Rantoul Scrimmage A Good Building Block

The Fighting Illini football team held its annual Rantoul High School scrimmage Saturday evening. After just 9 days of practice, there was plenty that needs improving. But the offense overall played well, generating big plays and exciting the fandom. While the defense had a few lapses, they also played with intensity and made big plays.

Illinois coach Ron Zook was pleased with the scrimmage.

"I thought overall it was a really good scrimmage. For a first scrimmage, obviously there's some things we've got to correct. I think you'd expect that. But they competed hard. I thought it was a good starting point.

"I think overall it's probably the best intensity scrimmage we've had since I've been at Illinois, on both sides. I think there were some lull moments on both sides of the ball, but they were able to come back from it, which was good. I thought the defense came back in the two minute and played extremely well."

Offensive Coordinator Paul Petrino saw his players hit on some big plays during the scrimmage, including a 50 yard touchdown pass from freshman quarterback Chandler Whitmer to freshman Darius Millines and a 41 yarder from freshman quarterback Miles Osei to Eddie McGee. Petrino saw a lot to build on.

"I thought we did good. I thought we started off real good, had a lot of big plays. We ran the ball well and threw the ball well. That's kind of what we like to do.

"I thought we had a little lull in the middle, but we got back on track. We cannot lose our mental toughness, but for the most part it was a better scrimmage than what we had in the spring. Now we've got to keep improving."

In unofficial statistics that include both scrimmage action and situation drills, starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase completed 8 of 10 passes for 93 yards. He also ran effectively at times, although his run statistics were skewed by quick whistles to prevent injuries. While he recognized the imperfections, he was pleased with the first scrimmage.

"It felt good. Obviously, it was our first scrimmage in Rantoul. In the history of this scrimmage, I don't think they're ever the prettiest thing.

"Personally I held onto the ball, which was one goal I had. I hit most of the plays when they were open. There were a couple throws I'd like to change. I was happy the offense stayed the course through the ups and downs."

Whitmer ended the night with 4 completions in 7 attempts for 98 yards and a touchdown. He threw two interceptions. Osei ended 4 of 7 for 103 yards and a touchdown and sped for 9 and 28 yard gains on scrambles. Zook praised all three quarterbacks.

"I think you're gonna continue to see Nathan make plays. The good thing about Nathan is the mistakes he made he'll learn from. Chandler started off rough but he came back. I think that's something a quarterback's got to be able to do. And I thought Miles did a great job. He stood in the pocket and did a nice job."

Mikel Leshoure was the leading rusher with 67 yards in 13 carries. Justin Green showed his speed with a 66 yard scamper for a touchdown against a reserve defense. Jason Ford added 33 yards in 8 carries, Troy Pollard flashed his maneuverability with 50 yards in 11 sorties and scored a touchdown, and Bud Golden ran four times for 12 yards and a TD.

Continuing his positive reinforcement, Petrino also praised the running backs and offensive line.

"Mikel ran hard and so did Jason. Justin Green had a nice run, and Troy made some good cuts. I was happy with the running backs. I thought they did a good job tonight. Obviously the offensive line did a good job."

The leading receiver was Millines with two catches for 75 yards. He made a nice cutback to score on a 56 yard reception from Osei only to see it called back by penalty. Freshman Ryan Lankford had only 2 yards in two receptions, but he showed both speed and toughness on a kickoff for 36 yards. Petrino continues to be impressed with his young receivers.

"Those young freshmen receivers made plays. Darius made a bunch of big plays tonight, and Ryan had a chance to make a couple. I'm really excited. That's gonna be a real good class. They've just got to keep working hard."

Eleven different players had receptions. Besides Millines and Lankford, Fred Sykes and McGee each added two catches on the night. So did freshman tight end Evan Wilson, who got reps with both the first and second units.

Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning also praised the offense, but in his case it was an indirect way of complaining about the defense.

"I think the best thing about our scrimmage tonight is our offense looks like they're hitting on all cylinders. It's always good to have a good offense."

Koenning takes mistakes personally. Every mistake. A few breakdowns led to long gains for the offense, and it dragged him down emotionally.

