recruit Brandon Green of Chicago Robeson high school, among others.
The Illini offense appeared a little sluggish at first. A late afternoon Friday practice and the early Saturday bus ride likely reduced the energy level. But it must also be stated that the first string defense is becoming increasingly difficult to penetrate. It is likely many offenses will struggle against this excellent defense.
The offensive star on the day was Rashard Mendenhall. Despite missing most of this last week's practices with a hamstring pull, and despite bruising his calf Friday, Rashard rumbled for 147 yards in only 20 carries. He had one fumble, his first of the spring, but he was holding the ball tight and was close to the ground when a hard tackle popped the ball loose. Rashard simply fell on top of it. This was not the kind of fumble for which he was benched at times in the past.
Rashard had his best series late in the scrimmage when he could finally run against the second string defense. Operating what appeared to be a two-minute drill, Rashard had consecutive runs of 12, 4, 33, 10 and 10 yards before the drive was terminated early by the coaches.
Other than that one bobble, it was obvious Rashard wants to be the feature back this fall. He is learning to run inside as well as outside, and he's running with an authority and determination beyond what he's shown in the past. His brother Walter sat this one out with an injury.
Quarterback Juice Williams may have been bothered by the strong crosswind that included gusts in the range of 20-25 mph early in the afternoon. Our unofficial statistics, which include all the situational work late in the practice, showed Juice 11 for 25 attempts for 123 yards with one interception and one touchdown pass. These totals included a late surge in the situational drills when the wind had died down.
Three of Juice's throws were dropped and he was slightly off target on several others. These statistics were created entirely against the first team defense, so that contributed to Juice's average totals. Williams also ran for 31 yards in six carries while also losing 10 yards on two sacks.
Eddie McGee showed some things as the second string quarterback, working against the second string defense. He completed 8 of 13 passes for 66 yards and one touchdown. Eddie also ran for 16 yards in four carries while suffering 13 yards in losses due to two sacks and a loss due to a fumbled shotgun snap.
Billy Garza had his first extended opportunity in a scrimmage situation and did some good things. He was 5 for 9 for 57 yards and threw two of the longest passes of the day, 26 yards to Chris James and 17 to Dere Hicks, to move the ball downfield against the second string defense.
Receiver Rejus Benn caught three passes for 38 yards. He showed two outstanding runs, one after a catch and one on a pitchout. His powerful stiff arm of Kevin Mitchell after a short catch allowed him to surge for 16 yards and brought the biggest reaction from the fans and other players.
Rejus also demonstrated power, speed and maneuverability while gaining 16 yards on his run from scrimmage. And Benn returned the only kickoff attempted. He was not utilized much after that, but this young man needs to go into the fall healthy. He will be a potent addition to the offense.
Dere Hicks led receivers with 5 catches for 58 yards, and Chris James added 49 yards in 4 grabs. Others who caught passes included DaJuan Warren, two for 28 yards; Will Judson, one for 8 yards; Joe Morgan, three for 24 yards; Erique Robertson, one for 17 yards; Marques Wilkins, two for 12 yards; Rashard Mendenhall, one for 20 yards and a touchdown; Justin Ijei, one for minus two yards; Jeff Cumberland, one catch for a four yard touchdown; and Frank Lenti, one catch for 17 yards.
Second leading runner on the day was senior fullback Russ Weil, who operated as a feature back in a one-back set. Weil is an unsung hero with his outstanding blocking, but he ran with authority this day. He gained 48 yards in 10 carries and showed himself worthy of more future opportunities. Other running totals included Erique Robertson, four carries for 10 yards; Justin Ijei, four carries for 14 yards; Billy Garza, two for 12; and Mike Mucha, one for 3.
There were numerous defensive stars on the day, but we feel it necessary to single one out in particular, not just for Saturday's play but the whole spring. Dave Lindquist makes plays every day. He may have been a walkon initially, but he has earned his starting assignment and will be hard to dislodge. Dave had two tackles for loss Saturday, and he was also the tackler on the Benn run 16 yards downfield.
Others who had tackles for loss include Mike Ware (with an assist from Jerry Brown), Anterio Jackson (Drew McMahon assisting), Antonio James, Sam Carson, and Brit Miller. Ware and Derek Walker each batted down passes. Bo Flowers had a five yard fumble return for a touchdown after Erique Robertson gave up the ball deep in his own territory. Justin Harrison also recovered a fumble, and Tyler Rouse had the day's lone interception.
Sirod Williams and Joe Morgan each suffered leg injuries. Williams could put only a small amount of weight on his leg while being helped to the sideline. Morgan was in some pain but was able to walk off on his own power. It is unknown at this writing how severe these injuries are or how long these athletes will be sidelined.
It seemed the Illini offense and defense kept things simple on this day. The weather may also have been a factor. Their long passing game was completely absent, and defensive blitzing was held to a minimum. But otherwise it was a productive scrimmage that will help prepare the Illini for a rugged 2007 schedule.