Saturday at Memorial Stadium, the Illini football team played something known as the “Spring Game.” Inasmuch as football and fall are near synonymous in American minds, you’re probably wondering what a spring football game is. You are right to wonder.
The Spring Game is a “game” in the same sense that hackysack is a game, in that it isn’t.
What the Spring Game actually consists of is the offense (“the Blue”) playing against the defense (“The Orange”), and the whole enterprise is conducted with a bizarre system allowing the defense to score points. The details of the scoring system (“Defense, 3 & out, 1st series 2 pts”) are completely irrelevant. As is the final score of Orange 21, Blue 26, which would indicate that Blue, the offense, played better than the defense. Which it did not. The defense actually played better overall, but the offense got a point every time they scored a first down, making it pretty tough for the defense to come back after the opening drive, which in this scenario absurdly counted for 12 points.
The more jaded observers of college football among you are likely writing this stunt off as a cash grab by the football program: just another opportunity to sell tickets. In this instance, you’d be wrong. The game was free. Parking, too. They even threw out some of those inflatable jumparound houses on the south end of the field for the little tykes. The official press release following the game stated that attendance was estimated at over 6,000 people, which is complete hokum, unless the were allowed allowed to count individual nacho chips as “people,” in which case it still feels high.
So, why pay attention to the Spring Game? Why should you begin paying attention to college football at all right now? Damn good question. The Spring Game is billed as a preview of next fall’s team for the fans. Here’s some reasons why it’s worth your time to begin paying attention to the team now:
- Story lines involving intra-squad imbroglios and someone getting ejected from a scrimmage. With a teaser like that, how can you not read on?
- You may end up wanting to know a lot more about college football than you had in years past. This year, we may not need to append “college” to college football, since it seems quite possible that there may not be any other kind of football to pay attention to this fall. With the NFL labor dispute far from resolved, your attention to professional football is going to involve substituting watching the Bears with learning about labor law and the finer points of antitrust doctrine. No fun. This fall, college football may be your only football. And no, soccer doesn’t count. If I wanted to fall asleep on Sundays, I’d put golf on the TV, which, for the record, I already do when I’m hungover. Works like a charm. Seriously. Try it.
- You may end up going to more games. If your fall Saturdays involve occasionally making the trek to Memorial Stadium, you’re in luck this year. The Orange and Blue will suit up (together! As one team! Against another team!) at Memorial Stadium EIGHT TIMES this year. That’s twice as many games as they’ll play on the road, and two more games than they played at Memorial Stadium last year. Since now nearly every game is televised thanks to the advent of the U.S. currency printing press more commonly known as the Big Ten Network, that means you’ll have about 73 more television timeouts to chatter through. Keep in mind that this is college football, so you can not spend this time (legally) purchasing or consuming beer in the stadium. You’re going to need to make small talk during this time. Prepare now.
- Illinois lost three players early to the NFL draft, and has some big shoes to fill. Illinois surpassed many expectations last year, and a tremendous amount of credit for that goes to Mikel Leshoure, who handled more than the lion’s share of running back duties, probably more like a lion and a half. Defensive tackle Corey Liuget and linebacker Martez Wilson were both great contributors on the other side of the ball. That trio will not be back, opting instead to throw their hats into the ring for the NFL Draft, each of them with one year of eligibility remaining. Whether there’s an NFL season or not, they’re gone. Unlike the NBA draft, there’s no coming back once a college player has declared their eligibility for the NFL draft. Another big set of shoes to fill for the Illini are those of Anthony Santella, the punter who graduated last year. More on this later.
So what did the Spring Game teach us? Here’s a little bit of what was, and was not, seen, focusing on a few positions:
Running Back: We didn’t learn a whole lot regarding this position. The majority of carries were handled by Ean Days, who redshirted last year while practicing as a safety. In fairness to him, Days did a rather competent job handling the running duties on Saturday, and will likely see some caries in the fall. Also handling some of the running back plays was Bud Golden. However, neither of these backs wowed enough to change the prevailing sentiment that the main running back duties will be handled by Jason Ford this fall. Ford did not play Saturday, as he has been recuperating from a sore knee, a knee bruise, or a knee injury, depending on whom you believe. So, while this is the position that many were most hoping for a glimpse of heading to the summer, no such luck. Just the same, there is reason to be hopeful. Under the present head coach, Illinois leads the Big 10 in rushing yards per game. Fullback Jay Prosch returns, and his crushing blocks were an underappreciated a part of Leshoure’s tremendous success. Moreover, Prosch may see some time at tailback after surprising the coaches with his abilities while subbing in that role in practice.
Punter: Sure, sure, I know. Everyone wants to talk about the sexy position of the punter, the star of every team. Don’t these Gods of the Gridiron get enough ink already? What about the forgotten positions, the blue collar, lunchbox type players? But let’s get serious: a deficiency in the punting game can seriously hamper the team. Lackluster punting can hurt you on both sides of the ball. If you’re losing the battle of field position, the defense is constantly attempting to defend short field and the offense is having to accomplish more than their opponents for the same reason, especially when a battle turns to a grind-it-out, low scoring affair. So who is the Illini punter for next year? Great question, and I wish I could answer it for you. Head coach Ron Zook (entering his 7th year: does that make you feel crazy-old, too? Okay, good…) stated following the Spring Game that the punting situation may be the biggest question mark hanging over the team right now. To be more blunt, the punter for the fall very well have spent the Spring Game studying for finals. In high school. Matt Aller handled portions of the punting duties on Saturday, and had a few decent ones, along with some really, really bad ones on a rather windy day. Even accounting for the weather, a 31 yard punt kicking with the wind does not inspire much confidence. As noted above, whomever handles the punting duties will do so 8 times in Memorial Stadium. The central Illinois weather isn’t going to be any different than it has been in the past, which is to say windy. Blaming the weather isn’t going to work. This will certainly be something to keep an eye on heading into the non-conference schedule in the fall. Illinois has the manpower to handle Arkansas State in the season opener, regardless of who’s dropkicking. The Big Ten schedule is certain to be another story. Start working on your pronunciation of “DuVernois,” as in Justin, the incoming freshman who may be the Illini punter. Or, if you were a decent punter in high school, start Googling “walk on.” Just kidding. Kind of. Actually, no I’m not.
