NCF Nation: Miami Thomas

Illinois' safeties will have an ally on the field this season.

Tavon Wilson is excited to be once again playing his natural position of cornerback, but he isn't forgetting his roots.

[+] EnlargeTavon Wilson
Chuck Rydlewski/Icon SMIIllinois' Tavon Wilson has started at cornerback and safety.
"I help my safeties a lot more because I know how hard it is back there, to cover each half of the field all by yourself," Wilson said. "If we're in Cover 2, I make sure I get my hands on [the receiver]. In Cover 3, I protect the front side when they're going to the middle.

"I've got a little more respect for the safeties now after playing the position."

Wilson moved from cornerback to safety before the 2010 season because a series of injuries hit Illinois' defensive backfield. The big loss was Supo Sanni, a projected starter at safety who ruptured his Achilles tendon in camp and had to miss the season.

After a productive sophomore season at cornerback, where he led the team with seven passes defended, Wilson made the shift to safety and once again led the team in passes defended (9) to go along with 48 tackles. Illinois' improved depth in the secondary has allowed Wilson to return to cornerback, although he practiced as a nickel safety this spring.

Wilson's versatility should help a secondary that likely will be the strength of the defense in 2011.

"Safety and corner are two totally different positions," Wilson said. "It's a different mind-set. At first, I tried to go out there and play like a corner, but I had to learn the game from a safety standpoint. It's a totally different aspect of football."

Wilson admits he "probably played a little smarter" as a safety, knowing that any risk could backfire and result in a touchdown for the opposing team.

"At corner, I know I'm a lot more aggressive and more of a hitter," he said. "I take more chances just because I know I've got some help over the top."

He won't take that help for granted.

Sanni is on track to return at safety alongside Trulon Henry, a starter last season who led the team with three interceptions. Wilson, Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green give Illinois a very nice complement of cornerbacks, and the secondary also brings back Patrick Nixon-Youman, Steve Hull and Miami Thomas, the talented corner who has battled injuries for much of his career.

"I definitely feel like we're going to have a chance to be the leaders of the defense, just because of the confidence we have in each other and the confidence everybody else has in us," Wilson said. "A lot of us have played a lot of football around here, so when things are going wrong, people on the defense expect me or one of my guys back there to make a play. We've been doing that this spring.”

Recapping the Big Ten scrimmages

August, 23, 2010
8/23/10
9:07
AM ET
Scrimmages took center stage around the Big Ten this weekend as teams moved closer to the end of camp and the start of game preparations. I have links and a few thoughts on each scrimmage below, but only on the teams that put out information about what happened or had media in attendance. Those teams are: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Ohio State and Wisconsin.

I'll do my best with Michigan's scrimmage, which oddly was open to fans but not media.

ILLINOIS

The Illini broke camp in Rantoul, Ill., and scrimmaged Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Check out what happened here and here and here and here.

Quick hitters
  • Illinois' coaches can talk all they want about running back by committee, but it's clear that junior Mikel Leshoure is the team's top option. As he did throughout the second half of last season, Leshoure showcased his big-play ability Saturday with a 49-yard touchdown run. Leshoure finished with 102 rush yards and two scores on only 12 carries. Jason Ford also had a nice day Saturday, but Leshoure is the guy to watch out for this fall.
  • After struggling in the first camp scrimmage, Illinois' first-team defense rebounded nicely Saturday. According to Mark Tupper, the first-team defense allowed only 59 net yards in 41 plays in the scrimmage. Defensive end Michael Buchanan and linebacker Martez Wilson were among the standouts.
  • Although starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase had a shaky day, Illinois might have found another capable wide receiver in Eddie McGee, the team's former backup quarterback. McGee beat cornerback Miami Thomas on a jump ball in the end zone to record a touchdown and finished with three receptions for 56 yards.
INDIANA

The Hoosiers held a 96-play Saturday at Memorial Stadium, and you can read all about it here, here (subscription required) and here.

Quick hitters
  • Redshirt freshman Dusty Kiel has established himself as the team's backup quarterback in camp. Kiel, who has been competing with Edward Wright-Baker, had an excellent scrimmage, completing 14 of 16 passes for 129 yards and a touchdown.
  • Indiana used the scrimmage to assess its offensive line depth and limited the participation for sure-fire starters like center Will Matte and right tackle James Brewer. Coach Bill Lynch wanted to get a better read on his backup center and had Jordan Marquette, Chris Ahlfeld and Steve Fiacable take reps in the scrimmage. Ted Bolser stepped up nicely at tight end with five catches for 46 yards and a touchdown.
  • The Hoosiers' already-shaky secondary suffered a blow as safety Chris Adkins had to be carried off the field because of an ankle injury. The extent of Adkins' injury is unclear at this point.
MICHIGAN

