Big Ten: Russell Ellington
Zook held his spring news conference Wednesday, and here are a few takeaways:
- Illinois is experimenting with a "bandit" position this spring, which Zook describes as a hybrid rush end/outside linebacker. The Illini have two solid defensive linemen in Clay Nurse and Corey Liuget but need more help up front. Sophomores Michael Buchanan and Justin Staples are among the players being considered at the bandit spot. Staples earned high marks with his winter performance in the weight room. "[The bandit] can be a drop guy, he can be a rush guy, he can be a blitz guy," Zook said.
- Jacob Charest took the first reps at quarterback Tuesday and has a slight edge in the competition because of his experience in 2009. Redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase also is in the mix, and Zook praised the play of true freshman Chandler Whitmer at Tuesday's practice. Zook called Whitmer "a pleasant surprise" and marveled at his accuracy and quick release. "That's going to put him right in the thick of things," Zook said.
- Zook wouldn't consider any of the quarterback candidates as traditional drop-back passers. Charest fits the description more than others, but Zook once again noted that Charest is a better athlete than many folks believe. He might lack the mobility that both Scheelhaase and Whitmer have, but he's not a stiff, either.
- Sophomore Terry Hawthorne, who provided a lift at cornerback late last fall, will remain on defense. There had been talk that Hawthorne could see time at wide receiver as well as cornerback.
- Zook praised the practice performance of safety Supo Sanni, who has played extensively as a reserve the last two years. "We always felt he's got a lot of talent," Zook said. "He can do all the things you want a safety to be able to do."
- Aside from the quarterback spot, the offensive depth chart is fairly settled. Zook will spend much of his time focused on the defense, and the competition at linebacker should be interesting. Martez Wilson is back from a neck injury and will practice this spring but not take on contact. Ian Thomas is back after starting every game last fall, and Russell Ellington, Evan Frierson and Aaron Gress are all in the mix.
- Zook is relying on Wilson, Nurse and Liuget to be leaders on defense. "Corey’s had a great offseason," Zook said. "His whole mentality has changed."
- Junior college transfer Trulon Henry is an engaging personality with an interesting backstory, and the safety also has a sense of humor. According to Zook, after Henry dropped a few interceptions Tuesday, he joked that the last Illinois player to wear the No. 9 jersey also had the dropsies at his first spring practice. That player? Former Illini star wide receiver Arrelious Benn, who happens to be Henry's younger brother.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
The Illinois offense should be at full strength for the first time this season Saturday at No. 13 Ohio State (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET), but the Illini defense will be coping with the loss of a key player.
Starting middle linebacker Martez Wilson has been ruled out for the rest of the season because of a herniated disk in his neck. Wilson's presence will be missed in the hub of the Illini defense, but the team has full faith in those who will replace him against the Buckeyes.
"Everybody feels awful for Martez because of the way he's worked, but that's the game," Illinois head coach Ron Zook said. "We talk about that all the time. There's going to be adversity, and the teams that handle the adversity the best are going to be the teams usually that have the most success.
"Evan Frierson, the guy who's going to step into his spot, is really excited about this opportunity. He's a guy who will get better every time he steps on the field."
Frierson, a 6-2, 225-pound redshirt freshman, has one assisted tackle in two career games. He'll get help from sophomores Ian Thomas and Russell Ellington against the Buckeyes.
Thomas, who turned heads during the preseason with his play and tremendous strength, leads Illinois with 17 tackles to go along with two sacks and two pass breakups. Ellington had a 78-yard interception return against Illinois State.
“Ian has developed a lot," defensive tackle Josh Brent said. "He’s always been a talented guy, one of those guys who is always around the ball. He just had to learn the concept of the defense. The mike linebacker in our defense is pretty much the quarterback and calls all the plays."
That role now falls to Thomas, who will remain on the outside but call the signals.
Illinois started only two linebackers (Thomas and Ellington) in its first game without Wilson and could continue to do so against spread teams. But the Illini likely need three 'backers against Ohio State, usually assigning one to multitalented quarterback Terrelle Pryor.
