Martez Wilson Dominates Scrimmage

A hard-hitting scrimmage highlighted Wednesday's Illini football practice. Once again, the defense dominated most of the action. The offense is showing signs of life, but the defense simply won't give it any quarter. And of all the defensive players who had big days, perhaps none was bigger than highly regarded linebacker Martez Wilson.

Even before the team moved inside Memorial Stadium to scrimmage, Wilson, the weakside linebacker, blocked an Anthony Santella punt. Once tackling was permitted, Martez demonstrated both speed and aggressiveness on numerous occasions.

Options and swing passes went nowhere when Wilson was free to roam sideline to sideline. He put a resounding hit on Brian Gamble on an option pitch that netted no yardage. And he threw Daniel Dufrene out of bounds for a two yard loss on an option. He also snuffed out a swing pass to Gamble for a one yard gain.

Wilson was certainly not the only star. Derek Walker, who appears to have regained his starting position, gave signs of things to come with a loud smack of Dufrene for no gain on the first play, a third down situation to begin the scrimmage. Walker later collected a sack of quarterback Juice Williams.

SAM linebacker Rodney Pittman followed Walker's lead two plays later with a vicious hit on Dufrene after a six yard gain. The next play saw defensive tackle Anterio Jackson throw running back Mikel LeShoure for a four yard loss. Without doubt, the defense came to play on this day.

Pittman also had a sack of quarterback Eddie McGee on a blitz later in the scrimmage. He was joined by several defensive linemen who spent most of the day in the offensive backfield. Besides Walker, Antonio James, Clay Nurse, Dave Lindquist, Will Davis and others either produced sacks or disrupted the passing attack with hard charges.

It must be stated the offensive line is a patchwork unit at this time. Starting center Ryan McDonald will probably not play at all this spring. Starting guard Jon Asamoah played but still favors one foot.

Starting tackle Xavier Fulton went down halfway through the scrimmage with a leg injury, so he sat out the rest of the action. He appeared to be fine later and Coach Zook said he probably could have played again. But it was good experience for the young linemen to practice against an outstanding defensive front.

Other defensive stalwarts included cornerback Vontae Davis, who played his usual excellent game; MIKE linebacker Brit Miller, who threw Juice for a 3 yard loss on a scramble; and safety Garrett Edwards, who would have had a sack of Juice if allowed to tackle the quarterback.

Also, safeties Nate Bussey and Mike Locksley, Jr., both had interceptions on the day; safety Bo Flowers made a hard-hitting tackle and broke up a pass. And freshman cornerback Ashante Williams showed outstanding hitting ability and athleticism on a couple plays.

The offense had its moments. It was able to move the chains in the middle of the field but had trouble finishing drives. The defense continues to be at its best in red zone situations.

Running back showed promise as Daniel Dufrene, Mikel LeShoure and Darius Purcell all acquitted themselves at times. Dufrene ran hard and collected some hard-earned first downs on short yardage situations. He also caught a long pass from Juice that went approximately 45 yards. Unfortunately, the play was called back by penalty.

LeShoure showed power and some good inside cuts on his opportunities. Mikel had gains of 6, 5, 8, and 10 yards among his carries. His biggest play was an option where he sped around end for 34 big yards. Reserve Darius Purcell showed excellent speed on one four yard scamper. Both are freshmen and still learning, but they are making progress.

Tight ends were more a part of the offense on this day. Michael Hoomanawanui and Tom Sullivan caught enough passes to keep the defense honest and show promise for the future. Walkon slot receiver Alex Reavy also was prominent, getting time with the first unit and catching three balls in Arrelious Benn's absence.

Wide receiver Chris James was one of the offensive stars, making the only touchdown on the day with a 55 yard catch and run against a reserve defense. McGee threaded the ball between the cornerback and safety, James caught it in stride and proceeded untouched to the end zone. James also made an impressive diving catch for a 19 yard gain.

In a sign of things to come, Florida transfer Jarred Fayson caught one 10-yard pass and almost made a sensational catch on the last play of the day. Battling Vontae Davis all the way to the end zone, Fayson made an athletic body adjustment, jumped high in the air and almost caught the ball one-handed. It was two great athletes competing, and Davis won this round. Barely.

Before fans become concerned, it is important to realize that a big part of the offense is the running of quarterbacks Williams and McGee. On this day, the defense didn't even need to touch them to end the play. As soon as it appeared the quarterback might be near a defender, the whistle blew.

Even when the quarterbacks were touched, there were times they would have broken tackles and gained yardage. With this important weapon added to their arsenal, they would have given the defense a much bigger challenge. It is something to look forward to in the fall.

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