Defense Shines in Final Scrimmage

The Fighting Illini held a major scrimmage to complete Camp Rantoul Saturday. The players were tired from two intense weeks of practice, and their thoughts drifted to the start of school Wednesday and the preparations they need to make for it. But overall, there were some definite positives on the day.

The first string defense showed its strength repeatedly against the second string offense, and they might have been even more dominant if not instructed to let up their pursuit of red shirted quarterbacks. Derek Walker, Doug Pilcher, Dave Lindquist, Jerry Brown, and Erique Robertson were among those with sacks or behind-the-line tackles. And Dere Hicks, starting at cornerback in the absense of Travon Bellamy, intercepted a Juice Williams pass near the end zone and ran it in for a touchdown.

Defensive end Jerry Brown and freshman linebacker Martez Wilson teamed up for an exciting defensive play early on. Brown stripped the ball from Juice Williams as he began to pass, and Wilson scooped it up and ran the short distance to the end zone untouched. Wilson looked so surprised to have the ball in his hand, he needed a split second to think before putting on a burst. He won't hesitate next time.

Overall, Juice Williams was not sharp and misfired more often than he had most of the practice sessions. Coach Ron Zook was asked whether he was pleased with Juice's performance.

"Yes and no. You want perfection, and I thought he did an awful lot of good things. You can tell he has a grasp of the offense now and controls what's going on. I thought he played pretty well, but as a football team we've got to play with a lot of emotion and fly around. Sometimes, it's hard to do for 18 straight days. Juice threw one pick there that he can't do, but those are things we'll learn from."

Offensive Coordinator Mike Locksley provided more detail about Juice's day.

"Probably the best thing he did, he managed the offense. I didn't like throwing the ball to the other team, especially coming out of your end zone. I think he got a little flustered there early when things were breaking down for him and we had a couple drops.

"All in all, I think he's had a very positive camp and is moving us in the right direction. He's got to watch the tape and find a way to get things corrected. I'm not concerned. Obviously, when you go against your own defense, they've got a pretty good idea what we're doing because we've been practicing against them for 18 practices. Tendencies start to come up, making it tougher for you to go out and execute. I like the way he's managed the offense, and I like the way he's taken care of the football for the most part. We're going to get him ready to play Missouri.

"One thing our quarterbacks give us is their ability to make plays with their feet. We limited how much option we ran today because we would get the quick whistle (red shirts). Our quarterbacks have been around here long enough that we'll get postive yardage with their feet when things break down."

Juice was realistic and forthcoming in his own assessment of his play Saturday.

"I started out slow, but then I got some touchdowns here and there. I did some good things, but it was probably mediocre. Yes, I was a little flustered early, and I started to rush things. But then I started to relax. I came back to the sideline and started to crack jokes, so then it was pretty good. I haven't done too good in the two scrimmages, but I know what I've done in the practices, so I'm confident going into the season."

Freshman slot receiver Brian Gamble continued to draw praise from the coaches and fans alike. He had several receptions including 18 and 14 yard touchdown passes from Juice. As a slot receiver, he sometimes ran the ball on options and reverses, and he even lined up as a running back for a plunge up the middle. The coaches are finding ways to get the ball in Gamble's hands.

"Brian's done a nice job," explained Zook. "He's a freshman, so he's learning the offense. And he had a few days on defense, so he got a late start. But you can see he's got some natural skills and can do some things you like to see. He can catch the ball, he's tough and will get after it, and I think he's going to be a good player for us."

Coach Locksley also sees positives in Gamble. "He has all the potential to be a big time player for us on offense and defense. Right now he's on offense, and we've got to find ways of getting him the ball as well."

Other touchdowns were scored by Joe Morgan, who converted a short sideline pass from Eddie McGee into a 70 yarder for a score when Justin Harrison was a split second late to break it up; Rashard Mendenhall and Troy Pollard each plunged for 2 yard scores; walkon Alex Reavy caught a 20 yard TD from freshman Phil Haig; the aforementioned Dere Hicks interception return; and Juice Williams would have scored on a ten yard option run if tackling was permitted.

