Illinois coach Ron Zook was hoping to get out of spring ball with no major injuries. But just like two years ago under the same circumstance, a player suffered a leg injury. Freshman cornerback Pat Nixon-Youman was carted off the field with a protective wrap around his left leg. The nature and severity of his injury is not yet known.
Several other players missed time with what appeared to be minor injuries. Receiver Jack Ramsey left briefly with a cramp or leg bruise but played later. Middle linebacker Evan Friersen had his shoulder wrapped and could have gone back into the game if needed. Reserve defensive tackle Reggie Ellis left near the end of practice with what appeared to be a knee sprain.
The Illinois defense was the story of the day Wednesday, along with a stiff wind from the Northeast. On the third play of the scrimmage, Juice Williams hit A.J. Jenkins for a short gain, but he coughed up the ball on a hard hit.
With Eddie McGee playing receiver, Jacob Charest quarterbacked the second unit. Middle linebacker Martez Wilson combined with defensive tackle Rahkeem Smith to smother Jason Ford for a two yard loss. After two incompletions, the second a drop by McGee, Charest scrambled for 10 yards but couldn't gain a first down.
Juice had completions to Jenkins, London Davis and Mikel Leshoure in his next possession. The Jenkins pass covered 17 yards. But two short runs by Daniel Dufrene and a Juice incompletion stalled the drive. The next two drives also produced nothing. Rahkeem Smith and defensive end Antonio James registered tackles for loss.
Finally, Charest got his team moving down the field. Passes of 10 yards to London Davis, five to Jeff Cumberland and 12 to Troy Pollard gave them life. Pollard ran for three and Jason Ford six more before Pollard bolted 22 yards on a brilliant sideline sortie.
But again the defense stepped up. Linebacker Nate Bussey, defensive end Jerry Brown and safety Ashante Williams combined to stuff Ford for no gain. Linebacker Nate Palmer threw Arrelious Benn for a two yard loss on a pass from Charest. Derek Dimke then missed a 27 yard field goal, his first of three straight pushes to the right.
The Illini then went to specific down and distance situations. Leshoure made a first down on third and one before fumbling the ball over to safety Garrett Edwards. That was the first running back fumble of the spring.
The offense made several first downs in these situations. Leshoure ran three yards on 4th and 1; Ford gained five yards on third and one; Pollard moved the pile two yards on 4th and 1; Dufrene burst through for 8 yards on 3rd and 2; and Juice hit Ramsey for 6 yards on 3rd and 3.
Also, Charest hit McGee on the number for 15 big yards; and Juice completed his longest pass of the day on 3rd and five, swinging the ball to Dufrene who zoomed down the sideline for 25 yards.
But even then, the defense had several notable results. Martez Wilson stuffed Ford for no gain on 3rd and 2; Wilson, linebacker Aaron Gress and Ellis combined to throw back Ford on 3rd and 2; and Brown sacked Charest.
Going to red zone work, Dufrene had three straight runs for 15 yards. But on second down from the five yard line, defensive tackle Corey Liuget sacked Juice for a nine yard loss. After a short Juice scramble failed to reach the end zone, Matt Eller kicked a 24 yard field goal.
Charest couldn't get anything going on his turn. Martez Wilson smothered a pass attempt on second down. After another incompletion, Dimke missed a 33 yard field goal.
Defensive end Clay Nurse caught Dufrene on a shoestring tackle to begin the next drive. Defensive tackle Anterio Jackson then sacked Juice and safety Supo Sanni broke up a Juice pass intended for Chris Duvalt. Eller kicked a 31 yard field goal.
Smith sacked Charest again before Dimke missed a 32 yard field goal. Starting on the 12, Leshoure ran twice to finally score the first and only touchdown on the day. Cornerback Antonio Gully and Nate Palmer combined to throw Ford for a two yard loss right after that, and Bussey put a big hit on Ford to hold him to no gain.
Juice got his team moving downfield in his 2-minute opportunity. He hit Duvalt for 20 yards and Cordale Scott for 15. Leshoure ran for 5 more before Juice was stripped of the ball by linebacker Justin Staples on a pass attempt. Antonio James recovered. Charest was intercepted by Bussey on his first attempt to end the practice.
There were few injuries before today, and fumbles had been nearly nonexistent. So Coach Zook was undoubtedly concerned about the results. But other than Nixon-Youman, everyone else should be able to recover from their bumps and bruises quickly. And hopefully the fumbles were a one-day aberration.
The Illini now have one more practice without pads before their final spring game Saturday.