"Martez is a close friend of mine and you hate to see someone of his ability and talent go down," Brent said. "But you use it as a motivator. We keep him in our memory as we go out here and practice this week, [knowing] that any play could be your last. In a sense, we play for him and don’t get down about it and have some of the other guys step up and be leaders."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Ohio State answered the bell and finally dominated a team, while the Big Ten's upper crust has separated itself. The top five look pretty solid, while the bottom six are a muddled mess.
1. Penn State (3-0) -- The exhibition season is over for Penn State, which looked better on offense and just as stingy against Temple. The Lions finally established a decent running game, and not a moment too soon with Iowa visiting Happy Valley this week. Linebacker Sean Lee has been fabulous in his return to the field, and Penn State's defense is setting the tone. But things are about to get much tougher.
2. Ohio State (2-1) -- I probably punished the Buckeyes a little too much last week, but I needed to see them deliver a convincing performance against an inferior opponent. Terrelle Pryor and the much-maligned offense clicked against Toledo, and the defensive line was merciless against Aaron Opelt and the Rockets. The Buckeyes defense has things rolling right now as Juice Williams returns to Columbus this week.
3. Michigan (3-0) -- This has more to do with Ohio State's overdue performance than anything Michigan did against Eastern Michigan. Wolverines freshman quarterback Tate Forcier looked his age at times Saturday, but Carlos Brown and the rushing attack picked him up nicely. A young Michigan defense still has some things to shore up against the run as it opens Big Ten play against Indiana.
4. Iowa (3-0) -- No Big Ten team has looked more impressive the last two weeks than the Hawkeyes, though national respect is still hard to come by. The good news? Iowa can gain a ton of cred by upsetting No. 5 Penn State on Saturday night in the Whiteout at Beaver Stadium. The defense must maintain its edge and quarterback Ricky Stanzi needs to limit his first-half mistakes in Happy Valley.
5. Wisconsin (3-0) -- The Badgers took care of business against FCS Wofford and continued to get steady play from junior quarterback Scott Tolzien. The schedule really favors Wisconsin this year, with four consecutive home games to begin the season, and Bret Bielema's team has capitalized. Michigan State will be a desperate team Saturday, but Wisconsin gets the Spartans and Camp Randall Stadium.
6. Minnesota (2-1) -- After a rough start, Minnesota rallied against Cal and made the nation's eighth-ranked team work for a victory at TCF Bank Stadium. Kevin Cosgrove and Ron Lee have the defense playing extremely hard, especially in the front seven. Eric Decker is a stud, but the offense remains far too one-dimensional. The Gophers will struggle in the Big Ten if they can't run the ball.
7. Indiana (3-0) -- Surprised to see the Hoosiers here? Well, they deserve it after their second 3-0 start in the last three seasons. Akron clearly missed suspended quarterback Chris Jacquemain, but Indiana took advantage of the situation and intercepted backup Matt Rodgers four times. The competition gets much harder this week at Michigan, but kudos to Bill Lynch and Indiana for the hot start.
T-8. Northwestern (2-1) -- The Wildcats resume looks pretty weak right now, with a blowout win against Towson and a close call against Eastern Michigan followed by a loss at Syracuse. A banged-up defense let Greg Paulus and Mike Williams pile up yards and points Saturday, leading some to believe that last year's improvement was a fluke. Quarterback Mike Kafka's play was very encouraging, but if the defense reverts to pre-2008 form, Northwestern will struggle in the Big Ten.
T-8. Michigan State (1-2) -- Credit the Spartans for playing extremely hard in South Bend, but they still came out with a tough loss. Listening to quarterback Kirk Cousins, who handled a difficult situation well, you'd think these Spartans won't go the way of their predecessors. A trip to Madison this week has to be classified as a must win before arch-rival Michigan visits East Lansing on Oct. 3.
10. Illinois (1-1) -- The Illini didn't play on Saturday, but they lost a huge piece of their defense last week as middle linebacker Martez Wilson (neck) will miss the rest of the season. Wilson will be missed, and linebackers Ian Thomas and Russell Ellington must pick up the slack. The biggest boost must come from Juice Williams, Arrelious Benn and the offense. Illinois season could be decided in the next three games (Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State).
11. Purdue (1-2) -- A home loss to Northern Illinois carries a price, even though the Huskies are an improved team. NIU loaded up against the run and held Ralph Bolden in check, and Purdue couldn't get its downfield passing game going. It's hard to know what to make of Purdue, which should have beaten Oregon on the road but really struggled against NIU. The Boilers can strike back this Saturday night against Notre Dame (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET).
