CHAMPAIGN - To be honest, spring football is never that exciting anywhere - even if 80,000 show up in Tuscaloosa, Ala. While rain kept attendance at Memorial Stadium to just a few thousand (almost all of which sought shelter under the east balcony overhang), first-year Illinois coach Tim Beckman's efforts seemed to enthuse those that matter most.
"This is the most fun I've had in a spring game before," said Illinois redshirt junior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, whose Orange team fell to the Blue 13-12.
Unlike spring games under Ron Zook, there was no special scoring system. Just the normal point-earning plays: touchdowns, extra points, field goals and safeties. It wasn't offense vs. defense. It was team versus team with bragging rights (and steaks and cakes) on the line. Beckman even dusted off a trophy that hadn't been used in a decade to award to the victorious Blue squad, which won on a 47-yard field goal off the foot of Nick Immekus with 1:22 remaining in the 20-minute, running-clock fourth quarter.
"Sometimes spring games, I guess in the past and different places in the country, you talk to people and they're kind of boring, kind of a drag," Scheelhaase said. "But for us as players, that was pretty fun out there. With the way it went back and forth at the end, it got real intense where I think everyone was enjoying it."
Beckman did his best to enthuse the umbrella-wielding orange and blue faithful. He twice went into the crowd and allowed a lucky fan to wear the headset and relay a play call to the Illini offensive coordinators.
But for a coach attempting to lead Illinois to sustained relevance in the Big Ten, Saturday's primary goal was to show signs of improvement during the final spring scrimmage.
"We didn't consider this a scrimmage by any means," Beckman said. "We tried to make it as much game atmosphere as we possibly could. I think what happened was we had some great opportunities to run some two-minute drills, to do some different things with different people in the game. Actually throwing or blocking with a different offensive line or pass rush with a different set of four defensive linemen up there. It definitely paid off for us. It was a little sloppy in my opinion but it did see some improvements in the offense and defense as we continued to work through the scrimmage."
Illinois defensive line coach Keith Gilmore, the lone holdover from Ron Zook's staff, said he stayed on the Illinois staff for stability for himself and his family (he's changed jobs 10 times since 1985). But the returning stable of talent at his disposal sure is a nice perk.
Under the tutelage of Gilmore, Corey Liuget developed into the 18th pick in the 2011 NFL Draft and Whitney Mercilus is projected to go within the first 40 picks of next week's draft after leading the nation last season in sacks and forced fumbles.
Michael Buchanan and Akeem Spence are next in line. Both considered entering the draft after their third year at Illinois but returned to ensure that the Illini front four would continue to give headaches to Illini opponents.
The Orange and Blue defensive lines combined for nine sacks on Saturday. Buchanan, a senior, accounted for half that production with 4.5 sacks and a game-high 12 tackles. Spence had five tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss, but stats don't accurately display the impact of the 6-foot-1, 305-pound redshirt junior. The weight-room wonder rarely is moved off the line of scrimmage and still has enough quickness to disrupt backfields.
With another crop of future NFL'ers, Illinois could be on its way to becoming D-Line U.
"We're trying to make it that," Spence said.
Gilmore likely is sleeping easier than the other assistant coaches. Returning starter Glenn Foster (0.5 sacks), Justin Staples (1.5 sacks), Austin Teitsma (1.5 tackles for loss), Darius Caldwell (two TFLs, one sack), Brandon Denmark (one TFL) and Jake Howe make the Illinois defensive line by the deepest and most talented position group on the roster. The players say Gilmore's a key reason for their recent success.
"Just having him as a coach, you want to play hard for him," Buchanan said. "That's why he's been successful, two first-rounders and guys going to the league every year. It's great playing for him."
For Beckman, the defensive line's Saturday success was bittersweet because it came at the expense of his offensive line.
"I think (offensive line coach Luke) Butkus has done a great job in 15 days," Beckman said. "Yes, we have a long ways to go but we're making strides to get better."
Graduation took away two key cogs (Jeff Allen and Jack Cornell) from last year's spotty front five, so the offensive line already was a concern. Saturday's performance against split squads only heightens worries of how the inexperienced line will perform against Big Ten opponents next fall.
"I think there was a lot of stress on them (Saturday) because there are different faces playing (together)," Beckman said. "…There's a mixture, but that's football and that's how you get better. It's a challenge to step up and make the player next to you better."