Each of the running backs had good moments. Rashard Mendenhall had several nice bursts, Daniel Dufrene and Walter Mendenhall slashed for positive yardage on several carries, and Troy Pollard had one lengthy carry where he swept left, cut back, broke a tackle and ran to daylight.

"I thought we were a little sluggish," Coach Zook summarized. "If you go back and look at the last scrimmages (from previous years), that's how they are a lot of times. I thought the execution was pretty good, we just didn't play with the emotion that we're going to need to play with in two weeks. I think they understand that. I don't think we had near as many errors, so we got better that way. We are better than we were last Saturday. We've still got a ways to go. I think they all understand that. It's been a tough camp. These guys have competed daily, and when you go at that level, they give you all they've got. But it's been a very productive camp, no question.

"I thought the first offense and first defense both started off real sluggish. The offense didn't do anything, the defense let them (second string offense) move the ball on them. Those plays on the defense could have been sacks. It's hard when I don't want them getting close to the quarterbacks, so they're trying to pull off. We'll find out here in two weeks when everything's live just where we're at. I think everyone had it in mind we didn't want to get anyone hurt, so that didn't help matters."

Offensively, Coach Locksley saw some positives.

"I thought we showed we can still run the football. Obviously, this being our last scrimmage, we wanted to emphasize running the ball a little bit, and we have some situations where we have to be able to run the ball. We were able to control the ball with running in our four minute offense to run the clock down, and we were good in the red zone. Now we just have to finish some drives."

Running back Rashard Mendenhall feels the team had a productive camp.

"The offensive line is much improved, the passing game is improved. Juice is much more experienced with the offense. The defense was on last year, and I think it will be on again this year. It's been a long camp, and we've been going at it, so the intensity was not where we want it (today), but I think we're definitely going to improve over the next two weeks."

Juice assessed his growth during Camp Rantoul.

"I got a lot out of this camp, but there are still some things I want to clean up. I'm not looking forward to getting hit at all, but I'm looking forward to being able to make plays with my feet. The red shirts protect us, but some of those hand tackles won't happen in a regular game. I'm going to try to avoid it (running) as much as possible, but if I have to I will.

"Sometimes, I have let my guard down, but halfway through (camp), I realized it would be live soon. Staying in the pocket is something I've been working on a lot in the off season and relying on my receivers to get open so I can hit them. So I will leave the pocket only when I have escape situations."

Coach Locksley discussed remaining offensive concerns.

"We like the way the first unit's coming together. We've got to get the young guys with the two group to protect a little better and know their assignments a little better. That's the one area where we feel we are still pretty young when we have three freshmen out there playing for you, but we like the way the first group's coming along, and we've just got to find some quality reserves from that second group.

"Most of our questions have been answered. The biggest remaining question is finding the top two or three offensive linemen off the bench to give us the depth we need up front. Right now, I think Eric Block's done a pretty good job (at center), and between Ryan Palmer and maybe Brandon Jordan, we've got to find some guys to come off the bench. And if we can, get two or three of those young guys ready to play. That's probably the only concern."

There were no new major injuries from the scrimmage, so that is a major positive sign. Chris James and Travon Bellamy may need surgery, but a decision on them has not yet been made. Other than that, all the remaining players injured during Camp Rantoul have a chance to be healthy by the Missouri game.

It will be good to get some of the walking wounded back, and the team will look much better once practice intensity begins to taper off as game time nears. The Illini are improved. Now, they have to take that improvement into some big games and find a way to win.

Final Stats

Rushing

R. Mendenhall 17-108 D. Dufrene 20-60 T. Pollard 7-53 J. Williams 4-19 BW. Mendenhall 10-18 E. McGee 7-13 . Gamble 2-13 P. Haig 2- 4 B. Garza 2--8

Passing J. Williams 9-18 95 3 1 E. McGee 7-14 137 1 0 P. Haig 6-10 46 1 0 B. Garza 2-3 37 0 00

Receiving B. Gamble 5-81-2 W. Judson 5-48-0 J. Morgan 3-106-2 D. Warren 2-33-0 A. Reavy 2-17-1 Hoomanawanui 2-12-0

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