Defense Making Progress In Practices

It was another intense, hard-hitting day at Memorial Stadium as the Fighting Illini football team worked through its ninth spring practice. The defense is beginning to develop some swagger, and it is asserting itself against what appears to be a strong offense.

It is obvious the Illinois football coaches want to get their players focused on playing physical football this spring. They are getting after each other, with practices more reminiscent of two years ago than last season. Coaches are yelling at players, and players are taking their frustrations out on each other.

During hitting segments, offense and defense argued over possible penalties and the ball spot (there were no officials). And they did some trash talking with each other. The defense was especially fired up, and their vocal support for teammates was good to see.

Juice Williams and Eddie McGee are clearly the #1 and #2 quarterbacks and took most of the snaps on this day. Jacob Charest got a few opportunities, but he spent part of the day without his red shirt on to give motivation for the defense in an early scrimmage segment.

Walkon quarterback Ed Viliunas, a product of Lyons Township High School in LaGrange, did some good things against the top defenses. Also without a red shirt, Ed fired one pass to Hubie Graham and two to Jack Ramsey on consecutive plays.

He later hit Cordale Scott for short yardage. Cornerback Pat Nixon-Youman put a loud strike on Scott as he caught the ball. And Viliunas was caught after a short gain by defensive end Glenn Foster on a scramble.

Dere Hicks has been operating as a nickel back when he isn't playing cornerback, allowing Travon Bellamy to replace him opposite Tavon Wilson at the corners. Hicks was credited with a sack on walkon quarterback Sean Anderson. He also should have had an interception on a Charest pass.

Middle linebacker Martez Wilson showed aggressiveness throughout. Early in the practice, he joined with defensive end Clay Nurse to sack Charest. In goal line action, he hit running back Jason Ford for no gain, and he joined with defensive tackle Corey Liuget to block running back Mikel Leshoure's path.

The same two put a lick on Leshoure in a 3rd and 2 situation later in the practice. Martez also held tight end Michael Hoomanawanui to two yards on a pass from Eddie McGee in the red zone, and he put a vicious hit on Ford to hold him out of the endzone.

Other defensive highlights included a couple hard hits by second string middle linebacker Evan Friersen; an aggressive stop on Leshoure by defensive tackle Ugo Uzodinma; linebacker Nate Bussey stopped running back Daniel Dufrene for little gain near the goal line, combined with Nurse to stop Dufrene for one yard in the same segment, and flew into the backfield to sack Juice.

Also, linebacker Russ Ellington caught McGee for no gain on an outside option; linebacker Nate Palmer broke up a pitch from Charest, causing a fumble; defensive tackle Rahkeem Smith separated a receiver from the ball on a pass from Juice; Nurse caught Juice for a 3 yard loss on a quarterback draw; safety Supo Sanni caught slot receiver Chris Duvalt for a 2 yard loss on a counter; and defensive end Glenn Foster made a good play to stop McGee for only three yards on a draw.

The offense had some good moments as well. Their best play was a bomb from Juice to A.J. Jenkins, who sped past defenders to complete a 70 yard touchdown. The tight ends were prominent in the passing game with Hoomanawanui grabbing three tosses, Hubie Graham three, and London Davis two. Davis might have had two touchdowns, but McGee and Charest each overthrew him in goal line work.

Receivers Arrelious Benn, Jarred Fayson and Jack Ramsey were also popular targets on the day. Fayson appeared to score a touchdown on a remarkable leaping grab of a Juice pass in the corner of the endzone, but cornerback Tavon Wilson forced him out of bounds to prevent a score. Fayson did have touchdowns later on passes from Juice and Charest, each from 4 yards out.

In the running game, Leshoure broke off a 14 yard gain on third down and five and later added 16 yards on an option pitch. And Juice added 11 yards on a draw. But there were no other big gainers as most of the situation work was red zone, goal line and third or fourth downs.

In goal line action of five yards or less, Dufrene and Jason Ford each scored three times. Leshoure and Fayson each ran for two scores. Some of these runs were straight bursts, but some showed the runners' quick cutting ability.

Three field goals were tried, but the defense ended up celebrating each time. Matt Eller missed from 36 yards, and Derek Dimke missed from 28 and 35 yards.

For the second day, Jeff Allen played left tackle while Corey Lewis backed up Ryan Palmer at right tackle. Giving these young players practice experience at both sides will help develop depth at two critical positions. Coach Ron Zook expanded on it after practice.

"We talked about it last week. Jeff Allen really has great feet. I think Corey can play both sides as well. The more guys you've got who can play left is good.

"We want to keep Craig [Wilson] right where he is. Craig's making a lot of progress there, so we want to keep him where he is and just keep getting better. Ryan Palmer is going to work exclusively at right tackle. Jeff and Corey can play both sides."

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