Saturday Scrimmage Report - Part 1

Coach Barry Alvarez talked in detail about Saturday's scrimmage. Here is the first part of the discussion with Alvarez, verbatim, including which one player he felt stood out the most Saturday, who will be the No. 1 kick/punt returner this season and his thoughts on the defense.

ALVAREZ:We had a good scrimmage. As I said before, we were in a game-type situation. I got some things on kicking first of all. We played a regular game. We went about three quarters. We played three full quarters with the clock, with Big Ten officials. We got a lot of different situations, and it was a good day to teach off. I really thought we continued to be consistent in the kicking game. Our return game for the first time going live with everything was solid. I wouldn't say it was great, but it was solid. And the scrimmage overall was okay. I thought we could have been crisper, but we got a lot of things done. If I had to pick out one guy or somebody that really jumped out at me, it was Alex Lewis. I thought he was all over the field, he made a lot of plays, a lot of big plays, a lot of tackles-for-losses. He was truly outstanding. But all in all, it was a good scrimmage and good teaching. The guys are in right now going through it when it's fresh in their mind, and we'll get a lot out of it.

Q: What do you think about your defense halfway through camp? Are you pretty pleased overall?

Alvarez: I think we have a lot of ability on defense. This is probably the fastest defense we've had. I like the way they fly around. I think our defensive ends can create a lot of problems for people. Our two inside guys, particularly Anttaj (Hawthorne) have been outstanding. I like the way our linebackers have played. I think our secondary continues to improve. I think we have a chance to be a real solid defense. And I'm pleased with where they are now. We've got to continue to improve. We're not where we want to be, but we've got a week and a half to get there. All in all, I'm satisfied.

Q: How have the three seniors on defense – Jeff Mack, Jake Sprague and B.J. Tucker – handled their rolls?

Alvarez: I think they've all stepped up. Jake is involved in the kicking game for the first time. He's really given us great effort. He's a force on the edge. I think tight ends will have a hard time handling him, and I've been real pleased with his play. I think B.J. has matured. I think he's played very well. He's had a good camp. And Jeff Mack is a good linebacker. I think he likes being back inside. I think he feels comfortable there and has been very productive there. I think all three of them are playing their best football right now.

Q: What does it say about your program that you had two guys, Al and Ben Johnson, named to the Outland Trophy list? Alvarez: I think that speaks about how they have played up to this point. People have a lot of respect for their ability and what they've accomplished so far. If they continue to improve and have the type of senior year I think both of them want, they should be considered for that. But a lot of those things go along with how well your team does.

Q: Where do you think your team has made the biggest improvement from the end of spring ball to this point in camp?

Alvarez: I think we're better overall. We've added probably 8-10 newcomers who have added in the depth. I think the guys who played last spring are all stronger, some of them are faster, they understand the game better and they are better players than they were at the end of spring, and they should be. Because many of them were first-year players then and now they have a spring under their belt and a good summer conditioning program, so they should be much improved and I see that.

Q: Have you been able to single out some people in your return game?

Alvarez: Well Jim Leonhard is going to be our starting guy. Hopefully we can get Brandon Williams several more looks this week. Jonathan Orr, we haven't had a look at him as much in kick return, but I really thought he did a heck of a job last year against our teams as a scout team player. I want to see him with the ball in his hands. He didn't get any runs today. Scott Starks will be the next guy probably and Brandon will be a guy that we'd like to work in there. He's probably the shiftiest of the whole lot.

Q: Will Brandon Williams also get some reps on punt return?

Alvarez: Yes.

Q: You are No. 25 in the preseason AP poll. I know you don't care much about polls, but is this a good position to be in, perhaps flying under the radar a little bit?

Alvarez: Well it really doesn't make much difference where you're rated right now. I would guess if you looked a year ago, Illinois wasn't rated any place, and they won the league. We've been rated all over the place. Some years we haven't been rated and done well. One year we were rated in the top five to start the season. It all depends…ask me a month into the season, after you've played some games and people get a chance to see you, and how you perform out there. That's when the ratings really start to mean something. But right now before you've played a game, they really don't mean a whole lot.

Q: Are there some adjustments the players have to make when you practice on the turf at Camp Randall, as you did for the first time today?

Alvarez: There are adjustments, in particular for the first-year players. That's why I really thought it was important to get down on the turf, and I'll try to get down there some more this week and when we get down to one-a-days. I think anything that's new, it gives you a little bit of a setback. It was a big scrimmage, it was game-like. This was the first time the first-year players have scrimmaged in the stadium. And I think some of them were somewhat wide-eyed. They were a little anxious. Maybe their timing wasn't as sharp as it had been out here. I think it takes a little while before you feel really comfortable with the turf. There are some adjustments to be made there. That's why we'll continue to get some work done.

Q: Is it even more so for the kickers?

Alvarez: It's easier to kick off on the turf for the kickers. Much easier. Our grass out here is really deep, and it's hard for them to get down after the ball. If they can kick off in this grass, they should be able to kick off any place.

Q: How much homework did you have to do when you brought Ron Cooper in to coach the secondary?

Alvarez: No, our guys, at least half of our staff had coached with Coop. I worked with him, he and I coached in the East-West Shrine Game when I was head coach and he was an assistant. I've known him for a long time. I know guys that he's worked with, and he's an excellent teacher. I didn't have to do much homework at all.

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