The interior held its own Saturday, but the Illini line is weakest on the outside. Michael Heitz (nine starts) and Simon Cvijanovic (four starts) enter their third years at Illinois, but both must take big strides. The burly Heitz is solid in the run game but struggles one-on-one against quick pass rushers like Buchanan, while Cvijanovic is athletic in pass coverage but must add strength. Redshirt freshman Scott McDowell shows promise but is just 19 years old.
"They got some younger guys, but I feel like all spring they've been doing a great job getting better every day and working it," Buchanan said.
With Corey Lewis' status (knee injury) still uncertain for the fall, the Illini will need to use the running backs and tight ends (especially Evan Wilson) to help the developing underclassmen to keep the quarterbacks on their feet. Or Beckman may be forced to shake things up.
"We'll play the top five football players that we think are the best and most capable of doing that," Beckman said. "If that means Pocic's got to move somewhere or (Hugh) Thornton's got to move somewhere, we owe it to this football team to put the best five out."
5 and 6 in the mix
Coming into Illinois together as freshmen last season, Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson grew close. They're close on the numerical roster too. The muscular Young wears No. 5, while the speedy Ferguson sports No. 6. The potentially dynamic duo even created a catchphrase: "Five and six in the mix."
"That's our motto," Ferguson said. "We figured that out back in summer before we even started. I can't wait to get (Young) back on the field (full time)."
While a foot injury limited the 6-foot, 205-pound Young (eight rushes, 11 yards) this spring, Ferguson became the focal point of the offense. It was a welcome experience for the 5-foot-8, 180-pound Ferguson, who sat out the final 10 games last season after suffering a hamstring injury during practice.
"It's great," Ferguson said. "Actually, it's awesome."
Ferguson ran for 150 yards on 20 carries, highlighted by a 68-yard run during which speedy cornerback Justin Green caught Ferguson from behind, and he also caught six passes for 30 yards.
"He's got great speed, great burst and definitely a guy that's learning as he goes along," Beckman said. "Definitely a guy that's learning as it goes along because he's still just a freshman."
Beckman said Ferguson fits his spread attack. The Joliet Catholic product, who received a medical hardship waiver and still has four years of eligibility remaining, also gives a dynamic threat to an offense in major need of playmakers.
"This staff might not even know it, but when Josh worked out here (the summer before his senior year of high school) he actually worked out at receiver at the Illinois one-day camp," Scheelhaase said. "We offered him after that, so we know he's a threat catching the ball. He's a guy that can make plays out of the backfield and obviously getting him in space and get him maybe matched up on a linebacker, he's tough to handle.
"I think the sky's the limit for him. How we use the running back and with his speed, I think great can describe his potential in this offense, and we need him to be. Him and Donovonn have to have big years for us because if they don't, we'll be struggling."
After the Illini lost top receiver A.J. Jenkins and starting running back Jason Ford, the pressure is definitely on Nos. 5 and 6 to be in the mix this season.
Black Cat sighting
Terry Hawthorne was named the nation's top wide receiver by Parade Magazine as a senior at East St. Louis. So he knows the position well. But after he was moved to cornerback at Illinois because of need, Hawthorne says he's a little rusty on the offensive side of the ball.
"I just have to get back in the rhythm of playing receiver," Hawthorne said.
Yet, the 6-foot, 190-pound gifted athlete made it look routine on a 29-yard touchdown catch from Reilly O'Toole, his only catch of the day, when he took advantage of a backup defensive back and caught a high-arcing pass in stride.
"I'm real comfortable catching the ball," said Hawthorne, who added five tackles and a pass break up on defense. "It's like in the backyard catching the ball."
With Darius Millines - the most dynamic returning receiver - sidelined with a foot injury, the Illini's top pass catchers on Saturday were a running back (Ferguson, six receptions) and converted quarterback (Miles Osei, four receptions). The quarterbacks could use a receiver of Hawthorne's credentials.
"Obviously you can see he makes plays," Scheelhaase said. "He's been a playmaker since he's been here. He's a guy we can use, especially if we short on guys or we lack a little depth right now. He's a guy that's not going to be an everyday receiver, but he can get in there and make plays."
Hawthorne, who has battled injuries and admitted he's still not 100 percent healthy, will earn some reps at receiver next season, Beckman said. How Beckman manages those reps (for endurance and injury-risk purposes) is worth watching. Illinois could use Hawthorne on offense. They need the sure-tackling, playmaking cornerback on defense.
Jeremy Werner is the co-host and Illinois reporter for the "Tay and J Show," which airs weekdays 3-6 p.m. on 93.5, 95.3 ConnectFM in Champaign-Urbana and streams online at www.myconnectfm.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @WernerConnectFM