CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — For the few hundred fans who made it out for Illinois Football’s 2019 Spring Game, they were treated to an afternoon of nice weather, autographs with their favorite players postgame — and an impressive showing of defenses.
Team Butkus (1st Team Defense & 2nd Team Offense) took down Team Grange (2nd Team Defense & 1st Team Offense) by a final score of 24-10 at Memorial Stadium in Champaign on Saturday.
“We wanted to see exactly where we were and let the guys get in some more situational football [today],” said Illinois Head Coach Lovie Smith. “[I] thought some of the guys did some good things. Defensively, it’s always about taking the ball away. When you can take the ball away and score, that’s good... We have to improve on the defensive side of the football.”
And take away the ball his defense did. Linebacker Sean Coghlan returned a broken up pass 33 yards to the house for the first defensive touchdown of the day as Team Butkus went ahead early 7-3.
Team Grange responded with a Cam Miller touchdown pass to junior tight end Griffin Palmer to retake a 10-7 lead.
The best drive of the day ended with a Kenyon Sims fumble on the goal line, giving the ball back to Team Grange with about 10 minutes to go in the first half.
But a few plays later, Team Butkus’ defense responded with a Nate Hobbs interception return for a touchdown off MJ Rivers, making that two pick-sixes on the day.
Danville native and redshirt-freshman Caleb Griffin would tack on a 49-yard field goal to put Team Butkus up 17-10 at the half.
“There’s a reason why we brought [Griffin] in,” Smith said. “He had opportunities to go elsewhere, but he’s a local guy who wanted to help his flagship university win games... He’s been kicking that way throughout the spring, and he’ll help us win a lot of games.”
The only score of the second half came on a Jakari Norwood 52-yard burst to the endzone for Team Butkus within two minutes of the second half.
The worst news of the day came on the same play with highly touted defensive lineman Calvin Avery slow to get up. The sophomore walked off the field with help from a couple training staff members and was eventually carted back to the locker room nursing what appeared to be a knee-related issue.
Junior wide receiver Kendall Smith has seen a few position changes in his short tenure with the Illini, but back on the offensive side of things, Smith had one of the best individual outings of anyone on Saturday. They don’t keep stats for spring games, but he hauled in at least five balls on the day, if not more.
“You get to the spring game and you notice a few guys,” Coach Smith said. “Kendall [Smith] was a wide-out, then we moved him over to the defensive side of the ball, then we asked him for the team to move back over to the offensive side. He hasn’t had those types of plays in the spring so far, but today, we noticed him.”
The wideout spot is lacking in depth and could benefit greatly from a guy like Smith or Dominic Stampley or Edwin Carter when they return from injury.
The defensive line had as big of a day as anyone, getting the better end of the offensive line for much of the scrimmage. With arguably the most potential of any position group on the roster, a number of different names could emerge this fall with breakout years.
“Our defense is solid,” said senior running back Reggie Corbin. “They’re really good. As you can see, they’ve gotten much better. [The offense] just kept battling, and that’s all you can really ask for from the offensive side.”
Junior defensive back Nate Hobbs had an impressive day himself, highlighted by an interception return for a touchdown. Let’s revisit that one more time:
The secondary is another position group with some lofty expectations for itself this year. New Defensive Backs Coach Keynodo Hudson has left an imprint on the group, instilling some of his hard-nosed, fiery spirit on Hobbs, Jartavius “Quan” Martin, Tony Adams and others.
“We switched our mentality,” Hobbs said. “First, it was, ‘We’re gonna come out here and play.’ But now, it’s, ‘We’re gonna come out here and dominate.’ We don’t care who the competition is. We want to play the best of the best.”
If the scrimmage was any indication of who will start come week one against Akron, then the position battle at quarterback is very much open. Neither MJ Rivers or Matt Robinson impressed with the first team, although Robinson did have some success moving the ball on the ground. Outside of that, no one found a groove under center.
The starting job is still very much up for grabs with one of the top candidates in street clothes on the sideline for the afternoon. 2019 four-star signee Isaiah Williams was on hand along with other recruits such as Marquez Beason, Shammond Cooper, Griffin Moore, and others.
The Illini officially kick off their season on Aug. 31 when they welcome the Akron Zips to Champaign.
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