Hicks, Defense Dominate Scrimmage In Lemont

Lemont, Ill. -- The Fighting Illini defense dominated the offense as expected in a controlled scrimmage at Lemont Saturday. A cold drizzle may have limited the action somewhat, but it didn't prevent a good turnout of Chicago area fans. The all-weather artificial surface on the football field of the very large high school made a practice during inclement conditions possible.

"(The weather) wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be, really," said Coach Ron Zook. "There were a lot of good things, and there were some things that weren't so good. But I think at this point of time, with the conditions I think overall it was probably pretty good. Other than a few nicks, we had no serious injuries. Obviously, that's the most important thing."

The final score of the scrimmage was 36-19 in favor of the defense. Points were awarded for a variety of situations, and two defensive touchdowns gave them an insurmountable lead. Vontae Davis got the defense rolling by blocking an Anthony Santella punt and returning it 7 yards for the touchdown. It was almost identical to his play in the Missouri game last fall.

Cornerback Dere Hicks was the star of stars for the defense. He secured two interceptions, returning one for a 32 yard touchdown. He almost had a third interception, wrestling the ball away from Chris Duvalt in the end zone on a pass from Juice Williams. Hicks was credited with four tackles, although he was also the main culprit in the offense suffering a four yard loss on a swing pass Williams completed to Daniel Dufrene. It was a day Dere will not soon forget.

Offensive statistics bear out the defense's advantage. Juice Williams completed only 13 of 29 throws for 142 yards and two interceptions, although poor route running at times contributed to the poor percentage. It seems Juice has had his two worst scrimmages in Chicago area practices last spring and at Lemont.

"I would grade myself probably a B minus," estimated Juice afterward. "There were some great throws out there today, great receivers with the football. There were a few plays where the receivers didn't show themselves. It's not going to happen in the spring. We still are young in the season."

Eddie McGee was 10 for 20 for 95 yards and one interception. McGee did score a touchdown, using his great speed to scramble 58 yards. Even with the defense needing only to touch him, McGee went unscathed to paydirt.

Other than McGee's one run, no runner asserted himself. Mikel LeShoure split time with Dufrene with the first team and ran the first two plays, but he ended with only 14 yards in five carries. Dufrene made a paltry 11 yards on 9 carries, but he had a tackle-breaking 11 yarder called back by penalty. Freshman Darius Purcell showed some speed and determination with 18 hard-earned yards in 9 carries, although he also fumbled a couple times.

In a change from the past, tight end Michael Hoomanawanui was the leading receiver with five catches for 82 yards. His 37 yarder showed speed and determination. Alex Reavy continues to see considerable time at slot receiver and had four catches on the day. Chris James and Marquis Wilkins caught three passes each, and Jeff Cumberland, Fred Sykes and Jarred Fayson two each.

On-site viewers probably were discouraged by the offensive output, but middle linebacker Brit Miller may have had the best explanation.

"Right now, we (the defense) have a little more experience than the offense. They're getting the experience that's necessary. They struggled a little bit, but you see signs of Juice getting better every day, you see him making the right reads. That helps me a lot because I know where he's going. But you can see we're getting better. They've been running the ball hard. They've been struggling with some injuries in the o-line, but they're doing a great job with effort."

Indeed, center Ryan McDonald didn't play, guard Jon Asamoah continues to play while recuperating from a dislocated toe, and two second string linemen are first semester freshmen. In addition, slot receivers Arrelious Benn (shoulder surgery) and Brian Gamble ("issues") didn't dress. And fullback Rahkeem Smith has a strained arch in his foot and is limited to a walking boot. The lack of a fullback limited offensive flexibility.

The defense was credited with 12 tackles for loss, making offensive progress difficult. There could have been more if they were allowed to tackle the quarterback. Bo Flowers, playing with the second team, led the defense with 8 tackles including one TFL, and Brit Miller was right behind with 7 and 1. Martez Wilson continued to show improvement with 2 TFL, and bookends Will Davis and Derek Walker had two each. Sirod Williams, Antonio James, Reggie Ellis and Ashante Williams also had TFL. Marcus Thomas collected an interception on a tip from Flowers.

Late in the day, the Illini went into situational drills, some of which were not included in the official statistics. It was here the offense began to excite the fandom. Florida transfer Jarred Fayson put on a quick burst of speed for a ten yard gain and first down on a 3rd down and five pass. Rookie Fred Sykes made an excellent grab for a 17 yarder on 3rd and 4. McGee ran untouched into the end zone on a four yard option.

Also, McGee passed to tight end Tom Sullivan for a 10 yard touchdown. Chris James made two fine catches as part of a two minute offense. And both Dufrene and Purcell burst through the defense for four yard touchdowns to end the practice.

But even then, the defense showed its dominance at times. Whitney Mercilus made a couple sound defensive stops. Martez WIlson cornered the speedy Will Judson for a 3 yard loss on an end around after Brit Miller forced the play back inside. Wilson also threw Dufrene for a three yard loss. Clay Nurse forced Juice into a six yard loss, and Josh Brent collected a sack.

Coach Zook was upbeat afterwards.

"The offense is a few guys short, which makes a big, big difference. Overall, I thought the defense played well. The offense did some good things. As I said, we have some young guys kind of stuck in there, so that's going to happen. Consistency will come with the offense, I'm not concerned about that."

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