Illinois upperclassmen Clay Nurse and Martez Wilson, unable to scrimmage while recuperating from offseason surgery, nevertheless made their presence felt by firing up their defensive mates prior to a scrimmage in which the defense made many big hits. But the first string offense did some damage against second teamers. Overall, head coach Ron Zook feels progress is being made.
"I thought the first defense in particular came back and played much better this week. The first offense for the most part played a lot better. There are some things we've got to do. In the red zone, the first group was pretty good. That's an area where the defense has to step up. I think overall we made progress."
Running back Jason Ford made some big plays on offense, rumbling for three touchdowns on hard-fought carries. Unofficially he gained 59 yards in 13 carries and added 15 yards in two pass receptions. He was tough to bring down all day despite a high ankle sprain that has limited his mobility all spring.
"I keep fighting through it," Ford explains. "I just want to learn the offense, so I don't want to sit out. Try to get better. This was my best scrimmage. Last one I just had a couple plays. This time I went through the whole game."
His nine yard touchdown burst early in the scrimmage included a spin move and several broken tackles. He was typically humble about his run afterward.
"It just shows I'm gonna keep running hard, keep moving to get loose and keep being tough."
His play was in stark contrast to fellow running back Mikel Leshoure, who had three carries for minus two yards before sitting out the rest of the scrimmage. He was the obvious leader at the position until Saturday. Zook bit his tongue when asked about Leshoure's health.
"Sore ankle. If he's hurt he's hurt. But he looked all right in the first series. The trainers didn't take him out. We're gonna be tough at running back. I don't care who's in there, it's just how many guys we can count on."
Zook praised Ford for playing hurt.
"That's the thing. He stayed out there, and he went. His ankle's probably worse than Mikel's. A running back's got to have his ankles, his feet, his legs. I know this, spring practice is important you go through. And I think it shows a lot about what you've got to have in the fall."
Offensive Coordinator Paul Petrino was also pleased with Ford and the competition continuing at running back.
"Jason had some nice runs. He was banging off of people and had 3 touchdowns. He had a good day. Anytime you have competition, that's when you get to be special. We need competition all across the board. Him coming out and having a good day is real good."
The other offensive star was redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who continues to run the offense efficiently and chew up yardage with his running ability and accurate passing. Petrino singled him out.
"The first two drives I thought Nathan did a good job. He mixed in some nice runs and nice reads. He had a good day and did a good job. That kind of sticks out."
Scheelhaase scrambled frequently from the pocket. Given recent history of quarterbacks scrambling prematurely, Petrino was asked if Scheelhaase ran too early at times.
"Sometimes, it depends on what the route is. We run a lot of crossing routes. If we run crossing routes and he jumps the crossing route, then for him to run right away is perfect. Sometimes with the structure of other routes, he's got to stand in there a little bit.
"It's one of the best things he does. And we do a good job on our crossing routes. It makes it hard on people. If they don't cut him it's open. And if they do cut him, the lanes are open for him to run the ball."
Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning acknowledged the difficult of defending a quarterback like Scheelhaase.
"The quarterback's pretty athletic and creates some issues. Even when we've got people covered, he finds a way of getting open and avoiding.
"Their touchdowns in the redzone all came off of that. It's hard third and long, you're trying to cover the pass and the quarterback takes off running. We don't have a d-lineman or a linebacker, aside from maybe Martez who's not going, who can keep up with him.
"It's an obvious issue that you have to deal with. And we did some things kind of fooling around today that probably caused them a little irritation. I hope we got a little bit of thinking in him."
Is it Scheelhaase's speed or elusiveness that causes the defense the most problems?
"Probably both. And he's a smart kid and a tough guy. That's a pretty good combination. That's what I know he was signed here to do."
Only a small portion of the scrimmage simulated game conditions. With all the short-yardage situations, third and short and fourth and short, plus redzone and goal line work, many of the plays went for short yardage. It was encouraging the offense pushed through for four of its six touchdowns in the redzone, especially against an aggressive defense. But statistics are skewed to reflect the situation.
Scheelhaase completed 15 of 19 passes for 113 yards. He ran the ball 14 times for 65 yards and two touchdowns, one on an 11 yard scramble down the sideline and one on a quarterback draw covering 6 yards.
Jacob Charest had a frustrating day against the first string offense and stout North wind. He missed his first seven passes and ended with just three completions in 15 attempts. Three of his passes were dropped. He gained 34 yards through the air and none in four scrambles. And Tavon Wilson intercepted a dying quail, the result of Charest being hit by Corey Liuget as he threw the ball.
Zook defended all three quarterbacks including Chandler Whitmer, who completed three of five passes for 21 yards and lost two fumbles on exchanges.
"Nathan missed a few things, but every day he steps on the field he makes plays. I thought Jacob made some improvement. Chandler struggled a little bit today. I'm sure he's putting a lot of pressure on himself. The quarterbacks are all trying so hard, which is good, and they're getting better."
A.J. Jenkins led receivers with 57 yards in three receptions, his 38 yarder on the first drive the long play of the day. Jarred Fayson was a workhorse on crossing patterns, gaining 39 yards in five grabs. Zach Becker caught three balls for 17 yards.
Prior to the scrimmage, Derek Dimke hit field goals against the wind from 20, 32 and 41 yards out. Matt Eller hit his two efforts, from 25 and 34 yards. But both had field goal tries blocked during the scrimmage, by Trulon Henry and Joelil Thrash.
There were many defenders who made big plays. Corey Liuget was in the backfield all day. Whitney Mercilus, Michael Buchanan, Daryle Ballew, Glenn Ford and Akeem Spence were all prominent along the defensive line, as was Nate Palmer.
Ian Thomas had one big hit after another, and he paid for a couple of them. But he was out only briefly before returning to make other big plays. Evan Frierson and Nate Bussey also made big plays from their linebacker positions, as did Ashante Williams and Aaron Gress.
Tavon Wilson broke up a pass in addition to his interception. Pat Nixon-Youman also broke up a pass. Supo Sanni had several bit hits from his safety spot, and Terry Hawthorne attacked to force a minimal gain. Perhaps the loudest cheer came for walkon corner Kaemon Mitchell, who blitzed and threw Scheelhaase for an 8 yard loss.
The defense gave up a few big plays to an offense that is growing rapidly, but it played more inspired and more confident with more swarming to the ball than anytime in recent years. Perfectionist Koenning is not satisfied.
"Coach Zook's been trying to set a tempo and drive home a demeanor of toughness. We've got a long way to go."
Despite an apparent lack of depth in the defensive line, Zook praised them.
"I think the defensive line's been playing pretty well. I think Akeem Spence has played better. He's a guy that's going to be able to contribute. Daryle Ballew has had a nice spring. There's a guy we thought had a broken leg last week, but he didn't miss any practice. We may have more depth on the defensive line than we first thought."
Zook understands it takes time to learn complex new offenses and defenses. The Illini are a work in progress and should continue their growth between now and fall.
"We'll get better after it all soaks in after spring too. They've got to stay after it and want it. If they do that, we'll continue to improve."