It was a typical early spring scrimmage. There were some outstanding efforts on both sides of the ball, but mistakes were numerous as well. Illinois coach Ron Zook got about what he expected.
"It looked like the fourth practice and first scrimmage. There were an awful lot of good things, and an awful lot of things you'd expect when you start going live. It forces them to get better quicker. Overall, we're probably right on schedule."
The Illini began their workout in a light drizzle that became a steady rain before finally subsiding during the scrimmage portion. Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino reminded of the necessity of acclimating to the elements.
"You'd like to have no wind and no rain, but with football you're gonna play the game anyway. It was good to have the kids fight through it, catch it and throw it. It was good to get out there."
Petrino also saw a mixed result on the field.
"I think we're making progress. We're improving, but there are some things we need to keep working on. On offense, it's about all 11 guys doing their jobs, and we need to keep making sure we do that. Every once in awhile we'd have one guy not getting it done, and that was hurting us. There were times we looked real good. We just have to make it more consistent."
All teams have room to improve, and the Illini need all of spring to get where the coaches need them to be. Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning found numerous teaching moments.
"Some good, some not as good. I was disappointed with some with the twos. I had to go over and make them run back to the ball. I said, 'I'm getting tired. We've gone three days in a row. Don't make me have to chase you around every day.' They're still not there yet. We've got a lot of room to improve. But that's what practice is for, and thank goodness we've got 11 more practices."
Koenning gave examples of the importance of running to the ball.
"I don't like it if we don't make the play. Terry (Hawthorne) undercut a play and didn't make it, and they got about 20 yards. That's why we run to the ball.
"A fumble came out that the offense ended up getting. We had about five guys that weren't busting it to the ball. It gives us a chance to coach. Here's why we're fanatical about getting to the ball all the time. There's a lot of things that give us opportunities to coach."
Two injuries marred the day, both to running backs. Justin Green left the field with what was first hoped to be a high ankle sprain. However, he put a note on his Facebook saying he had a broken ankle that needed surgery. If true, he will be out the rest of spring. Troy Pollard appeared to reinjure a knee, and his status is undetermined.
Nathan Scheelhaase got first reps for the quarterbacks both in drill work and the scrimmage. He did throw a couple interceptions in 7 on 7 action, one where cornerback Tavon Wilson outbattled A.J. Jenkins for the ball, and the other when a tipped pass landed in the arms of safety Travon Bellamy. But Scheelhaase managed the team well during the scrimmage.
The Kansas City redshirt freshman threw mostly short passes off play action and bootlegs to move the chains. He had one long pass play, a 58 yarder to tight end Zach Becker where a blown coverage allowed the big fella to ramble down the sideline after a short completion. Scheelhaase also showed his speed by scrambling 44 yards untouched for a touchdown.
Freshman Chandler Whitmer threw a long sideline pass directly into the wind, giving cornerback Terry Hawthorne a chance to close on the ball and return it for a 30+ yard touchdown. But Whitmer responded by hitting three straight passes to move the ball for the second string offense against the first string defense. He hit Fred Sykes for 24 yards, Chris James for 9 and Jack Ramsey for 11 before the drive stalled.
Whitmer later hit Ramsey again for 31 yards. On the next two plays, Pollard rambled for 7 and 32 yards, the latter a touchdown run. Jacob Charest threw a perfect post route to A.J. Jenkins for a long touchdown in early 7 on 7 work, but his scrimmage performance was not noteworthy.
Zook says all three quarterbacks are still equal. Petrino has not selected a leader either, but he did praise Scheelhaase for his running ability and leadership.
"That's what he does better than the other guys, there's no question. He's doing a good job of leading right now. And he'll make plays when things break down. It's something in this day and age you need, and that's something he does real well. I think Chandler can really throw the ball well. He just needs to keep working on it."
Charest saw fewer snaps, and Petrino suggested a possible reason.
"You know, he's been doing good, but he's got to not keep turning the ball over. We can't have those interceptions. Once he just turned and threw it, he didn't really look. That's something we can't have. But he has improved, he's made progress. We've just got to make sure we don't have those turnovers."
Jason Ford got most of the carries early for the first string offense. But Mikel Leshoure made his presence felt when he saw more action. He gained 30 yards in three straight plays, his twenty yarder special for the broken tackles. He added a 14 yarder later.
Defensively, safety Travon Bellamy had a couple big hits. After two years of uncertainty following surgery on both shoulders, he may have finally gotten his aggressiveness and confidence back. Both Zook and Koenning commented about his progress.
"I'm glad to see that," Zook remarked. "I think this is his year. He understands that. He worked hard in the offseason, and he's worked hard in all the drills to this point. It's good to see."
Koenning was asked if Bellamy can have a breakout year.
"He doesn't have much choice. He needs to. To his credit, he's worked awfully hard. We had a talk the other day about, 'What are you?' Is he a student doing football part-time, or is he a football player? He has told me he wants to be a football player. When someone says his name, they think of football player.
"You can be a great Christian and a great role model and great student and still be a football player. But football's kind of a way of life. It says who you are. He says that's what he wants to be, so hopefully we'll keep pushing him to be that."
Supo Sanni had a one hand interception of a Charest pass in 7 on 7 action. And Ian Thomas dove to break up a pass from Scheelhaase to Ford. During the scrimmage, Ashante Williams penetrated and threw Green for a two yard loss. Evan Frierson, Ian Thomas and Michael Buchanan collectively ran down Whitmer for a sack. And defensive tackle Glenn Foster threw Pollard for a one yard loss.
Both placekickers showed good leg strength and accuracy, but both also missed efforts. Derek Dimke and Matt Eller both made 47 yarders with the wind in early practice. Eller missed another from 47. Both also made field goals during the scrimmage, but Dimke missed a 36 yard effort into the wind.
Anthony Santella's first two punts were impressive. First kicking against the wind, he hit a beautiful high spiral that penetrated 40+ yards with good hang time. With the wind, his 58 yarder flew over the returner, bounced goalward and then reversed course at the two yard line.
The new coordinators are helping Zook instill a more disciplined approach for the team. It appears to be working, as Koenning related.
"We've got a tremendous number of guys that are busting their tails. I think we had 21 defensive guys in there watching film on a Friday night. They deserve to have great things happen for them."