The Illinois football team plays its spring game at Memorial Stadium on Saturday (1 p.m.). A program trying to rebound from a 5-7 season overall and 3-5 mark in the Big Ten will rely on a young roster filled with athleticism but lacking experience. Here's a cheat sheet on Illini players who made a big move this spring.
The Illinois football team plays its spring game at Memorial Stadium on Saturday (1 p.m.).
A program trying to rebound from a 5-7 season overall and 3-5 mark in the Big Ten will rely on a young roster filled with athleticism but lacking experience. Here's a cheat sheet on Illini players who made a big move this spring.
1a. Sophomore running back Jason Ford and 1b. sophomore running back Mikel Leshoure.
Having cut close to 15 pounds apiece and added some muscle, the pair of 6-foot, 222-pounders increased his explosiveness with offseason work in then weight room. Ford isn't afraid to pound it inside, and he's tough to tackle. Leshoure's move in the scrimmage Wednesday left some cornerback's laundry on the turf.
"With a year's experience, they know how to block, pick up blitzes, run the ball and protect the ball,'' said quarterback Juice Williams. "They've been working hard in the offseason to get into the position they are now.''
2. Sophomore cornerback Tavon Wilson.
The 6-0, 1905-pounder held down a starting spot this spring after the departure of Vontae Davis to the NFL. With senior Dere Hicks nursing a leg injury, Wilson saw plenty of playing time. The aggressive, confident Wilson is a physical cornerback with some size.
"He really studies the game,'' said co-defensive coordinator Dan Disch. "He watches lots and lots of film. For a young guy, that's pretty rare. He's going to be a big physical corner for us. He's got a bright future.''
3. Sophomore outside linebacker Ian Thomas.
Considered a hidden gem in the same class that brought Arrelious Benn to Illinois, Thomas is another Washington, D.C.-area product ready to make an impact. An accomplished Golden Gloves boxer in his youth, Thomas is a 6-0, 225-pounder who likes to hit on the football field, too. While Martez Wilson worked at middle linebacker over the last three weeks, Thomas also became a regular on then field.
"He's been here two years, so he's starting to know what he's doing,'' Disch said. "He another that plays with emotion. If you fill up a defense with guys who want to play and be physical, you've got a chance.''
4. Sophomore defensive tackle Corey Liuget.
While Illinois wants to improve on a defense that ranked ninth in the Big Ten by allowing an average of 152.9 yards rushing, Liuget (pronounced legit) made a big move this spring. He beats blockers with his quickness, and the 6-3, 294-pounder also knows leverage.
"He's really got to step up and play well,'' Disch said. "His big thing is to improve his upper-body strength. He's got great quickness for a big guy.''
5. Junior right tackle Ryan Palmer.
The 6-7, 310-pounder from Canton, Ohio, started the season's first three games, then lost the job because of a stress fracture in his foot. Palmer played in the last three games last season behind Jeff Allen, a freshman last fall. Palmer took over the spot in the second week.
"I came out here this spring and had the mindset of getting back with the first string,'' Palmer said. "That's what I did. Now I have to maintain it.''
NOTES: Freshman cornerback Patrick Nixon-Youman suffered what apparently was a severe hip injury during Wednesday's scrimmage. His left leg was placed in an aircast before he left the Memorial Stadium turf on a motorized cart. … Former Illinois lineman Dave Diehl will be honored this weekend after donating $300,000 toward weight room equipment in the new facility underneath the north grandstand. … Quarterback Eddie McGee spent time at wide receiver Tuesday and Wednesday, but he's still considered the No. 2 behind Williams. … Fans must enter on the stadium's west side and sit in the west main grandstand for the spring game. … Fans can get photos and autographs of players and coaches from the Mike White era from noon to 1 p.m. Saturday in the Great West Hall.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.