The Illinois football team brought in officials and scrimmaged inside Memorial Stadium. It was situational as the offense and defense are still being installed. But it gave onlookers a chance to see the progress being made early in spring ball.
Starting quarterback Juice Williams had a frustrating day. His option runs are never credited for their real worth as his red shirt prevents the defense from tackling him. It is much easier to stop Juice when one has only to touch him.
But his main problem was interceptions. He threw three during scrimmage action. On the first one, walkon cornerback Nattiel Jenkins broke in front of Jarred Fayson to pick off Juice's throw. The ball may have arrived a little late, but Jenkins made an excellent break on the ball.
Shortly afterward, Juice threw into coverage and was picked off by onrushing safety Ashante Williams. The last one was a desperation heave into the waiting arms of Supo Sanni in the endzone on 4th down in a two minute drill on the last play of the day.
Juice Williams had some good moments as well. Discounting the interceptions, Juice was 8 of 9 passing before misfiring on three straight plus the final interception in a two minute drill to end the day. Included was a 13 yard safety valve pass to Jason Ford, who ran it in untouched for a touchdown.
Most of the time Juice's job was to get the running game going. Both Ford and Mikel Leshoure ran hard and showed more quickness than last fall. Jason unofficially ran for 83 yards in 13 carries. In one highlight, he turned a short gainer into a 7 yarder by stiff-arming Martez Wilson. And he flew down the left sideline on a sweep for 45 big yards.
Leshoure had around 60 yards in 12 carries. He zig zagged through the first team defense for 15 yards on one special carry. He gained 13 yards in another burst, and he blasted 12 yards for a touchdown, again against the first stringers. Mikel also caught two passes for 18 yards.
Second string quarterback Eddie McGee operated against the first string defense and struggled at times making something happen. He did complete 5 of 8 passes, all of the short variety. And he was credited with a five yard gain on an option that might have been a long touchdown had tackling been required.
Third string quarterback Jacob Charest had problems with the first string defense and a number of bad snaps from reserve centers Tyler Sands and Ryan Sedlacek. Jake completed 4 of 7 passes, including two nice grabs by Cordale Scott over the middle for 13 and 24 yards. And he had a nice 7 yard option run that set up a 13 yard touchdown pass to Jack Ramsey in red zone work. Two of his incompletions were throwaways to avoid a sack, and he was sacked two other times.
The defense became more assertive as the day went on. The first string d-line is beginning to solve the second string offensive line, and the young linebackers and defensive backs are starting to show their potential. Martez Wilson was playing first string middle linebacker alongside strongside backer Ian Thomas. They and Russ Ellington produced a number of solid plays.
Defensive end Antonio James and defensive tackle Corey Liuget were credited with two sacks each. Glenn Foster, Rahkeem Smith, Whitney Mercilus, Anterio Jackson, and Ashante Williams all made good plays in the run game. And safety Supo Sanni was prominent throughout as he stuffed one run for little gain, broke up a pass and corraled the last pass interception.
The highlight for the defense was the play of the second string against the first string offense on one promising drive. The offense pushed the ball down to the 5 yard line. But linebacker Nate Palmer threw Juice behind the line for a 5 yard loss. On second down from the 10, Ford ran for 7 yards and Leshoure 2 to face fourth and goal from the one. A Ford burst up the middle was stuffed for no gain, and the defense celebrated.
There was some special teams work as well. Both Matt Eller and Derek Dimke made all their field goals, the longest being 30 yards. And they both made extra points, all with punter Anthony Santella holding for the placements.
Santella also showed decent speed on a punt fake. While he passed the ball out of punt formation yesterday, today he ran to the sideline and proceeded upfield for a gain in excess of 15 yards. With fake punts added to the mix, opposing teams will have more to worry about.
Some players missed part or all of the practice with classes and minor injuries. And there were plenty of mistakes to keep the coaches and players busy. But for a first scrimmage, there were some positive signs.
It was clear that Ford and Leshoure benefitted from losing weight and gaining experience from playing as true freshmen. The run game will be enhanced greatly when the quarterbacks are live and can be tackled. The passing game still needs work, but there is plenty of talent on hand.
And it was good to see the defense rise up and challenge the offense. It still has a long way to go, but there is some quality on that unit as well.