Illini Have Productive Scrimmage On Campus

The Fighting Illini football team moved it's final Camp Rantoul scrimmage to Memorial Stadium due to wet grounds and got after it Saturday. The first units on offense and defense pleased their coaches, while there were still enough mistakes to give them plenty on which to improve.

Illinois football coach Ron Zook explained how overnight rains in Rantoul forced camp to close a day early.

"It gives the kids a little more juice to come back and play in the Stadium. You didn't have to worry about guys slipping, getting pulls and things like that. The fields were in good shape, they just were wet."

Zook feels this scrimmage was an improvement over the Rantoul High School scrimmage last Saturday.

"I thought overall it was a much better scrimmage obviously. We competed well. There were a lot of things out there we have to learn from, and we will.

"I thought the first defense played extremely well. I thought both the first offense and first defense played extremely well. The second groups did some good things both sides, but they also did some things we don't want to happen. Overall, I think the first groups are further ahead than since I've been here in all phases."

Offensive Coordinator Paul Petrino agreed with Zook's assessment of the offense.

"I thought the one's came out and played real good early. I think the two's had a bad day. The ones and twos got a little frustrated in the middle, but they came back and played great.

"I was happy with the ones. I think we made improvement all camp. To have a chance to be real good, we have to get our twos better so if something happens they're ready to step in and play. That was a little disappointing, but I was pretty happy with the way the ones executed."

Zook feels the defense made improvement over last week.

"They did. Whoever wins the first scrimmage typically doesn't do as well second scrimmage. There was some physicality out there. There were some shots. The tackling wasn't where it's got to be, but it's better than it was."

Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning is a perfectionist. Defensive end Clay Nurse said the defense didn't please its coach.

"No he was not. We can't give up big plays. It isn't often you make Coach Koenning happy unless it's a perfect game. It's great. That's what you want from your coach. He's not satisfied with anything."

Koenning was more circumspect in his response, but it was obvious he still hopes for more improvement.

"I tend to see the big picture. You take away probably two big plays last week, and it probably isn't that much different. We probably played a little bit better up front, particularly with the ones, than we did last week.

"We had a lot of negative plays last week that people didn't realize. There were like 14 negative plays or hits on the quarterback. When they (quarterbacks) are in the red, you don't seem to see that. We correct the big plays, and we'd have been all right last week. We just did a little bit better job of not giving them up this week.

"I'm not ticked off, I just think we've got to continue to improve. Particularly our second group tends to give into things too quickly, not concentrate and focus on their assignments. We've still got some growing to do with that group. We've got to find out which of the 3's and borderline 2's we're gonna play."

Koenning is a tough love advocate, but he realizes the importance of mixing it with positive reinforcement.

"I'm trying my level best to be a positive influence. These guys need confidence. You can sure coach a guy hard if he knows you love him.

"I tell you what, I've probably told 20 guys in the last three hours that I love them. I think they know that by my actions and our coaches. We're gonna coach them with love, and then we're gonna coach them hard."

Working against the second team defense, the first team offense worked efficiently for scores on their first two possessions. A strong running game led by Mikel Leshoure and Jason Ford paved the way. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase completed passes to Eddie McGee and A.J. Jenkins on the first drive, and he ran the final three yards to paydirt.

On their second possession, Ford bulled over several people en route to a 17 yard gain. McGee came in for one pass play and completed it to Jarred Fayson for 22 yards. Scheelhaase ran an option to perfection. He was credited for a 15 yard gain though he likely would have scored had tackling of the quarterbacks been permitted. Leshoure ran the final ten yards for the first of his two TD's.

There were other offensive highlights during situational drills. Miles Osei hit McGee for a 25 yard touchdown pass, Jack Ramsey for a huge 43 yard gain, and Ryan Lankford for 41 more. Justin Green bolted for a 20 TD jaunt. Ford carried the pile nine yards to paydirt. And Leshoure broke through a big hole and outraced the defensive backs down the sideline for a 49 yard TD scamper.

Overall, Leshoure led the rushing attack with 98 yards in 12 carries. Ford added 49 yards in 9 tries. Green accumulated 32 yards in 11 tries, while Bud Golden tied Green's yardage in one less attempt. Troy Pollard contributed 21 yards in 8 carries including one TD.

