Flashy Illini defense offers hope during spring scrimmages

 

 

By Daniel Johnson

LEMONT, Ill. – After intercepting a Juice Williams pass attempt, Dere Hicks decided that simply returning the ball for a 32-yard touchdown was not a grand enough gesture. The junior gave his offensive teammates a Deion Sanders-esque taunt as he entered the end zone for the defense’s second touchdown of the day.

While Hicks’ goading was lighthearted, as was the entire scrimmage, it was indicative of how the day went for the Illini.

For the second consecutive week, the Illini defense dominated the intrasquad scrimmage, “winning” the practice game 36-19.

“I would have been smart about that. He’s got that mentality that he wants to dance,” Vontae Davis jokingly said about Hicks’ antics, doing a mocking two-step.

I’m trying to teach him not to do that because they’re going to throw the flag. He knows better than that, but in this game he’s going in there to have fun. (He’s) trying excite everyone and get everyone going, that’s the things you have to do to be a good defense.”

Hicks’ interception was one of three Illinois picks that highlighted the defense’s day. In addition, the team had two sacks, 12 tackles for loss and seven passes defended.

An impressive defensive effort led to an offensive output that was sub-par. Illinois’ rushing game, which was such a boon to the team last year, faltered throughout the game. The trio of Daniel Dufrene, Mikel LeShoure and converted defensive back Darius Purcell hardly proved it could carry the running game in lieu of Rashard Mendenhall. The three combined for 43 yards on 23 carries; each back’s longest carry on the day was six yards.

“We’ll have to find somebody,” offensive coordinator Mike Locksley said about the running back situation. “That probably has been the biggest disappointment this spring. When you lose somebody like Rashard and his 1,700 yards, the biggest concern I have is to have a guy who can run the ball physically and give us a chance to make the plays Rashard made for us.”

The quarterback play was lackluster at points during the game, as well. Williams was 13-of-29 passing for 142 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions.

Eddie McGee was 10-of-20 for 95 yards with one touchdown and one interception.

But the team had expected some less than perfect play from the offense to start the spring given the state of that side of the ball.

“Juice is out there conducting his troops the best that he can,” senior linebacker Brit Miller said. “You see him getting better every day, but (the offense is) struggling with some injuries on the (offensive) line. But they’re still doing a great job as far as effort and playing hard, and that’s how you win games.”

The offense is still a bit incomplete, with those parts of the probable starting offensive line out with injuries, running back Troy Pollard sitting and receiver Arrelious Benn sidelined.

“I’ll make the excuse that we do have some guys missing; (the defense) is at full strength, we’ll take it to that,” tight end Michael Hoomanawanui said. “They’re playing good, and they’re going to be one of the best defenses in the Big Ten. But people have to step up, injuries are going to occur. Two years ago, we had some of our starters go down; you never know what’s going to happen.”

Hoomanawanui arguably had the best offensive performance on the day, catching five passes for 82 yards, including a 37-yard grab that produced one of the bigger roars from the approximately 2,000-person crowd. His five catches on the day equaled his total number of receptions last year.

The day was marred with weather that only a Big Ten fan could love, as temperatures flirted with freezing and a mixture of precipitations blanketed the field for the duration of the game.

It was a stark change from the conditions of the first scrimmage and the likely fair temperatures that are being projected for the spring finale.

“Besides the weather, it went pretty good,” a shivering Williams said of the scrimmage. “That’s football weather, that’s something you have to deal with, the climate. Every day is not going to be a sunny day.”