First Spring Scrimmage Productive For Illini

The first scrimmage of the spring highlighted the fifth day of Fighting Illini football practice. Defense dominated most of the action, but several newcomers and players at new positions asserted themselves offensively. And another squadman returned to practice.

Marcus "Miami" Thomas, a bright young cornerback prospect, returned to practice after spending the first four in study hall. He joined receiver Brian Gamble, who rejoined the squad Monday. Coach Ron Zook confirmed they will help the team if they can continue to fulfill their responsibilities.

"Football's the least of his (Thomas') worries. He has a chance to be a special corner. He's got enough savvy and enough confidence in his own ability. He knows now he's got to do it our way. Brian (Gamble) the same thing. They're good football players and good people. But you've got to do it all, you've got to be the whole package to be on the team."

The offensive line is patched together some as Jon Asamoah sat out with a leg bruise and senior center Ryan McDonald continued to watch from the sideline. Redshirt freshman Craig Wilson moved to right guard, and Eric Block remained the starting center. The starting unit was competent in the scrimmage that ended practice, but the second team line was porous at times.

The scrimmage pitted the first team offense against the first team defense, while second teamers and reserves went after each other. Second team defensive ends Clay Nurse and Antonio James had a field day sacking Eddie McGee multiple times as the second string offensive tackles struggled. The highlight for the defense was when Nurse pressured McGee into throwing the ball to James, who would have returned it for a long touchdown had the play not been ended prematurely.

The defense was free to blitz and stunt. Only a mature and experienced defense has its fundamentals down well enough this early in the spring to run such complexity. Of course, this also means the offensive line is experienced enough to accept the challenge for learning purposes.

Other notable defensive plays were provided by linemen Josh Brent, Dave Lindquist and Derek Walker, linebacker Brit Miller, and defensive backs Vontae Davis, Dere Hicks, Nathan Bussey and Marcus Thomas. Media didn't have a good angle for viewing, but the starting defensive line put great pressure on quarterback Juice Williams.

Miller showed his coverage skills with a fine reaching breakup of a long pass over the middle. Cornerbacks Davis, Hicks and Thomas all forced runs and swing passes into little or no gain. And Bussey disrupted a couple long tosses by reaching the ball at the same time it arrived for the receiver.

The offense showed some quality as well. Daniel Dufrene slashed off tackle for several gains of 7-15 yards, with one weaving effort the most exciting. Freshman Mikel LeShoure showed excellent power on one 6 yard plunge and had a couple other decent carries despite rookie nerves.

Perhaps the biggest ball-carrying surprise was the play of redshirt freshman Darius Purcell. Moved from safety late last week, Darius showed excellent speed on two runs measuring around 10 and 20 yards up the middle, breaking at least one tackle on the longer one. He also showed good hands, grabbing a swing pass and scampering 15 more yards. He could be an excellent find for the backfield.

"He (Purcell) has a chance," complimented Zook after practice. "Him and (Chris) Duvalt both look like two good moves. They both have a long way to go, but I think he showed some ability there. I think he has a chance to be a good running back."

Moved from cornerback this spring, Chris Duvalt continues to impress with his speed and enthusiasm for the receiver position. He took a swing pass and flew past defenders down the sideline for a touchdown in red zone action.

Florida transfer Jarred Fayson got into the action, and he didn't disappoint. Going against reserve defensive backs, he skyed for two outstanding touchdown grabs. He is still not 100% recovered from injuries but will help when eligible.

Receiver Will Judson continues to improve, making a couple good catches under duress. Gamble grabbed a Williams pass for a 25 yard gain. And freshman Fred Sykes made two more sideline grabs from McGee in a 2-minute drill. He has an aptitude for it.

Juice Williams had several good gains on options and scrambles. He appears to be as quick as anytime last season. And his pass completion percentage would have been decent except for a couple catches that were just barely out of bounds. Perhaps his most successful throw was a long sideline bomb to Alex Reavy on a scramble rollout. Blown coverage in the secondary gave Reavy a freebie touchdown.

In other news, offensive lineman Mark Jackson was at practice on crutches, the result of recent foot surgery. It is not known whether he would be able to practice if healthy since he was relegated to study hall recently. But now he won't have that chance until fall.

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