"We've got a long way to go defensively. It's a good thing we've got a lot of practice time to improve on it. There were way too many fundamental mistakes. One thing we do not want to do is give up big plays, and there for awhile it was ridiculous. We've just got a lot of improving to do.

"I'm not trying to beat them down, but our concentration level the last couple days is not where we need to be. Tonight especially younger guys were making mistakes that inexperience and youth...even then there's no excuses for it. I didn't get tricky in any way or form tonight.

"I'm very disappointed. I'm not used to giving up big plays, so that's disappointing. There were some key situations where guys don't squeeze and take the dive. When it's third and fourteen, guys just aren't being disciplined like they're supposed to do. It's a good think there's a lot of practice time left. We have a lot further to go than I thought two days ago."

Zook was more forgiving.

"I thought overall the defense played well. If you go back and look over the years they get overly aggressive, particularly the secondary. I coached the secondary a lot of years. That first scrimmage they want to get up in there and make plays. The offense did a good job with play action, and they get over them and throw the ball. We'll get that fixed.

"Some of those things that didn't look so good are good teaching tools. We've been saying all week this is what you have to do. Now we can see what happens when we don't do them. I look at some of the things that weren't quite so good as positives. You can say it until you're blue in the face, but until they see it happening...

"They all want to do well, to play as well as they can. It's important to them. Now they'll learn from it. Overall, it was a great learning night."

Individually, a number of defenders made special plays. Linebacker Martez Wilson was prominent all evening. He was excited to finally get into scrimmage action after a long layoff with neck surgery.

"I haven't been able to hit in a year, since the Missouri game last year. It was great to be out here with my team again. It was real good. I was excited.

"I was confident. My neck wasn't a problem at all. I just felt comfortable. I know the defense, we were flying around. We made some mistakes to let the offense score, but besides that everything was good."

Other defenders who made big hits included Trulon Henry, Aaron Gress, Whitney Mercilus, Clay Nurse (two straight sacks), Evan Frierson, Brandon Denmark, Houston Bates, Nate Palmer, Corey Liuget, Ashante Williams, Glenn Foster, and Akeem Spence. Supo Sanni and Terry Hawthorne had interceptions.

The kicking game was inconsistent at best. Both starter Derek Dimke and Matt Eller missed some of their field goals in pregame activity, with at least one being the result of a bad snap. Dimke did better in later scrimmage action, but he missed a 42 yarder in a two-minute drill.

"We've got to get our kickers going. We've got to fix that stuff," Zook admitted. "And they'll get it fixed."

The first string offense moved methodically down the field on its first possession of the night against the second string defense. It was efficient and poised and scored on an 11 yard burst up the middle by Ford. But penalties marred subsequent drives. Scheelhaase reminded of the early nature of a first scrimmage.

"Those are things, first time with the refs in the fall, there's always those little chinks and little penalties. You'd rather than be an issue rather than not be able to throw the ball, not be able to run the ball. We can take care of those things."

A big worry going in was the need to prevent injuries. Late in the action, offensive linemen Jack Cornell and Tyler Sands went down with ankle injuries. Fortunately, Cornell went back in the game, and Sands was not hurt badly either. Zook was relieved.

"We got out of it healthy. That was my first concern. We got some banged up guys, but nothing major. Jack had his ankle rolled up a little bit, but he came back. He was fine. Tyler was gonna come back, but I told Nick (Ritchie) just to hold him.

"They've got to keep their feet moving. That's the thing you worry about the most. It's when you stop that somebody piles on your ankle."

Henry Dickinson, a tall, rangy linebacker from Memphis University School traveled North to take in the scrimmage. He is being recruited as a Bandit. Mt. Carmel lineman Tanner Crum was also watching. East St. Louis defensive tackle Clint Tucker said he would make it but didn't.

The Illini have another week of Camp Rantoul after a day of rest Sunday. Scheelhaase summed up the attitude of the whole team.

"With this week coming up, we've got to keep grinding and keep getting better. We're in a good place the first week, but obviously we're not where we want to be come September 4th."

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