After spring game Saturday, the Illini need a lead running back. QB is solid, and the defense looks to build depth.

 

The storylines from the Illinois spring football game Saturday, when the offense defeated the defense 26-21 while using an alternative scoring format.

-- Essentially a no-show during the spring season because of a sore knee, running back Jason Ford didn't play Saturday and left the starting spot up for grabs. Even worse for Ford, who will be a senior this fall, his reputation for a lack of durability concerned offensive coordinator Paul Petrino.

"You always (worry) if it's someone who's banged up quite a bit,'' Petrino said. "You'd have to say that position is wide open between the guys coming back and the freshmen coming in. Whoever wants it, go get it.

"Someone should want it. There are some real good linemen blocking in front of him. Someone is going to get 1,000 yards. I don't know who it is yet. We're going to run the ball well. I don't have any question about that. We have to find out who the main guy is.''

Besides Ford, senior Troy Pollard also didn't play in the spring game because of a concussion suffered last weekend. Had it not been for redshirt freshman Ean Days, who was moved from defensive back early in spring drills, "we wouldn't have been able to scrimmage,'' Petrino said.

Incoming freshmen running backs Donovonn Young of suburban Houston and Josh Ferguson of Joliet Catholic "are football junkies,'' Petrino said. "They say, 'Teach me. Coach me.' When you love being coached and love to work hard, things turn out pretty good. Both of those kids are exactly like that.''

-- According to Petrino, he doesn't have to call a quarterback draw on third and long any more. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase improved the play-action passing game this spring, although the Illini didn't try it much in the spring game because of the wind.

"Nathan is on a whole 'nother level for me to call plays,'' Petrino said. "That's a great thing to feel.''

Going primarily against the second-string defense, Scheelhaase completed 8-for-15 for 88 yards with one interception. In the opening drive, he was 4-for-6 for 42 yards.

"He converted third and mediums and longs,'' Petrino said. "That's something he didn't do all the time last year. If we did it, it was calling quarterback runs. We actually converted the passing game today. That part was good to see.''

With the offense hampered without senior wide receiver A.J. Jenkins (wrist) and sophomore wide receiver Darius Millines (foot) this spring, wide receiver Ryan Lankford took charge. Illinois returned center Graham Pocic, guard Hugh Thornton and tackle Jeff Allen as starters, and guard Jack Cornell looked like another starter at guard. 

Redshirt freshmen Michael Heitz and Simon Cvijanovic battle for the other tackle spot and fill a vacancy until the return of Corey Lewis from a knee injury.

"Right now, the offensive line and Nathan are playing really well,'' Petrino said. "When that's the case, you have a chance to be pretty good.''

-- It's no coicidence when mentioning the stars of the spring, defensive coordinator Vic Koenning named cornerbacks Tavon Wilson, Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green. With experience and talent, the secondary is the strength of the defense. Don't be surprised if Trulon Henry and Supo Sanni are season-opening starters at safety with backups Steve Hull and Pat Nixon.

The Illini concentrate on building depth. At linebacker, starters Ian Thomas, Jonathan Brown and Ashante Williams will rotate with Brandon Denmark, Houston Bates and Earnest Thomas.

"We've got to stay fresh,'' Koenning said. "We can't get six or seven games into the season and be out of gas. We can't get to the fourth quarter and be out of gas any more. We can't do that.

"We've got to develop strength in numbers. We have to do that in the front, linebacker and secondary.''

Sophomore defensive tackle Akeem Spence is the star up front. Brown is becoming more reliable, "if I don't choke him first,'' said Koenning. "Jonathan is becoming like a fourth son to me.''

NOTES: Placekicker Derek Dimke missed 29- and 31-yard field goals, although coach Ron Zook wasn't sure if there was a problem with the snaps or holds. . . Cornerback Miami Thomas intercepted a pass thrown by Scheelhaase. Thomas overcame operations on both ACLs after his big game against top-ranked Ohio State in 2007. . . 

 

Orange and Blue spring game Format: Offensive scoring -- first down (1 point), PAT (1 point), play over 30 yards (2 points), field goal (3 points), touchdown (6 points). Defensive scoring -- Any stop (1 point), 3 and out (2 points), fourth-down stop (2 points), turnover (3 points), turnover for touchdown (9 points). Awards: Most improved -- WR Ryan Lankford, LB Ashante Williams, TE Eddie Viliunas.  Best effort -- G Hugh Thornton, LB Houston Bates. Faculty Award for leadership in community, classroom, field: QB Nathan Scheelhaase, Craig Wilson. Chancellor's Award for academics: FB Zach Becker.   Illinois spring game stats Rushing -- Days 19-66, Scheelhaase 8-44, Golden 10-20, Prosch 3-(-1), Osei 6-(-4), Stewart 5-9, Anderson 1-(-4). Passing -- Scheelhaase 8-15-1-88, Osei 8-11-0-76, Anderson 0-1-0-0. Receiving -- Harris 5-35, Lankford 4-48, Kumerow 2-25, Golden 1-21, Williams 1-19, Lattimore 1-6, Viliunas 1-5, Days 1-5.