Juice Sharp in Final Scrimmage

The Fighting Illini football team held their final major scrimmage of the preseason Tuesday on the grass field East of Memorial Stadium. With classes beginning Wednesday and the Missouri game 11 days away, much was accomplished but much work remains.

The intensity level was high as the Illini scrimmaged in front of Big Ten officials who met with them afterwards to discuss rule changes for the season. There were no major new injuries, although Ian Thomas and Sam Carson developed minor problems that shouldn't sideline them long. So that is an important positive.

Some players dressed but didn't participate to protect healing body parts. Arrelious Benn could have practiced but will be withheld from contact until next week. Justin Sanders, Clay Nurse, Russ Weil, Josh Brent, and Travon Bellamy didn't scrimmage. Brent and Bellamy did work out with their position groups prior to the scrimmage and may be close to returning.

One big improvement with the offense on this day was its ability to finish drives. In the previous two scrimmages, lengthy drives were usually interrupted by mistakes or stiff defense. But each of the top three quarterbacks led their teams to points on lengthy drives Tuesday. Juice Williams and Phil Haig both led their groups to touchdowns, and Eddie McGee led his team downfield against the first team defense for a 33 yard Jason Reda field goal.

Most of the rest of the scrimmage was devoted to situational work. There was a great deal of third and short and third and long plays, as well as red zone, goal line and two minute offense. Accurate statistics were difficult to attain because the media was not allowed close to the action, but there were several notable performances.

Juice completed five of his first six passes, ending the day 10 of 17 for 143 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. Third stringer Haig was also sharp, hitting 8 of 12 passes for 75 yards and two touchdowns. He did lose one fumbled snap. McGee had the unfortunate task of driving against a fired up first team defense, so he was just 8 of 18 for 89 yards and one score.

Rashard Mendenhall continued his outstanding play with 76 yards in 15 carries plus three catches for 54 yards including a 30 yard gallop on a swing pass for a touchdown. Daniel Dufrene and Troy Pollard were given significant playing time, and both showed speed and maneuverability.

While running frequently against the first team offense, Dufrene carried the ball 16 times for 55 yards and one touchdown and had two catches for 22 yards. He was stiff and sore afterward but should be fine soon. Pollard sprinted for 74 yards in 16 carries and one touchdown while also catching one pass for eight yards.

DaJuan Warren had perhaps the best day among the receivers. He accumulated 77 yards and three touchdowns on 7 pass receptions. His leaping one-hand grab in the end zone was especially noteworthy. Marquis Wilkins had one of his finest days as an Illini with four catches for 52 yards. His first effort was especially significant as he split two defenders and fought his way through a couple other tackle attempts for extra yardage. Joe Morgan had two touchdown receptions, his three catches netting 42 yards. On one touchdown, he leaped over Drew McMahon for a great catch on the sideline. In all, eleven players caught passes on the day.

Will Judson had only two catches for eight yards, but his play on those two sparkled. On the first, he ran into a stone wall on the right side, bounced several yards backward and then sprinted all the way to the left sideline where he turned defeat into a long, two yard gain. On the other, the 5'-6" Judson broke a tackle on his way to a six yard advance.

Defensively, there were numerous top performers, and the usual stars were highly visible again today. Defensive ends Derek Walker and Doug Pilcher both had sacks and were a thorn in the side of the offense all day. Brit Miller had a big hit, submarining fullback Rahkeem Smith for a one yard loss. J. Leman, Rodney Pittman, Bo Flowers, Antonio Steele, Vontae Davis, Sam Carson, and Garrett Edwards all made excellent plays.

Nate Bussey had perhaps his best day as an Illini. The freshman free safety had a couple jarring tackles that lit up his teammates. He also recovered a fumble. And freshman Martez Wilson, lining up as a linebacker on his right side, charged into the backfield and ran down Dufrene on the opposite side of the field for a minimal gain.

The coaches are extremely tired from overwork at this point, and they are sure to find fault with the scrimmage. The tempo still isn't where they want it, for example. But former Indiana coach Jerry DiNardo, observing practice in his role as announcer for the Big Ten Network, said he thought the Illini got a lot accomplished on this day.

In other news, walkons Will Judson, Mike Ware and Tyler Rouse have all earned scholarships. This is a reminder that those willing to walk on to this team have a chance to earn scholarships if they work hard and earn significant playing time. And C. J. Jackson is now being tried at right tackle as he has outgrown the tight end position. Coach Zook said he probably should have moved him there sooner as the 280 pounder will only get bigger.

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