A large contingent of recruiting prospects and new football signees along with a number of returning alumni including surviving members of the 1952 Rose Bowl team watched as the Illini held their final spring practice. As has been true all spring, rains held off until after the conclusion in one of the most pleasant springs in memory.
Hopefully, good luck with the weather is an omen that things are improving for the Illinois football team. But this team is far from a finished product according to head coach Ron Zook.
"Obviously we have a long way to go, a lot of work to do. But I thought there were an awful lot of good things as well."
The offense came out sluggish to begin the game, in part due to the inspired work of the defense. But the offense made up for lost time second half according to Zook.
"The first half, everyone kind of expected the Orange offense to play a little bit better, but the Blue defense came out and got after them pretty good. They had a little talk at halftime, and the offense came out and did what they had to do."
That "little talk" by Offensive Coordinator Paul Petrino at halftime was fiery according to reliable sources. Petrino, who suffered an ACL tear in his knee that will require surgery, pushed the right buttons second half.
Leading only 3-0 at halftime, the Orange offense converted a Tavon Wilson interception of a Jacob Charest pass into a 56 yard touchdown drive in 6 plays. Running back Mikel Leshoure covered 22 yards on the first play and accumulated 35 of the yards, his last one completing the touchdown. Receiver A.J. Jenkins made a nice sideline grab for 21 yards to keep the drive going.
Later, the Orange first unit needed just one play to score as Leshoure rambled through the reserves for 75 yards and showed sufficient speed to split defensive backs en route. On their next possession, Jason Ford did most of the damage. A seventy-two yard drive took just four plays as Ford banged up the middle, broke tackles and spun free to speed down the sideline for a 56 yard touchdown jaunt.
Ford did a great job on the play. But perhaps the most unique aspect of Ford's run was how quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase sped down the sideline, ran past Ford as he was running laterally, and made the final downfield block to free Ford for the TD. Quarterbacks were not to be hit on this day, but Scheelhaase got physical anyway according to Zook.
"You can see the competitiveness in him. He's down the field getting blocks despite having a red shirt on. The kid's competitive.
"He's supposed to do that (block), but he has a red jersey on for a reason, not to get any contact. But he's a very athletic guy who can run extremely well. When you take the running away from him as we did, there were a couple times they blew the whistle and I told the officials to err on the side of caution, I doubt whether they would have gotten him. Running is his game. Our policy is to make sure he gets to the fall, and we'll worry about that then."
The running game is a strength of this team. Zook commented on the importance of a good running game.
"You have to be able to run the football. That was one of the first things Coach Petrino and I talked about. If you can't run the football, it makes it tougher for other things to happen. That's really gonna be stressed. I think it's good for the defense when they are running the football, but it also sets up your play action."
Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning has great respect for the Illini running game as he has to game-plan against it every day.
"We've got a really good running attack. They force you to have more than one guy at the point of attack. That's actually one of our slogans for the spring, tackle in numbers, and that's what you have to do with our running backs."
Koenning had his defenders ready Saturday. They have felt his wrath repeatedly throughout the spring, and they have responded in a positive way. He had few complaints afterward.
"Today, I thought second half we were a little bit sloppy. Especially the fourth quarter because when you're trying to run all special teams, you've got guys that are running every play. I saw some fatigue starting to get to some of them, and they started tackling poorly and diving on the ground.
"I thought at times defensive guys ran around okay. Obviously it wasn't perfect, but we tried not to give up any big plays. It was a good little scrimmage. I don't think anybody got hurt, and that's the most important thing."
Several defensive players' names were called repeatedly for outstanding play. Aaron Gress, who was named the Most Improved Defensive Player of the spring, had five solo tackles for the Blue team including one tackle for loss, and two assists. He also grabbed an interception and broke up a pass from his linebacker post.
Bandit Nate Palmer and defensive end Justin Staples also played well, with Palmer being credited for two sacks and Staples two tackles for loss including one sack. Palmer also had an interception and a fumble recovery.
For the Orange team, Glenn Foster and Michael Buchanan were outstanding along the defensive line. Each had nine total tackles, and each had two sacks. Buchanan had four total tackles for loss while Palmer had three. Defensive tackle Corey Liuget was also prominent with six tackles including one sack. Nate Bussey added an interception.
Offensively, Scheelhaase continued to demonstrate his first team status while having an off day by his standards. Since he couldn't be tackled, he had no rushing totals. As a passer, he completed 11 of 20 passes for 126 yards and 2 interceptions. Still, Zook and Petrino both found plenty to like about his play.
"Nathan forced the one interception that Aaron Gress got, and they got the ball batted down. These are things he'll get better and better as he stops telegraphing and starts throwing the football."
Zook also identified an intangible that separates Scheelhaase from other quarterbacks.
"I don't know what it is about him, but whenever he completes a pass he says, 'Great catch A.J.' That's the first thing out of his mouth. He probably doesn't realize he's saying that. But it's kind of neat to hear that.
"If he doesn't do something correct, he'll go right to the receiver, running back or whoever and take the blame for it. I think it's kind of admirable of him. That's just who he is."
Petrino says there are things Scheelhaase needs to improve.
"I think just understanding the whole offense, like when a certain coverage comes where to go with the ball. One of his interceptions, he just needed to dump it on the five yard under. He tried to force it to Jarred (Fayson), and there was three guys around him. Some of it is just understanding the offense, knowing his progressions and knowing where to go with the ball."
Petrino believes Scheelhaase has the arm strength for major college football. But he must keep working on the techniques necessary to complete a wide variety of passes.
"That's just something you've got to keep repping. It's footwork and balance and snapping your wrist."
Charest had a frustrating day. Besides spraining his ankle, he completed just 2 of 8 passes for 15 yards and two interceptions. Chandler Whitmer drew praise from Zook after hitting on 7 of 8 for 43 yards and a 10 yard touchdown pass on the last play of the game to reserve tight end Ed Viliunas for the Blue team's only score.
"I was impressed with Chandler today. I thought he did an awfully nice job. Two scrimmages before the last one, Chandler had that wide-eyed look. But he really settled down today and did a nice job. He'll continue to improve."
Leshoure gained 129 yards in 12 carries, while Ford added 99 in 6 tries. For the Blue team, Troy Pollard ran for 47 yards in 14 tough chances. Jenkins led all receivers with 95 yards on 6 catches. Eddie McGee, Zach Becker, Jack Ramsey, Justin Lattimore and Viliunas each caught two balls.
On special teams, Anthony Santella punted for both sides and averaged over 40 yards a punt while dropping some inside the red zone. And Terry Hawthorne proved valuable on punt returns, gaining 81 yards on 5 tries.
Both offense and defense played vanilla as they didn't want to show anything to future opponents. They will save the complexity and deception for Missouri.
Other spring award winners besides Gress included Jenkins and Graham Pocic sharing Most Improved on offense, and the Most Improved walkon was Zac Pedersen. Jeff Allen was given the Best Effort award for offense, while Staples won that award for his defensive play.
Scheelhaase and Clay Nurse shared the Faculty Award for Exemplary Leadership In Community, Classroom and on the Field. And Zach Becker was given the Chancellor's Award for Academic Excellence.
The Illini now must work without their coaches watching over them. How they respond during the spring and summer will determine their success rate in the fall according to Zook.
"Overall, it's been a very productive spring. It's gonna be important these guys continue over the summer to get better. When they have to do it on their own, that's where your leadership comes in. It's very important they do the things in the summer necessary to get better. Be in the film room watching tape.
"There's no reason for me to believe that's not gonna happen. We should be a better football team when we reconvene in August than we are right now."