Passing Game Comes Up Big In Spring Scrimmage

A bright sun and warming southern breeze greeted the Fighting Illini football team as it held a major scrimmage inside Memorial Stadium Saturday. A large contingent of coaches and interested fans watched some outstanding individual efforts on both sides of the ball.

Coach Ron Zook wasn't overly thrilled with the effort, but it wasn't bad for the seventh spring practice.

"Obviously, we're not ready to play, but I don't think we're supposed to be ready to play. Like I told the team, if you want to go back and compare it to the first scrimmage last year, it was better. It's still not close to where we need to be."

Among the interested onlookers were future Illini Jack Ramsey, Nate Palmer, Hubie Graham and Tyler Sands. Graham was getting a head start on his tight end position by discussing technique with Michael Hoomanawanui and Tom Sullivan in the warmups. 2007 signee Anthony Morris was also present as he works to get eligible for possible fall enrollment. And squadmen Mark Jackson, Brandon Jordan and Jerry Brown took a break from their studies to watch the action.

The scrimmage was not a full game but consisted in part of situational work such as third downs, red zone, own end zone, etc. The first team offense competed against the first team defense, and second teamers went at it. In the not so distant past, the offense was permitted to ramble against reserve defensemen, but much more can be learned butting heads with what could be a great defensive team, one that might have completely disrupted the second offensive group.

Statistics are significant, but they don't tell the whole story. Offensively, quarterback Juice Williams showed continued improvement by completing 17 of 31 passes for 222 yards and three touchdowns. Backup Eddie McGee was less efficient, completing just 10 of 25 tosses for 130 yards. Sacks and wearing red shirts reduced the quarterbacks' rushing totals. And both had to throw several balls away to avoid onrushing defenders.

Jeff Cumberland was the receiving star with five catches for 96 yards and two touchdowns. He broke two tackles on his 35 yard catch-and-run touchdown, and he redirected his body in time to make a dazzling one-hand stab of a Juice bullet in the endzone.

Brian Gamble continued to show his value to this offense with four catches for 47 yards, and Chris Duvalt flashed his speed and good hands four times for 28 yards. Chris James proved he is fully recovered from knee surgery by catching a 20 yard touchdown among his three catches. And tight end Michael Hoomanawanui got into the action with two grabs for 33 yards.

Daniel Dufrene gained 55 yards in 16 carries. While this is not an overwhelming total, he made a couple outstanding runs against a strong defense. On one play on third down inside his own five yard line, he broke through the line, put on a spin move and struggled forward for the first down. On another impressive run, also deep in his own territory, Daniel burst through tacklers and used his hand to keep from falling as he scrambled forward for extra yards.

Freshman Mikel LeShoure gained 27 yards in 8 carries. Coach Zook said afterwards that Mikel is still thinking about everything, which slows him down. It reminded him of Arrelious Benn's situation last spring. But one 11 yard burst showed LeShoure's potential as he accelerated and powered his way forward through the defense.

Defensively, middle linebacker Brit Miller made some plays that reminded of his predecessor J. Leman. He was a constant force and tied for second in tackles with eight, including two tackles for 12 yards in losses. He also showed coverage skills with a pass breakup. Safeties Nate Bussey and Bo Flowers had 9 and 8 tackles respectively, and Garrett Edwards, who split time with Flowers, had six.

Martez Wilson showed improved aggressiveness and speed filling gaps as he caused two tackles for loss, including one quarterback sack of fourteen yards. Senior defensive tackle Dave Lindquist and senior defensive end Derek Walker had two quarterback sacks each. Lindquist shared time with Josh Brent and still managed seven tackles and three TFL's.

End Clay Nurse had three TFL's among his four tackles, and end Will Davis had two TFL. Rookie cornerback Ashante Williams had one interception, almost had a second, and busted up an option for a two yard loss.

The offensive line continues to play without two starters, and this contributed to its problems. Guard Jon Asamoah (turf toe) and Ryan McDonald sat out the scrimmage, giving way to freshman Graham Pocic and Eric Block, respectively. With less depth, the second string line was also weakened.

Of course, few offenses will find the going easy against Illinois' defense, especially its defensive line. Coach Zook concurred.

"Locks (coach Mike Locksley) and I were just talking, and the defensive front's got a chance to be pretty good. They're quick, they can run. It doesn't help the offensive line when they're thinking and you're going against guys who know what they're doing who are running fast. They have to continue being as good as they can be."

Casual observers might have come away from the scrimmage uninspired. The Illinois defense has the potential to be excellent, so it wasn't surprising the offense would have trouble moving the ball on occasion.

But there were enough outstanding athletic plays on offense that showed the potential of the unit. It takes great plays to defeat a great defense, and there were some superb ones. Receivers Cumberland, Duvalt, Gamble, Hoomanawanui, and rookie Fred Sykes all made excellent plays. So did running back Daniel Dufrene and quarterback Juice Williams.

To show the type of athleticism on this team, Ashante Williams appeared headed for a long interception return touchdown. But seemingly out of nowhere, Eddie McGee used a great burst of speed to tackle him on the sideline after a 43 yard gain. It is plays like this one must remember while contemplating the fall 2008 campaign.

While Coach Zook saw a lot of good things, he sounded a warning to any player who is satisfied with his play to date.

"I thought they played pretty well for the first scrimmage. I was a little disappointed in some of the guys' energy level. It doesn't take any talent or brains to play with energy. They're going to play with energy or they're not going to play.

"This is a great group, and they're all trying. You remember what it was like when you were in their shoes. We're demanding perfection, we're demanding they play like the Rose Bowl's tomorrow. So it is hard. But on the same token, they've got to give us that or we're going to take it."

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