Keeping it going?

The Fighting Illini football team held their first scrimmage of the fall at Rantoul High School Saturday evening. The renewed enthusiasm for the upcoming season and cooler night air helped attract a good crowd of curious onlookers to see this new edition for themselves.

Unfortunately, the team lacked the intensity it had shown the two previous days in practice. And some injuries marred the festivities as fans and players alike became concerned for their fallen comrades.

The top two slot receivers both went down during the game, and they are two of quarterback Juice Williams primary targets and friends. Freshman sensation Arrelious Benn landed hard on his right shoulder early in the scrimmage and was taken off the field to be examined. Hopefully, it is not especially serious at this point. The same is true for Chris James, who appears to have sprained his left knee and walked off with the aid of crutches.

In addition, defensive tackle Josh Brent injured a knee and watched most of the game with ice on it, but he walked off under his own power. And defensive end Jerry Brown went limping off the field but returned a short while later. With many fans knowledgeable of how important these players are to the success of the Illini, the excitement of the evening seemed to drain out of them little by little.

But Coach Zook was surprisingly upbeat afterward. "The first thing he (Benn) said when he got up was, 'how many yards did we get on that play.' So he's a tough guy. It'll probably be sore for a couple of days. I won't lie, I was concerned at first, but I think he will be fine. C. J. is probably a sprained knee. They will have to evaluate him in the morning, but at this time they don't think its real serious."

Overall, much was accomplished on the evening. Special teams appear improved. Michael Cklamovski booted his only kickoff into the endzone. Jason Reda kicked every field goal and extra point he attempted, and his distance on each was outstanding. Second string kicker Matt Brandabur also made all the field goals he attempted. Punters Anthony Santella and Jared Bosch each boomed 50+ yarders in their efforts. Kyle Yelton averaged around 40 yards for his two punts. And Jacob Willis was Mr. Excitement with a tremendous punt return of 24 yards, reversing his field more than once to elude tacklers.

Both Juice Williams and Eddie McGee did some good things at quarterback. In unofficial statistics compiled for the entire evening including a number of situational drives, Juice was 8 of 16 for 105 yards and one touchdown despite losing focus at the end. He also rushed for 31 plus yards while losing 10. McGee was 6 of 8 before the last couple of series, finishing 6 of 11 for 74 yards and a TD on a great diving catch by Joe Morgan. Eddie ran for 16 positive yards while losing 26 yards on sacks. Freshman Phil Haig was a nervous 2 for 8 on the evening.

Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley felt that Juice took a step backward Saturday.

"We had great practices prior to this scrimmage, so that's normal. What we need to do is get him in there and watch the tape, make some adjustments here and there and get him slowing down. But I was really pleased with the week he had at practice, and how well he's been coming along, but today he didn't make some of the throws he made all week and I expect him to make."

Juice spoke along similar lines while assessing the loss of two important receivers. "There were a few things we didn't capitalize on, but we still have a few weeks of camp before the games. The injuries are a big concern of mine, but hopefully both guys will come back soon. Obviously, we got a little down and some guys started to drop their heads, but I'm the one who has to keep up the spirit and tell everyone things will be ok. When one of our big players goes down, our other players need to step up and take his place."

Running back Rashard Mendenhall was used sparingly but showed flashes of his special potential. Despite having a few short yardage efforts when the offense began several series at their own two yard line, Rashard ran for 52 yards in 10 carries and caught two passes for 41 more yards. He showed his speed and elusiveness while also demonstrating occasional power.

Newcomers Daniel Dufrene and Troy Pollard had some good moments as well, and fans in the stands were excited about Pollard's potential this evening. Dufrene ran for 37 yards in 8 carried, while Pollard collected 44 yards and a touchdown in ten carries. Coach Locksley knows how important these two are to the team and is pleased with their progress.

"Both Daniel and Troy did some nice things out there today. Obviously, they're not there yet, and we need to continue taking steps toward Missouri and try to find out if one of those guys can give us a second quality tailback. I think both of those guys are way ahead of the curve. Having them on campus and participating in the voluntary workouts over the summer has helped both of them to come out and kind of know what to do. Obviously, with Daniel being a juco transfer, he has some game experience. Maybe not at the Big Ten level, but that kind of gives him the initial nod."

Senior Charles Bailey ran for 41 yards in six carries for the third unit. Walter Mendenhall ran mostly in tough situations and ended up with a minus 6 yards in 5 carries.

DaJuan Warren led all receivers with three catches for 35 yards. Overall, 12 players caught at least one pass each. The longest play of the night was a 48 yard pass from Juice Williams to Chris James, but it was called back by a holding penalty. The hold and a pass interference call were the only major penalties on the night.

Defensively, Co-Defensive Coordinator Dan Disch was not overly thrilled with the effort of the defense. "The thing we were disappointed about was that we weren't very intense as far as our defense is concerned. We have to play with a little more intensity. They did pick it up a little bit at the end, but that isn't what it's supposed to look like."

But a few outstanding efforts were noticeable. Freshman WILL linebacker Erique Robertson had the longest run of the night, returning a backward lateral from Billy Garza 76 yards before being tackled. Senior walkon Drew McMahon returned an interception 18 yards. Chris Norwell, Derek Walker (2), Will Davis (2), Doug Pilcher, and Anthony Thornhill all had sacks, although they only needed to touch (or appear to touch) the red-shirted quarterbacks. Thornhill, cornerback Vontae Davis, freshman defensive tackle D'Angelo McCray, linebacker J. Leman, defensive end Clay Nurse, and linebacker Sam Carson all had tackles for loss.

Coach Zook summed up the evening in an upbeat manner.

"I saw some guys afterward kind of dejected, but they don't remember what it was like 2 years ago. I do. I think we've made some great strides. Are we where we need to be? No, not even close. But we're not supposed to be. I told the defense we're not tackling very well, but that's because we've only had the pads on for a few days. I told the offense consistency is a thing we have to attain, and we will get better as we continue to practice. We can see we are better right now than we were in the spring, and that's a good sign.

"I want them to understand that, in terms of a scrimmage, I thought we made a lot of progress. That doesn't mean we're there yet. As a coaching staff, we've got to go back and grind. And there are a couple guys who can play better than they are, and for whatever reason they didn't have as good a night as you want them to have, but that's our job, to go get them to play. The team that handles adversity is the team that succeeds."


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