The first team defense showed its strength again Saturday in the Fighting Illini's Spring Game inside Memorial Stadium. Playing against the second string offense, the defensive starters played havoc with all offensive thrusts.
The second string offense netted only 76 yards of total offense all day. Defensive end Doug Pilcher, the most improved defensive player on the spring, continued his fine play with three tackles including two tackles for loss. Starters Antonio Steele, Derek Walker, and Dave Lindquist also were credited with tackles for loss.
It is difficult to pass against the first team, as quarterbacks Eddie McGee, Billy Garza and Mark Venegoni combined for only 50 yards passing with two interceptions on the day. Chris Duvalt ran his interception back 86 yards for a touchdown, and Kevin Mitchell returned 18 yards with his interception. Cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Travon Bellamy intimidated receivers coming into their areas.
All-Pro defensive end Simeon Rice, back to coach his Alma Mater's defense on the day, was impressed with the defense.
"The defense looks really good. When I came out, I asked the coach, "Who's number 1 (Vontae Davis)?" I watch things that I enjoy, and they have given me something to watch. Now I have something to rally around when all my teammates in Florida (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) give me a hard time. I see a lot of talent out there today."
Coach Zook was more cautious in his praise.
"Defensively, I like the way we fly around, the tackling, the way we chase the ball. We've made improvement. We're not there yet, but we're getting there. We have the things necessary to be a much improved football team. As I said all along, we have to go do it. We're improved, but we have to prove it on the field."
With the second offense sputtering, most of the defensive starters had few tackle opportunities. The second string defense was on the field longer, so they dominated the postgame statistics. Defensive end Jerry Brown had 1.5 sacks on the day plus one other tackle for loss among his four tackles. Tackle Mike Ware had two tackles for loss plus four other tackles. And Anthony Gully, Rodney Pittman and Antonio James all garnered tackles for loss. Gully was the leading tackler on the day with six.
Cornerback Chris Duvalt continued his improved play by breaking up two passes in addition to his interception. Gully, Steele, Rahkeem Smith, Tyler Rouse and Lindquist also broke up passes. Vontae Davis and Doug Pilcher blocked kicks.
There is some dropoff between the first and second units, but several important players were missing for some or all of the spring with injuries. Last fall's Most Valuable middle linebacker J. Leman will be back for his senior season this fall after sitting out the spring with ankle surgery. Starting safety Justin Sanders sat out all contact work this spring following shoulder surgery.
Additionally, the defense will welcome back end Will Davis, who brings speed with his outside rush. The Clay Nurse experiment at outside linebacker will continue this fall once his shoulder surgery heals. If he stays at that position, he will be one of the largest linebackers around. Defenders Garrett Edwards and Sirod Williams should also be healthy again by fall.
And we must consider the influx of several promising freshmen this fall to provide more depth. Martez Wilson, Josh Brent, D'Angelo McCray, Daryle Ballew, Steve Matas, Nate Bussey, Brian Gamble, Darius Purcell, Ian Thomas, and Marcus "Miami" Thomas will all be given an opportunity to compete for playing time.
The defense did not use many blitzes or stunts today to prevent opponents' scouts from learning too much. But they saw enough to realize the Illini defense will no longer be a pushover. They gained confidence last fall, and now they are ready to dominate.