Spring game notebook: Passing game, defensive line show potential for fall

Tight+end+Luke+Ford+%2882%29+catches+a+pass+during+the+Orange+and+Blue+spring+game+Monday+at+Memorial+Stadium.+Ford+had+a+really+solid+game%2C+going+for+five+catches+for+88+yards.

Cameron Krasucki

Tight end Luke Ford (82) catches a pass during the Orange and Blue spring game Monday at Memorial Stadium. Ford had a really solid game, going for five catches for 88 yards.

By Gabby Hajduk, Staff Writer

For Bret Bielema’s standards, Illinois football’s Orange and Blue spring game was a success. The Illini finished the game with no injuries, committed minimal penalties and had solid ball security, all things Bielema wrote down as goals before the game kicked off. 

While the starting group absolutely dominated the game as expected, Bielema and fans were able to get a good look at which players will be most impactful in the fall. With a majority of the team returning from last season, familiar faces like Donny Navarro, Brandon Peters, Chase Brown and Owen Carney Jr. all had impressive plays Monday night. 

But fresh faces like transfer Chase Hayden and redshirt freshman Reggie Love III also showed the team has some new talent that will elevate an Illini team that struggled in 2020. Here are some of the key takeaways from Monday night’s outing. 

Game MVP: Luke Ford

The transfer tight end from Georgia was a highly anticipated addition last season after he was forced to sit out in 2019 due to the NCAA’s transfer rules. But Ford caught just two passes for 15 yards last year. 

Bielema and his offensive staff, however, have made it clear that utilizing the tight end spot will be a priority. That was apparent Monday night, as Ford was targeted five times — the most of any receiver — and caught each pass for a total of 88 yards. Ford also made an incredible one-handed touchdown catch.

After the game, Bielema praised Ford for his increased level of maturity through the spring and said he appreciated Ford’s “demeanor and work ethic.” As a long, big target for either Brandon Peters or Isaiah Williams, Ford should be a huge playmaker in the fall, along with fellow tight end Daniel Barker.

Quarterback competition looks settled… for now

For the first time since probably the 2019 season, Brandon Peters look settled and comfortable at the QB1 position for the Illini. Coming out on the Orange team technically means Bielema and Tony Petersen felt most comfortable with Peters as their starting quarterback for now, but Bielema noted in the postgame press conference that it’s still anyone’s job to win. 

Regardless of the future of the starting quarterback role, Peters looked solid Monday, completing 12 of his 18 attempted passes for 291 yards while throwing for one touchdown and rushing for another. Unlike last season — when Peters primarily targeted Josh Imatorbhebhe — the quarterback connected with several different receivers. 

However, when Isaiah Williams got behind the starting offensive line, the sophomore quarterback looked much better without pressure from starting outside linebackers Carney Jr. and Isaiah Gay. But Peters still looked like the better option Monday, and I’d expect to see him in the starting spot come August. 

Defensive line has potential 

In 2020, Illinois had the Big Ten’s worst run defense, as the defensive line was typically the team’s weakest point. But with most of the veteran players returning, including Carney Jr., Gay, Roderick Perry, Jamal Woods and Calvin Avery, combined with a new defensive mindset from the staff, the Illini D-line is primed to take a step up this season. 

The veteran core looked energized and reformed Monday night, as the group got constant pressure on Williams. Carney recorded two sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss, Gay recorded one sack and 1.0 tackle for loss and Johnny Newton recorded 1.5 TFL. 

Defensive coordinator Ryan Walters ran mostly a 3-4 defense Monday while mixing in some 4-2-5 looks. The new defense allowed the Illini to disguise their outside linebackers, which helped Carney and Gay gain the advantage. 

 

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