This was supposed to be Martez Wilson's breakout season. Instead, the Illinois junior middle linebacker will have to wait until 2010 to make his mark in Champaign.
Wilson will miss the remainder of the 2009 campaign with a herniated disk in his neck, the team announced Thursday. He will undergo surgery to repair the disk in the coming days.
"We feel awful for Martez," Fighting Illini head coach Ron Zook said in a statement. "He worked so hard and had such a great offseason. I'm really proud of him for that. You never want to see injuries happen, but we feel that we were able to catch this in time to ensure a successful surgery and recovery for Martez. I feel confident that he will return from the injury stronger and with more determination next year. We talk about adversity and our team knows others will have to step up and fill his shoes. I think they are ready to do that."
Wilson's neck started bothering him after the season opener against Missouri, but he started and played in the game, recording 5.5 tackles. He missed last week's win against Illinois State.
A two-year starter at outside linebacker who moved to the middle this offseason, Wilson has a redshirt year available and will retain two seasons of eligibility. Still, this is an extremely tough break for a player who has dealt with a lot of adversity during his time at Illinois.
"Of course, I am upset and frustrated, but you can't control injuries," Wilson said in a statement. "The biggest thing for me is that I have a lot of support around me with my family, the coaches and my teammates and they will help me get through this. I was really looking forward to being a leader on this defense, but I can still do that from the sidelines. I will get healed and make sure I am 100 percent for next season."
Wilson underwent surgery in December after being stabbed during a fight outside a Champaign bar. He had come to the aid of a former teammate when he was stabbed.
The Chicago product made a quick recovery and transitioned well to middle linebacker, a spot where predecessors Brit Miller and J Leman had starred. Wilson really seemed like a changed man when we talked last month at Illinois' training camp. He had rededicated himself to the game and his new position after falling short of expectations in his first two seasons as a starter.
Wilson and wide receiver Arrelious Benn headlined a heralded 2007 recruiting class at Illinois. He ranked as the nation's fifth best prospect, according to ESPN's Scouts Inc.
"I've grown up a lot," Wilson told me in August. "It's crazy what a year will do to you. It was more of a mental thing, knowing how good I could be. I've listened to what everybody tells me, the good and bad comments. I'm ready to fulfill everyone's expectations. Especially mine."
He'll have to wait until next fall to meet those expectations.
Illinois (1-1), which has a bye this week, will look for sophomore Russell Ellington and others to step up. Ellington started last week in Wilson's place and recorded eight tackles with an interception and two pass breakups against Illinois State.
The Illini open Big Ten play Sept. 26 at Ohio State.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
While Michigan held its annual spring game, other teams around the Big Ten conducted scrimmages this weekend.
Here are some highlights from around the league.
- The Illini held their third annual Chicago area scrimmage at Oak Park-River Forest High School, where former Illinois coach Robert Zuppke served before coming to Champaign.
- Illinois' offense scored three touchdowns on five drives, including a 27-yard scoring pass from Juice Williams to Jarred Fayson and a 4-yard run by Mikel LeShoure. LeShoure continued his stellar spring with 14 carries for 123 yards, while Fayson is closing in on a starting wideout spot.
- After struggling in Wednesday's practice, Williams completed 13 of 20 passes for 167 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions.
- Defensive end Doug Pilcher and linebacker Russell Ellington each recorded two sacks. Linebacker Nate Bussey, a converted safety, tallied a team-high nine tackles.
- For more on the scrimmage, including linebacker Martez Wilson's first comments this spring, click here and here.
- The Hoosiers' ground game surged for the second consecutive scrimmage, racking up 169 yards on 30 carries (5.6 ypc), and the defense bounced back from a slow start to record three sacks, two interceptions and a fumble.
- Quarterback Ben Chappell completed his first eight pass attempts and hit Damarlo Belcher for a 22-yard touchdown. Chappell and the passing attack continued to progress, as 10 different receivers hauled in receptions.
- Trea Burgess is making a strong push for Indiana's top running back spot and racked up 69 rush yards and a touchdown on nine carries. Redshirt freshman running back Darius Willis, a heralded recruit, participated in his first scrimmage after battling a groin problem and had 20 rush yards.
