Illini Look Good, Avoid Injury in Scrimmage

The Fighting Illini football team held a controlled scrimmage at Rantoul High School Monday evening. There were exceptional plays by both offense and defense, and no one was hurt seriously. The Illini are not yet a finished product, but they showed glimpses of their potential.

Coach Ron Zook commented about the scrimmage afterward.

"I went back and looked at my notes from last year and the year before, and it's the same thing. The enthusiasm is not like we've got to have it, but I thought the execution for the most part, particularly with the first group, was pretty good. We've just got to continue to improve."

Numerous freshmen were given their first chance to play for their new fans. They are still learning the playbook, so not everything went smoothly. But both the offense and defense showed positive signs despite going against one another.

The first part of the scrimmage was similar to a real game except for special teams. The last part consisted of situational work. Official statistics weren't kept for the entire scrimmage, but Juice Williams was four for seven passing in the first part, while Eddie McGee was 2 for 5 and rookie Jacob Charest four for six with one interception to Antonio Gully.

Four running backs were given ample opportunity to show their abilities, and all asserted themselves. Daniel Dufrene was the starter, and he showed a much improved aggressiveness, breaking a number of tackles and even showing off a spin move to gain extra yardage. His first two carries were bursts of 13 and 5 yards where he fought through tackles.

"It felt pretty good to come out here with the fans supporting us," said Dufrene. "We don't get to break tackles much in practice. (spin move) felt good getting back to my old ways."

Freshman Jason Ford also impressed the fans. He gained 34 yards in five carries, showing off good inside moves, an outside burst, and aggressive tackle-breaking. Fellow freshman Mikel LeShoure had some good runs as well, with one inside opportunity during situational work gaining 10 yards on a quick cutback.

And Troy Pollard got his first chance to test his surgically repaired knee under battle conditions. He gained 17 yards on his first carry, reminding fans of his excellent potential.

Marquis Wilkins was a popular receiver in the early scrimmaging, gathering in three passes and fighting for extra yardage. Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui demonstrated his ability to aid the passing game with two significant gains. Freshman walkon fullback Zach Becker caught a long sideline pass from Charest for 32 yards.

And Arrelious Benn celebrated his return to full health with two catches, the second one covering 12 yards as he caught a flat pass and then powered through defenders to score a touchdown.

"I told Coach Zook when I got the ball in the end zone I was so excited to be out here," said Benn. "It's the first time I've been out here since January 1st. So it's an honor to be out here. When I smell the end zone, I've got to get there."

The defense asserted itself frequently as well, especially the defensive line. Ends Clay Nurse and Will Davis were all over the quarterbacks all night long, garnering four sacks each. Not wanting to brag, Davis preferred afterward to discuss the team.

"We played hard today, and that's the thing we were trying to focus on. There's a lot of guys we have to show the ropes. They had a little trouble here and there, but us older guys had our assignments down and played hard. So we're anxious to see how it looks on the film."

Other defenders with tackles for loss included Daryle Ballew, Rodney Pittman, Dave Lindquist, and Anterio Jackson. Doug Pilcher had two sacks, and freshman Corey Liuget had two tackles for loss including one sack. Martez Wilson had a sack where he ran down the speedy McGee, and he tipped a pass at the line.

Prior to the scrimmage, the Illini tried two of their placekick candidates on field goals. Freshman Derek Dimke got first chance, and he completed kicks of 20, 28, 32 and 38 yards. He had one kick blocked by Josh Brent. Dimke has a strong leg, although some of his kicks lacked great height. Matt Brandabur made all his tries, from 32, 32 and 35 yards.

Situational work consisted of numerous third down plays, plays beginning near the offense's own goal line, and red zone work. There were some outstanding individual efforts. For instance, McGee hit LeShoure for 34 yards. Juice Williams hit Rahkeem Smith for 14 yards and Jeff Cumberland for 18 yards on consecutive plays, and Will Judson made an exceptional catch on the sideline for a 21 yard gain with Dere Hicks draped all over him.

Also, Dufrene gained 11 and 5 yards on two more outstanding efforts, weaving and then powering through tacklers on the longer one. And he scored a two yard touchdown after taking a flat pass from Williams and speeding down the sideline for 38 big yards. He thought he was supposed to stop at the 25 yard line, so he slowed up a little or he might have scored on the play.

There appeared to be no major injuries on the evening, although Nurse was shaken up slightly late in the contest, and Xavier Fulton limped off with an ankle and knee problem. Coach Zook afterward said he didn't think either injury would pose long-term problems.

Fulton's absence reminded of the Illini's vulnerability at the important left tackle position. Ryan Palmer moved from the right side to the left, pushing Jon Asamoah from right guard to right tackle to make way for Randall Hunt at right guard. There was a noticeable increase in defensive pressure into the backfield after that.

After watching Benn and Chris James taken off the Rantoul High School field last year at this time with major injuries, Coach Zook was understandably relieved to get through this scrimmage without similar problems.

"I just thank God we got out of here with no injuries. Last year, I was sick when I walked in there."

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