Linebacker: A really interesting subplot developing at linebacker. When Martez Wilson headed to the NFL draft, an opportunity arose for someone to step in as linebacker and establish themselves as one of the leaders of the defense. Jonathan Brown had a very good game on Saturday, and showed excellent speed breaking through the line. Though perhaps more noteworthy than what he did on the field was what he did not do on the field, namely throw a punch at one of his own teammates. A little back story here:
Last year at the Michigan State game, Brown earned the Illini a 15 yard penalty for punching an opponent. It (maybe) bears noting that Brown was hit first in that ballyhoo, but the flip side is that it is well known that the NCAA does not follow the “he started it rule” when it comes to fisticuffs during games. Or at least it should be. Moreover, Brown has presumably watched other football games before, and hence knows that the player that retaliates gets flagged more often than the player that started the shoving.
By this point you’re likely saying “so what?” A fair question. Everyone has had their temper get the best of them, and it’s not as though Mr. Brown did a Ron Artest impression by leaping into the stands to assault the fan, and then following it up with the additional crime of an unlistenable rap career.
The Michigan State incident became noteworthy only in hindsight. This spring Brown reportedly took a swing at a teammate in practice. And then he did it again, also this spring, in a team scrimmage (note, just a scrimmage, and not the Spring Game), thus accomplishing the impressive feat of getting ejected from a non-game. Following these incidents, Zook ( had stated that Jonathan Brown had lost his position to Houston Bates. Bates was consistently mentioned by the coaching staff as a player who had a tremendous spring, working hard and impressing everyone with his ability to get to the quarterback.
With Zook stating that Brown would have to win his position back, Brown’s play in the Spring Game likely went a significant way towards that goal, as he made a good case for defensive MVP on Staruday. Following the game, both Zook and Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning (also the inside linebackers coach) both spoke warmly of Brown following the game, though it was clear that he had the ability to rankle them with his outbursts. Koenning said that Brown was like a son to him, and spoke highly of Brown’s ability to contribute to the program in the future, while adding, laughingly, “If I don’t choke him first.” If you’ve never heard your dad speak of you this way, you didn’t have a very fun childhood. Just the same, Jonathan Brown will need to show that he has matured significantly and has his temper under control if he wants to fill Martez Wilson’s shoes and become one of the leaders of the defense.
These are the kinds of story lines that develop in the spring, under fewer eyes and less scrutiny, knowledge of which make fall football much more intriguing. Or at the very least gives you something to chat about during another TV timeout, so that FS can sell more hybrid seed.
Other things were noteworthy only for their lack of noteworthiness. Most importantly, there were no injuries, as no one gains in beating up their own players for an exhibition non-game. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase submitted a respectable-but-not-stellar performance, and showed an encouraging amount of chemistry with receiver Ryan Lankford. His preferred target, A.J. Jenkins was unavailable, recuperating from wrist surgery. Hopefully this hints at a deep receiver corps come fall. Scheelhaase threw a single interception to Miami Thomas, who made a terrific catch for the pick, highlighting the day for the secondary. Thomas has battled injuries throughout his career: if his break to the ball on that pick is a preview of what we’ll see in the fall, we’re in for a treat, as he showed tremendous athleticism.
On the whole, though, there’s still a lot of “wait and see” sitting out there. Illinois felt on the cusp of being a real Big Ten contender last year but finished 7-6 counting their bowl win over Baylor. A final tally above .500 was better than what many thought the team had in them before the year. On the same time, the Illini of ’10 were victims of their own work to heighten expectations, after they showed flashes of brilliance (routing Penn State on the road) and yet failed to come through in some games that really could have been momentum-turning upsets (Ohio State). Other losses were just head scratchers (Fresno State? Minnesota?). Illinois is looking to put together their second consecutive winning season since (take a deep breath here) accomplishing that feat in ’89 and ’90. You know, when people listened to cassettes. Illinois has a fair amount to build on from last year, with 15 starters returning, and the coaching staff largely unchanged after last year’s replacement of the offensive and defensive coordinators. In interviews, coaches and players stressed that they felt in the position to fine tune skills, rather than remaking the team wholesale, or feeling as though the coaches were learning the system alongside the players. If competent replacements step up for some of the key departures, those small improvements could be the difference that prevents Illinois from falling just short in games as happened last year.
Illinois plays its first real football game of 2011 on September 3, when it opens the season against Arkansas State. In the meantime, we’ll keep you posted on various happenings, including how the recently-former Illini fare in the upcoming draft, the Big Ten Football landscape, and anything else that strikes our fancy. If there’s something you want to hear about, post it in the comments, and you just may see an article about it. We’re committed to making Smile Politely’s football coverage the coverage that you want and the voice that you won’t hear elsewhere, so let us know what you want that to be. Unless you say something about soccer being “football.” Nobody wants to hear that.