Ball Control Offense Leads Way In Oak Park

The Fighting Illini football team took its show on the road Saturday, trekking to Oak Park-River Forest High School for a controlled scrimmage to conclude the second week of spring ball. A crowd in the neighborhood of 3000 enjoyed sunny if cool and breezy conditions as they watched the Illini offense and defense do battle.

The Illinois offense dominated early, but the defense turned the tables toward the end of the practice. Coach Zook saw good things on both sides of the ball.

"We have a long ways to go, as you'd expect. It was probably the opposite of last year as the offense has a little more experience now than the defense. But you saw some pretty good things on defense as far as guys running around."

New offensive coordinator Mike Schultz favors a ball-control passing attack to compliment a strong running game, and you could see his handiwork throughout. Most of the passes were designed to garner first downs. Juice Williams feels this takes pressure off the quarterback.

"Any time you can dump the ball off and move the chains, it's any quarterback's dream. When you throw long down the field, you're hoping and praying the receivers run under it. But when you're checking down and watching those guys make cuts and get first downs, it makes our job a lot easier."

It also makes passing efficiency skyrocket. At one point, Juice was 13 of 16 passing for 167 yards before misfiring on his final four tries during the 2 minute drill that ended the long session. Eddie McGee was 4 for his first 7 for 35 yards, and Jacob Charest was 3 of 5 for 38 yards. McGee also stumbled during the 2 minute drill, completing only one of three.

The story of the day was the rushing of upcoming sophomores Mike Leshoure and Jason Ford. Leshoure burst through for runs of 44 and 25 yards on his way to 123 yards in 14 carries and two touchdowns. Jason Ford added 58 yards in 10 carries. His big play was a 27 yarder on his second carry of the game.

Juice Williams added 48 yards in 10 carries and one TD. Daniel Dufrene and Jarred Fayson both scored touchdowns on rushing plays. McGee and Charest both had success on the ground, but their statistics suffer when sacks are included.

Zook liked the play of his running backs.

"Daniel (Dufrene) has been hampered with a hamstring, so this is his first contact. He did some nice things. But Mikel and Jason have done the bulk of the contact stuff so far. They're like you would expect after having been through a year. They understand the offense better, they're more competitive and they're not thinking. They're letting their God-given ability take over.

"They got in the weight room with Lou (Hernandez, strength coach) and changed their body type around a little bit. They're good athletes, and anytime you get good athletes who work hard in the weight room, usually their bodies are gonna change a little bit."

Florida transfer Jarred Fayson led the receivers with 60 yards in five catches and one touchdown on a 27 yarder. Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui added four catches for 34 yards. Arrrelious Benn and Dufrene both grabbed three tosses, while Chris Duvalt and Jack Ramsey added two each.

Zook knows his receiver corps is one of the strongest positions on the team, and he praised Benn for his leadership with the group.

"Rejus (Benn) has been that way since we came back in January. Through the winter program, he stood up and really became a leader. Rejus may be a better person than he is a player. He's continued to compete and get better. We're using him in different roles now.

"He and Fayson both have a chance to be very explosive guys. Cordale Scott's coming on, Jack Ramsey's coming on. Rejus has done a great job of helping the young guys out in practice and working with them. It's a sign of leadership, it's a sign of maturity, and it's a sign he wants to be good."

The defense had its moments as well and seemed to get stronger as the day went on. Part of that was the emphasis on red zone and goal line work. But they were at their best at the end of the session when neither the first or second team offense could generate any downfield movement in their two minute drills.

Linebacker Nate Bussey led the defensive effort with 9 tackles, including one quarterback sack. Redshirt freshman linebacker Evan Friersen had 7 total tackles from his middle linebacker slot and was noticeable throughout with his speed and aggressiveness. Linebacker Russ Ellington and defensive end Doug Pilcher were each credited with two sacks, and redshirt freshman linebacker Nate Palmer added one.

Zook acknowledges the defense is young and will need time to develop, but he sees improvement.

"You could see today there's some things they've got to continue to work on. But the only way to get experience is to play. These last two weeks, we'll probably scrimmage a little more, particularly with the younger guys, than we did last year. They're getting a feel for it.

"Our tackling wasn't very good today, but it is better than it was last year at our first scrimmage. The big plays came predominantly on the option, and we're doing some things that are not what you want to do against option teams. We're still in the installation process."

This was a situational scrimmage, so extended drives were not permitted except in one brief segment. And special teams work was limited to field goals and extra points. Matt Eller missed one field goal into the wind at the beginning or practice but was otherwise perfect. One kick with the wind landed on the roof of a house across the street from the field. Derek Dimke made his field goals early but missed two straight late in the contest against the wind.

This is the third year for a spring scrimmage in the Chicago area, but this is the first time it occurred at the end of the second week of practice. Regardless, there was plenty of interest for fans, including a number of prospective recruits, to observe. But like Coach Zook says, there are eight more practices and much yet to learn.

"We have to continue these next two weeks to zero in on the things we said we had to do, not turn the ball over on offense and not give up big plays on defense."

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