It was a troublesome day for the Illini football team Wednesday as they did some scrimmage work in preparation for Saturday's final spring scrimmage. The offense was sporadic at best, and there were three significant injuries.
Rashard Mendenhall again flashed outstanding running, galloping for a 46 yard touchdown and gaining 11 yards on a powerful inside burst that broke tackles. However, Rashard later hurt his left leg and was limping badly going into the locker room after practice.
It is unclear whether he reinjured his hamstring or calf or whether this is a new injury. Trainers were not working on him, so hopefully he will not require a long recovery period. But Rashard is almost certainly out of Saturday's scrimmage. This will be a big loss for everyone in attendance since Rashard was simply unstoppable when healthy this spring.
Two walkon fullbacks also went down with injuries, making the running back positions extremely thin going into Saturday. Justin Ijei may have broken his leg. The leg was immobilized, and he was transported by van off the field.
And Nick Levanti hurt his knee on a block attempt. He was able to put some weight on that leg afterward, but his knee was at least strained. With walkon runner Mike Mucha nursing a minor injury on the sidelines, only Walter Mendenhall, Erique Robertson and Russ Weil are available for Saturday's scrimmage.
Coach Zook moved the Illini into Memorial Stadium for the scrimmage part of practice. When the two offenses were practicing plays without tackling, both Juice Williams and Eddie McGee looked extremely sharp on their passes. But once the scrimmage went live, they both had some trouble. Neither was asked to pass frequently, perhaps because of the cool blustery winds that swirled inside the stadium. The passes that were thrown were not always on target.
In the brief regular scrimmage, Juice was two for three passing for 15 yards against the second string defense, and Eddie was one for three for a minus three yards against the first string defense. In the situational work that dominated most of the practice, Juice was only one for six passing and Eddie was two for three.
When the Illini practiced their third and short yardage plays, both units enjoyed decent success percentages. The first stringers made first downs on 5 of 8 tries while the second string had a 50% success rate in ten tries. However, most of these first downs were generated by a good running game. Besides Rashard Mendenhall, Walter Mendenhall and Erique Robertson ran hard and fought off tacklers to gain first downs. No one gained more than seven yards on these running plays besides Rashard, but the defense was packed tight to stop them.
The longer the scrimmage went, the more fired up the defense became. And once the defense started playing its toughest, neither offense enjoyed much success. Again leading the starting defense was senior walkon Dave Lindquist, who must be one of the favorites for the Most Improved award this spring. We had him for 3.3 tackles for loss (on one play, we could not tell whether the sack resulted from a touch by Lindquist, Doug Pilcher or Chris Norwell, so we gave them each a portion of the sack).
Derek Walker continued his outstanding play with two tackles for loss, and upcoming sophomore defensive end Antonio James pestered the first stringers with two tackles for loss. Other tackles for loss were registered by Jerry Brown, Antonio Steele and Pilcher. Brit Miller, Sam Carson, Kevin Mitchell, Vontae Davis, Travon Bellamy, Steele, Bo Flowers and Rahkeem Smith all caught our attention with solid hits.
The kicking department was iffy as well. Matt Brandabur kicked two short field goals, but he had one of his only misses of the spring on a 42 yarder. His other kicks went farther, but he may have had problems with the snap or hold on the miss as it was uncharacteristically short and wide of the target.
The punters were not given an equal opportunity both with and against the strong wind, so it is still impossible to predict who might emerge. Utah transfer Anthony Santella was given one punt with the wind, and he boomed a perfect spiral 48 yards. Kyle Yelton was given two kicks. The one against the wind went only 38 yards with a favorable bounce, while the one with the wind was touched by Kyle Hudson after a 45 yard advance. However, Yelton did not hit either ball precisely enough to obtain a spiral.
Jared Bosch was given only one chance, and that produced a 25 yarder into the wind. From this day alone, one might suspect that Santella has the upper hand, but Bosch is still favored by some practice observers to win the battle. Unfortunately, no one has taken charge yet.
Besides the injuries described above, other players nursing injuries and doubtful for the spring game include Joe Morgan, Sirod Williams, Anthony Thornhill, Dustin Jefferson, Mike Mucha, J. Leman, Akim Millington, Clay Nurse, and Justin Sanders.