- Cornerbacks Chris Adkins and Richard Council recorded interceptions, and linebacker Jamie Lukaszewski forced a fumble.
- For more on the scrimmage, click here (subscription required).
- The good news for projected starting quarterback Mike Kafka is he gets to work against one of the Big Ten's top defenses this spring. But that's the bad news, too. Kafka struggled in Saturday's 82-play scrimmage, failing to lead the first-team offense to the end zone on 11 drives. On the second play of the scrimmage, he threw an interception that cornerback Jordan Mabin returned for a touchdown.
- Northwestern's defense forced three turnovers, as Mabin and safety Brian Peters recorded interceptions and safety Jared Carpenter forced a fumble.
- Quarterback Dan Persa and the second-team offense fared better, scoring two touchdowns, including a 45-yard pass from Persa to Zeke Markshausen. Persa completed his first eight pass attempts and finished 10-for-14 for 104 yards and a touchdown.
- Keep an eye on sophomore running back Jeravin Matthews, who continued a strong spring with 113 rush yards, including a 49-yarder, on 15 carries for the second-team offense. Matthews, a converted wide receiver and one of only two true freshmen to play last season, might be the team's fastest player and will push Stephen Simmons for the starting job.
- For more on the scrimmage, click here.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Last season, Illinois fans got a taste of good Juice (total offense records in three stadiums, including the Big House) and bad Juice (nine interceptions in the last five games).
Those in attendance Wednesday at a blustery Memorial Stadium for Illinois' full-pads scrimmage saw both sides of Juice Williams but left with a slightly sour taste about the Illini senior quarterback.
Williams looked solid in 7-on-7 red zone drills, firing touchdowns to Jeff Cumberland and dynamic Florida transfer Jarred Fayson. But Williams threw at least four interceptions, two of which went to cornerback Travon Bellamy, who appeared to injure his neck after making a pick in the end zone. Walk-on cornerback Nattiel Perkins also picked off a Williams pass.
"We got the best of him out there," cornerback Tavon Wilson said with a smile. "We compete like that every day, though."
Illini fans shouldn't be too concerned about Williams, who has loads of experience and a ton of weapons at his disposal. But seeing that limiting turnovers was one of head coach Ron Zook's top two goals for spring ball -- limiting big plays on defense was the other -- Wednesday's mistakes shouldn't become a habit.
There were several bright spots at the practice, and here are my other observations.
- Illinois' rushing game will be much better in 2009, and Williams shouldn't have to carry such a large load as a runner. Sophomore backs Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure both performed well in the scrimmage, delivering just as many hits as they took. The physical development of both players is obvious -- more on that in the coming days -- and as bigger backs, they can do some damage this fall. Ford broke free for a big gain late in the scrimmage, and LeShoure rocked Patrick Nixon-Youman after catching a screen pass.
- Ford and LeShoure rotated with both the first- and second-team offense because both Daniel Dufrene and Troy Pollard are banged up. Don't be surprised, though, if the two sophomores are Illinois' primary backs this fall.
- The Illini should have the Big Ten's top wide receiver corps this fall. Even without All-America candidate Arrelious Benn, who had class Wednesday and missed practice, the Illini receivers showed plenty of promise. The 6-5 Cumberland is a huge target, and Fayson already looks like one of Williams' favorite targets.
- Former NFL coaches Jim Haslett and Rick Venturi attended practice for the second straight day. Haslett, the former Saints and Rams coach, will coach the Orlando franchise in the newly formed United Football League. They were in town to see Zook, their former colleague from the New Orleans Saints, and the three spent a lot of time breaking down film.
- Several Illinois coaches raved about Tavon Wilson's progress when we talked earlier in the day, and he didn't disappoint. The sophomore defended a screen well during the red zone portion and rocked LeShoure on a run, eliciting cheers from his fellow defenders.
- After playing two years at outside linebacker, junior Martez Wilson worked mainly in the middle on Wednesday. It makes sense since he's by far the team's most experienced linebacker. Wilson, who has recovered from a stabbing incident in December, still looks huge at 6-4 and 240 pounds. He had some good and bad moments during practice but teamed with Rahkeem Smith to drop LeShoure for a loss.