Not counting quarterback sacks and tackles for loss, Scheelhaase ran for 32 yards in 5 carries, Osei added 17 yards in two tries and Chandler Whitmer ran for 6 yards in his only attempt.

Leshoure described his long TD run and his extra burst of speed this year.

"It was a good call by the offensive coordinator. I think it was a 42 Read Draw. I just took advantage of my opportunity. That (extra speed) just comes with hard work this off season and taking care of my body. Hard work pays off."

The junior enjoys sharing time with Ford.

"We love it. We're two very unselfish guys. We get each other better every day in practice. It's a long game and a long season, and we want to keep each other fresh. If someone gets tired, we can rotate someone in and out and not lose a beat."

Ford agrees.

"We aren't worried about who's the starter or who gets how many carries. We just keep encouraging each other to get better."

Scheelhaase completed five of ten throws for 117 yards and a touchdown. However, he did throw a couple interceptions. The first was tipped off the hands of tight end Evan Wilson into the arms of Trulon Henry. And he got greedy on his last play of the day and was intercepted by Miami Thomas.

Scheelhaase has been careful with the ball most of the fall, and he understands his mistakes.

"You never want to turn over the ball. No matter how it happens, you never want the defense to have the ball in its hands.

"I probably just got too greedy on the last one. McGee just scored a touchdown, and you feel like you want to score another touchdown. You've just got to take what the defense gives you. We'll watch tape and learn from it."

Second team quarterback Chandler Whitmer had a frustrating day. Playing against an intense first team defense, he was sacked four times and was unable to generate any drives. He completed only one of five passes for 10 yards.

Osei made a big jump in his game this week. Playing both with the second and third units, he completed 9 of 19 passes for 180 yards and 2 touchdowns. While much of his success came against fellow freshmen, he is definitely engaged in a tight battle with Whitmer for the backup job. Petrino was unwilling to pick a favorite.

"We'll watch the tape before we say that There's definitely competition there, and they'll keep competing."

Ten receivers caught balls. McGee, Jenkins, Fayson, Ramsey, Darius Millines and Lankford all grabbed two passes each. Jenkins gained 76 yards and Ramsey 56 in their opportunities.

There were a lot of good plays defensively. Cornerback Tavon Wilson had perhaps his best day. He made plays all over the field, knocking down 3 passes and making two hard hits for losses.

Middle linebacker Martez Wilson also made his presence felt with several highly physical stops. He was credited with two sacks including one that resulted in a safety.

Bandit Michael Buchanan also had two sacks on the day. Tackle Corey Liuget, tackle Akeem Spence, defensive end Whitney Mercilus, bandit Justin Staples and linebacker Houston Bates had sacks. Staples also knocked down a pass at the line of scrimmage.

Those who tackled runners for losses or no gain included tackle Glenn Foster, end D.J. Woods, tackle Austin Teitsma and linebacker Evan Frierson, who had two each. In addition, Mercilus, Aaron Gress, Bates and Spence had tackles for loss.

One disconcerting part of the scrimmage was the field goals. With two experienced kickers, field goals were expected to be a team strength. However, in pregame practice starter Derek Dimke made two of four and backup Matt Eller made three of four.

Dimke hit two extra points and Eller one during the scrimmage, but Dimke missed one field goal and Eller two. Dimke's second chance was foiled by a bad snap or hold.

Zook says the problem is temporary.

"The biggest disappointing thing is what we did with the field goals, but we'll get that corrected."

It is interesting to note that five freshmen were on the opening kickoff for the kickoff team. This might be an indication of game action this season. Brandon Denmark, Earnest Thomas, Jonathan Brown, Bates and Millines all ran down to cover the kick.

Camp Rantoul appeared to be a good experience this year. There were few distractions, minimal injury problems, and tremendous intensity and competition. Zook may be the only one who wishes to stay in Rantoul longer, but he definitely feels it was a good camp.

"Even the freshmen commented on how fast it went. The reason it went fast was because it wasn't drudgery. They competed, they got after it, they worked hard and coaches did a great job of being around them and keeping them up."

The Illini have two weeks to continue development and get ready for the start of the season in St. Louis against Missouri.

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