The city of Lemont is excited about the Illini visiting their high school, and a full house is expected. A Rose Bowl team featuring home town favorite Graham Pocic is a strong attraction no matter the weather.
With five practices remaining, the Illini hope to continue their good health. There have been few injuries up to now, although fullback Rahkeem Smith has missed the last two practices with a foot injury. The severity of the injury is unknown at this time. Marcus Thomas had his shoulder taped but continued to practice, as did Ian Thomas despite extra padding on his right thumb.
On the positive side, Troy Pollard participated in some of the running back drills and appears to be getting his confidence back. He was running and cutting with no limp. While he will not be cleared for full contact until the fall, Pollard has to feel good about his improvement to date. Just putting a football into a runner's hands gets the adrenalin flowing.
Smith's injury makes Darius Purcell increasingly important to the team. Moved to fullback after the first spring practice, he has been cross-trained at running back as well. Walkon Nick LeVanti is the team's only other fullback, so Purcell's #35 should be prominent the rest of the spring. Darius showed excellent lateral explosion in one drill.
It appears the Illini's 1st team defensive line has 7 players who alternate. Derek Walker, Will Davis and Doug Pilcher are joined by the improving Antonio James at the two defensive end positions. And Josh Brent is rotating with Dave Lindquist and Sirod Williams at the tackle spots.
James is becoming one of the team's most dangerous pass rushers. As a direct result of his growth, Antonio was seen rushing the passer from a defensive tackle spot during 2-minute offense practice. The Illini used James, Brent, Walker, and Davis together on the line. This may be a temporary experiment, but such a foursome could be an outstanding group with practice.
The Illini defense as a whole can still improve, but it is causing the offense problems, especially in red zone situations. The offense has to make good to great plays to gain positive yardage. If the line and linebackers aren't forcing the quarterback from the pocket, the defensive backs are snuffing out the pass routes with some consistency.
For example, Marcus Thomas suffocated Will Judson and Jarred Fayson on separate passes from Eddie McGee in the end zone. Cornerback Vontae Davis stuffed a swing pass from Juice Williams to Chris Duvalt. MIKE linebacker Brit Miller broke up a pass from McGee to Greg McClendon, just missing an interception and return touchdown.
Also, Martez Wilson continued his improvement with a couple fine defensive plays. He diagnosed a Juice naked reverse for no gain. Later, he dove his long arms past Marquis Wilkins to break up a pass from Juice. And cornerback Ashante Williams covered Jeff Cumberland like a blanket on one down and out pattern.
The offense had its moments. Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui made the best catch of the day. Tripped up five yards downfield, Michael reached backward with his left hand and plucked a Juice Williams pass while laying on the ground. Also, rookie Fred Sykes made a diving catch of a McGee pass.
Chris James made a leaping grab of a touchdown pass from McGee. Brian Gamble lined up as a fullback, shifted to the left flank and ran a deep post pattern. Juice hit him in stride as safety Nate Bussey was a split second late. Chris Duvalt caught a 20-yarder from Juice in front of Dere Hicks. And Purcell took a pitch, put on a burst of speed around end and scored from 7 yards out.
Cumberland caught a fine alley oop pass from Juice in the end zone. His great size and leaping ability should make him a natural for this pass. However, every opportunity he had to prove himself last fall failed as his timing was off. Hopefully, offensive coordinator Mike Locksley will now begin to trust Jeff in this situation.
Speaking of Locksley, an offensive coordinator must think like a chess master. Devising strategies to outsmart an opponent is essential. So when a play is called that should work, it can be frustrating when it fails. On one play Friday, a Juice pass to an open Gamble in the end zone against the first team defense misfired. Locksley was seen throwing his notes into the air.
All three punters had opportunities to ply their trade against a partial rush, and all three were inconsistent. Anthony Santella boomed his first attempt but struggled thereafter. Kyle Yelton had his typical day with a mixture of boomers and shanks. And Jared Bosch had two of his efforts blocked, first by Alex Reavy and then by Gamble.
Defensive tackle Daryle Ballew doesn't get much fanfare and is third string at this time. But he makes some good plays every day. Although not real tall, Daryle knocked down his third pass of the spring. He is a plodder, but he seems to get in the way of the ball carrier more often than not. Eventually, he has a chance to earn playing time.
Daniel Dufrene has improved his pass-catching ability. He struggled last fall as he had not been exposed to a spread offense prior to his Illinois enrollment. But he made an excellent grab downfield Friday, just as he did in Wednesday's scrimmage. He is making himself into a threat out of the backfield.
Pollard Finally Able To Work During Drills
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