Offense Improved In Latest Illini Scrimmage

The Fighting Illini football team completed it's second week of spring ball with a lengthy scrimmage inside Memorial Stadium Saturday. The offense appeared to be more in sync as it is beginning to learn its assignments better. The defense also had its moments. There is still much to learn, but most coaches were generally pleased afterward.

Illinois football coach Ron Zook felt improvement was shown Saturday."The thing that was much better today was the attitude and effort, the intensity and so forth. I felt the offense would probably come out and do some better things. They came out ready to go, and they did a pretty good job."

Offensive Coordinator Paul Petrino called plays from the Press Box. He liked some things but knows more is needed.

"I think we improved today. I thought we came out the beginning of the scrimmage and were real ready to play, and we did a great job of moving the ball and playing hard. But I kind of thought we hit the middle of the scrimmage and let up a little bit.

"We're still not very good in two-minute, but we made some big strides as a whole offense. I thought we ran the ball real well and did a better job of throwing the ball and actually getting some completions. It was definitely an improvement, but until we watch the films it's never as good or never as bad. It felt like it was a better day."

Of course, whenever the offense does well, defensive coaches are looking for answers. Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning realizes learning the complexities of the defense takes time. And the return of a couple injured veterans would help also.

"We've been working really hard. Coach Zook's been good about letting us put in all our stuff. I'm not gonna get too upset that we gave up some points today. I am, but I'm realistic too. Some of the plays Martez (Wilson) would have made, or Clay (Nurse) would make.

"I don't like giving up the deep plays. We made a lot of dumb mistakes, like the quarterback starts to scramble and we're jumping the guy at the line of scrimmage and there's a guy twelve yards behind us. There's a lot of good teaching and coaching we can do from today's film."

Koenning kept his defensive players afterward and worked them to exhaustion. There was a method to his madness.

"I'm working on them being tough-minded. We give in too easily and stop giving any type of effort. Our fundamentals leave us. Vince Lombardi said a long time ago, 'Fatigue makes cowards of us all.' We had some guys show some cowardice. We've got to find a way of pushing their threshold.

"Part of that is, once they believe they can do anything, then they'll play like they've got "S's" on their chest. Right now, there's still a question of whether they're capable of it. We've got to get them to believe they can."

Koenning realizes his opponent today wanted to beat him. He praised the quality of Petrino's offensive system.

"Coach Petrino's offense has proven to be effective. I have a lot of respect for it. A good friend of mine, the defensive coordinator when I was at Troy, they play the Floridas and LSUs, he said they (Louisville with the Petrinos) were as hard to defend as anybody. They've got a lot of stuff, but the mistakes we made today are things we can correct, and I think we'll be okay."

The quarterbacks removed their red shirts and were fair game for attack. Petrino and quarterback coach Jeff Brohm wanted to test the toughness of Nathan Scheelhaase, Jacob Charest and Chandler Whitmer, and throwing them to the fire is the best way.

"Yeah, I loved to see that. I liked it. I definitely think it's a strength of #2 (Scheelhaase). He can run around and make plays, and that's got to be one of his strengths.

"None of them have enough experience to know how they're gonna react when they get whacked. You've got to let them react to that, and I liked the way they reacted. It was good to see them get out there and get hit, run out of things and make plays."

Zook blew a few quick whistles, but all three quarterbacks took shots and kept battling. All made it through the scrimmage unscathed and proved capable of withstanding the fire on game day. Of course, Zook also mentioned the need for better pass protection at times.

All three quarterbacks are still in the race for #1. However, Scheelhaase spent the whole day with the first unit and rarely if ever had to throw against a stiff southerly breeze. In unofficial statistics, he completed 12 of 17 passes for 125 yards, with one interception. One of his completions was to himself on a batted pass. He also ran on options, bootlegs and scrambles for another 93 yards on 9 carries. Petrino sees improvement in Scheelhaase.

"He can make something when something's not there. He did a better job at times of going through his progressions and reading things. There are still a couple things that he's got to improve on. And then you saw he can make big plays with his legs. He's definitely got the ability to do that, and that puts more pressure on the defense."

Zook also indicated a possible leaning toward Scheelhaase when discussing his running skill.

"When you're a defensive coach, it's hard to keep him bound up. He can make big plays like that. I think it gets everybody else going as well. It slows the defensive front down."

Charest played much better than the first couple scrimmages and admitted afterward he felt better today than earlier. Playing with the second unit against the first string defense, he completed 9 of 13 tosses for 135 yards, and he gained 7 yards in three carries. Justin Staples stripped him of the ball while back to pass and recovered.

Whitmer was 5 of 7 for 55 yards and one interception. He lost 12 yards in six carries but had a nice 12 yard run for a first down. He saw less action than the other two.

The rushing leader was Mikel Leshoure. He gained 123 yards in 17 carries and scored two touchdowns. His big gainer went for 66 yards, although he was tackled at the five yard line by Pat Nixon-Youman, who pursued him from the opposite side. Petrino laughed afterward Leshoure needed to take the piano off his back. He also made good yardage on second effort plays.

Zook complimented #5 Leshoure as well.

"5 ran very well today. I feel very, very good about him."

Troy Pollard asserted himself with the second unit. He ran nine times for 50 yards and one touchdown with a long gainer of 24 yards. Bud Golden also scored a TD and gained 37 yards in 7 carries. Jason Ford was a workhorse with 12 carries but gained only 21 yards as he appears still to be recovering from an ankle sprain.

Three receivers caught five passes each. A.J. Jenkins gained 93 yards, including a beautiful long bomb from Charest against the wind that netted 48 yards and set up a touchdown. He also turned a short Scheelhaase pass into a 22 yarder.

Converted quarterback Eddie McGee's five receptions went for 71 yards. And tight end/fullback Zach Becker was a quarterback favorite. He caught five for 62 yards and ran hard after the catch. He turned a short swing pass into a 21 yard TD saunter.

In addition, Jarred Fayson grabbed four balls for 25 yards, and Steve Hull caught two for 33. Also making receptions were Justin Lattimore, Jack Ramsey, Leshoure, Chris James and Fred Sykes. Sykes's five yard catch went for a touchdown.

There were a number of defensive highlights as well. Tavon Wilson and Ashante Williams each intercepted errant passes. Corey Liuget batted down a couple passes and was a force all day in the interior of the defensive line. Akeem Spence, Glenn Foster, Whitney Mercilus, Michael Buchanan, Nate Palmer and Daryle Ballew each made one or more big stops along the line.

SAM linebacker Nate Bussey was especially quick on blitzes and short yardage runs. Ian Thomas and Travon Bellamy each had multiple big plays. Others prominent durning the scrimmage included Evan Frierson, Aaron Frierson and Wisdom Onyegbule.

Zook knows the Illini need to make major improvements to reverse last year's 3-9 audit with a schedule that's equally difficult. But it appears he has coordinators who relieve some of his burden by being self-starters.

"I think they're doing great. I'm excited about it, I really am. They're coaching, they're teaching, they're coaching hard and demanding. That's what you've got to do."

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