Illini Show Big Play Potential In Scrimmage

The Fighting Illini football team held its annual fall scrimmage at Rantoul High School Saturday evening. There were plenty of mistakes, as one would expect for the first full contact of the fall. But there were also plenty of big plays on offense and defense, enough to send a large crowd home excited about the possibilities for 2009.

Illinois coach Ron Zook saw some good things in the Rantoul scrimmage, but he saw even more that need improvement.

"I feel very good about some of the things the first offense did and about some of the things the first defense did. But there were some things that happened out there that we didn't do well. If they feel good about what they did tonight, they better reevaluate it. And if they feel not so good about what they did and can learn from it, then we'll be fine."

There were three main problem areas. One, there were too many penalties. Second, a couple fumbles disrupted the flow of the offense. And the defense missed some tackles.

Zook was not surprised by the penalties, but he was disturbed by them nonetheless.

"There were too many penalties we've got to get fixed, the holding calls and things like that. I told the officials I wanted them to call it like a game, and I appreciate what they did because that's how you learn.

"Sometimes in practice, you kind of get sloppy with that stuff because you're worried about your assignments. I'm not concerned as long as we learn from the things that happened."

Tackling was inconsistent, but this was the first time the team played a full-contact scrimmage so far this fall.

"I've never been around a first scrimmage where they tackled well," Zook reminded. "But I can assure you we're gonna get it corrected. I think our first defense can be pretty good if they learn from the things that happened tonight."

Daniel Dufrene got the first offense off to a rousing start to the evening. After Derek Dimke boomed the opening kickoff into the endzone for a touchback, Dufrene took the game's first handoff, broke two tackles and rambled 80 yards for a touchdown. He described the play.

"I broke the tackle of the linebacker #51 (Evan Frierson), and then the safety Bo (Flowers). Once I saw I broke his tackle, there was nobody left. So I just tried as fast as I can to get to the end zone. The o-line did a heck of a job blocking for me. They opened up a big hole, and I just had to make a couple people miss."

Dufrene is up to 215 pounds of solid muscle, and he believes he is both stronger and faster for all the hard work. Unfortunately, he later fumbled the ball in the redzone, something he knows must be corrected quickly.

"The fumble was my fault. I have to learn more tightness on ball security. I made a spin move, and as soon as I did somebody came up from behind."

There were no official statistics for the game. But unofficially quarterback Juice Williams was a highly efficient 11 for 15 for three touchdowns and no interceptions. Jeff Cumberland grabbed a long sideline pass from Williams over the top of safety Ashante Williams and then rambling 83 yards to paydirt. Williams also tossed touchdowns of 3 yards to Hubie Graham and 17 yards to Jack Ramsey.

Cumberland made several big plays on the night, including two where he had to leap and stretch for the ball. He has had repeated problems with this type of catch, but he worked hard in the offseason. It appears to be paying off according to Juice Williams.

"Jeff came in at tight end very raw talent-wise. He did a great job of working very hard on the jump ball in the offseason. That's what we really worked on, and it kind of showed the potential he has to pick that ball up tonight."

Eddie McGee also did well. He was 4 for 7, including a slant pass to Jarred Fayson, who complete a 47 yard touchdown by speeding past the defenders. McGee ran for a score also, although his evening was limited afterward due to taunting the defense on his run.

Redshirt freshman Jacob Charest was cannon fodder for the first string defense. He had little room to maneuver as the defensive line ran through the reserve offensive line repeatedly for sacks and forced throws.

Freshman Nathan Scheelhaase saw extended action in third team work. He showed his speed on several scrambles and a quarterback draw. And he fired a 46 yard bomb to Cordale Scott, who stretched out his long arms to make a spectacular grab.

All the running backs had good moments. Besides Dufrene, Jason Ford, Mikel Leshoure, Troy Pollard, Justin Green and Bud Golden ran hard. Zook continues to see positives in using multiple backs in a game.

"Daniel turned the ball over in the red zone, which you cannot do. But I think you saw #21 (Jason Ford) has a chance, you can tell him and Mikel are a year older. I think you can see Justin Green's got another gear. If he can learn what to do he has a chance to do some things. Troy and all of them. We're gonna use them all before it's all said and done."

Defensively, there were too many good plays to list. But some of the best plays were engineered by middle linebacker Martez Wilson, strongside linebacker Ian Thomas, and safeties Garrett Edwards and Supo Sanni. Nate Bussey, Dere Hicks, Corey Liuget, all made solid hits.

The second and third defensive units made numerous plays against the reserve offense. Defensive end Michael Buchanan continued his tenacious play and was prominent. Defensive ends Whitney Mercilus, Glenn Foster and Wisdom Onyegbule, defensive tackles Rahkeem Smith, Lendale Buckner and Akeem Spence and linebacker Eric Watts all made good plays.

The kicking game gave fans reason to cheer. At the beginning of the practice period, Matt Eller boomed five straight field goals through the uprights. He also had success on field goals and extra points during the game. Dimke had at least as much distance on his kicks, but one of his five pregame attempts veered right. He also missed one during the scrimmage.

Punter Anthony Santella had several long punts with good hang time. The one that went off the side of his foot bounced forward for 50+ yards. The hang time and good coverage downfield prevented any punt returns from materializing. Kyle Yelton has been booming his punts all week, but he did not kick during the scrimmage.

Overall, the fans were excited about the big pay potential of the offense, and several commented on the improvement of the defense. It was a good effort for the first week of camp and will provide a stepping stone for the rest of the preseason.

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