- I was impressed with third-string quarterback Jacob Charest, who made several nice throws to Cordale Scott.
- Suspended defensive tackle Josh Brent was at practice, watching from the sideline and hanging out with several recent Illini players, including former defensive lineman David Lindquist. The feeling is that Brent is expected to rejoin the team at some point.
- The first-team offense: Williams at quarterback, LeShoure and Ford at running back, wide receiver Cumberland, wide receiver Chris Duvalt, wide receiver Fayson, tight end Hubie Graham, offensive lineman Corey Lewis, offensive lineman Jeff Allen, offensive lineman Eric Block, offensive lineman Jon Asamoah.
- The first-team defense: defensive lineman Rahkeem Smith, defensive lineman Antonio James, defensive lineman Clay Nurse, defensive lineman Corey Liuget, linebacker Martez Wilson, linebacker Russell Ellington, linebacker Ian Thomas, cornerback Tavon Wilson, cornerback Patrick Nixon-Youman, safety Bo Flowers, safety Garrett Edwards.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
It's time to go inside five Big Ten teams preparing for the second round of league games.
Illinois: Head coach Ron Zook will increase his rotation on defense after the Illini dropped to last place in the Big Ten in points allowed (32 ppg). Linebackers Russell Ellington and Sam Carson and safety Donsay Hardeman all are expected to see more plays Saturday at Michigan (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET). Zook has some versatility with Travon Bellamy, who can play both safety and cornerback. The coach attributed Illinois' run-stopping struggles (182.5 ypg allowed) to the back half as the team tries to overcome the losses of All-American middle linebacker J Leman and talented safeties Kevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison. "I don't foresee starting lineup changes," Zook said, "but I do see guys that are going to be held accountable. ... We're going to play more guys and our job is to make sure we fix it."
Michigan State: Defensive back Kendell Davis-Clark could be back soon after missing the last four games with a shoulder injury. Davis-Clark's return presents some interesting decisions for head coach Mark Dantonio, who originally shifted Davis-Clark from cornerback to safety after Roderick Jenrette was asked to take a leave of absence from the team. Danny Fortener replaced Davis-Clark in the season opener at Cal and has performed well, ranking second on the team in tackles (29) with three pass break-ups and an interception. Davis-Clark, who started 11 games at cornerback last season, is listed behind Fortener on the depth chart for Saturday's game against Iowa (ESPN2, noon ET).
Minnesota: The Gophers continue to list three players as possible starters at running back on this week's depth chart, but head coach Tim Brewster acknowledged that freshman DeLeon Eskridge has taken the lead. Eskridge racked up a team-high 131 all-purpose yards in Minnesota's league-opening loss to Ohio State last week. With five touchdowns, he's already halfway to reaching Minnesota's freshman record of 10 set by Laurence Maroney in 2003. Another freshman, Shady Salamon, and junior Jay Thomas also remain in the mix for playing time. "If you had to say one of three guys stepped out, you'd say DeLeon Eskridge," Brewster said. "The other two guys will definitely continue to play some."
Ohio State: Aside from left tackle Alex Boone, none of the spots on Ohio State's offensive line are set in stone. True freshman Michael Brewster remains the starter at center, but Jim Cordle could move back over from guard if necessary. Cordle and a healthy Steve Rehring are listed as co-starters at left guard. Right tackle Bryant Browning also can play a guard spot, and Rehring is a possibility at tackle. Freshmen tackles J.B. Shugarts and Mike Adams also could be the mix at some point as much-needed competition increases up front.
Purdue: The Boilers' spread offense is at its best with a large rotation of receivers, and they're starting to see more playmakers emerge. Senior Desmond Tardy is listed as a starter on this week's depth chart ahead of junior Keith Smith after catching 10 passes for 175 yards and a touchdown last week against Notre Dame. Purdue also has seen encouraging moments from junior college transfer Aaron Valentin. Head coach Joe Tiller wants to see more from his other juco wideout, Arsenio Curry, who brings excellent size (6-foot-4, 217 pounds) but has yet to catch a pass. Tight end remains a question mark, as starter Kyle Adams is doubtful for Saturday's game against Penn State. Adams hasn't played since he hurt his knee on the opening kickoff of the season opener.