Michigan held a scrimmage Saturday at Michigan Stadium. It was open to some fans but not media, and while I love fan reports, I'm relying mostly on this video from the school's official website.
  • I really like what I've seen from freshman running back Stephen Hopkins, both in Saturday's scrimmage and during the Big Ten Network's tour stop. He gives the Wolverines a different look in the backfield at 6-foot, 227 pounds. Michigan boasts plenty of speed backs, but Hopkins provides the type of downhill, between-the-tackles running you need in the Big Ten.
  • Quarterback Denard Robinson looked pretty smooth in the scrimmage video, both as a passer and a runner. He hit his receivers in stride and broke off a long touchdown run, juking safety Jared Van Slyke before reaching the end zone. All signs continue to point toward Robinson being named the starter, but we'll see.
MICHIGAN STATE

The Spartans held a 130-play controlled scrimmage Saturday at Spartan Stadium, closed to the media. The defense prevailed 45-32 as the team used a modified scoring system. Recaps can be found here and here.

Quick hitters
  • It was a good day for the defense and a great day for the linebackers, who should be Michigan State's strongest unit this fall. Eric Gordon recorded a scrimmage-best nine tackles, while Greg Jones added eight, including two for loss. Jon Misch had 2.5 tackles for loss and a quarterback hurry, and Chris Norman had six tackles and a pass breakup. "The linebackers were very active," coach Mark Dantonio said.
  • Wide receiver B.J. Cunningham is having a very strong camp, and he continued it Saturday with five receptions for 67 yards, including a 30-yard touchdown from Kirk Cousins. Cousins and Cunningham hooked up for two touchdowns in the team's first fall scrimmage. It's a pretty crowded mix at receiver, but Cunningham has put himself in a great position.
MINNESOTA

Minnesota held an open scrimmage Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium, and you can read all about it here, here and here.

Quick hitters
  • Minnesota's first-string offensive line stepped up nicely in the scrimmage, keeping quarterback Adam Weber safe and allowing him to complete 7 of 9 passes for 70 yards and two touchdowns. There was, however, a significant drop-off when the second- and third-team offensive linemen entered the scrimmage. "I didn't feel like some of the [second and third team] took advantage of the opportunity to go play today," coach Tim Brewster told the (St. Paul) Pioneer Press.
  • Freshman running back Donnell Kirkwood has put himself in the mix for carries this fall alongside Duane Bennett and DeLeon Eskridge. Kirkwood had 19 carries in Saturday's scrimmage with a long run of 14 yards. Offensive coordinator Jeff Horton praised Kirkwood when we talked a few weeks ago.
  • MarQueis Gray is still getting reps as a reserve quarterback, but it's coming clear his primary role this fall will be at wide receiver, as long as Weber stays healthy. Gray seems to be embracing the change, and his big frame could really help the Gophers after the loss of Eric Decker. "I am pretty sure I can find a hole somewhere to catch the ball and get upfield for Weber when he throws it to me," he told the Star Tribune.
NORTHWESTERN

The Wildcats ended their off-campus training in Kenosha, Wis., with an open scrimmage. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald held out a large group of starters on both sides, so second- and third-teamers got most of the work. Recaps can be found here and here.

Quick hitters
  • Freshman receiver Venric Mark will make an immediate impact this fall, especially for Northwestern's middling return teams. Mark had an excellent scrimmage, recording a 28-yard touchdown catch and breaking off several big returns. Generously listed at 5-8 and 165 pounds, Mark also threw a block that helped classmate Adonis Smith reach the end zone.
  • A battle could be brewing at backup quarterback. As starter Dan Persa watched from the sideline, true freshman Trevor Siemian completed 10 of 13 passes for 112 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Siemian could push redshirt freshman Evan Watkins, who completed only four of seven passes.
  • Freshman defensive end Will Hampton could work his way into the rotation this fall. Hampton recorded a tackle for loss in the scrimmage.
OHIO STATE

Ohio State held its jersey scrimmage Saturday at Ohio Stadium, as the offense prevailed 54-48 after 130-140 plays. The scrimmage was open to the media, and you can find recaps here, here and here.

Quick hitters
  • Quarterback Terrelle Pryor had a so-so day, although he wore a no-contact jersey and couldn't be the running threat he'll be after Sept. 4. Pryor completed only 10 of 24 pass attempts but did fire a 25-yard touchdown strike to Taurian Washington, considered the front-runner for the No. 3 wide receiver spot. He also found tight end Jake Stoneburner for a 25-yard gain and nearly threw an interception in the end zone.
  • Andrew Sweat appears to have a slight edge on Etienne Sabino for the third starting linebacker spot. Sabino entered camp as the favorite to start, but Sweat logged more time with the first-team defense Saturday and recovered a Brandon Saine fumble.
  • Coach Jim Tressel said he hopes to get defensive end Nathan Williams (knee) back by the Sept. 2 opener against Marshall. Meanwhile, several young defensive linemen stood out Saturday. Redshirt freshman Adam Bellamy recorded three sacks and true freshman Johnathan Hankins added one.
WISCONSIN

The Badgers scrimmaged Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium. The session was open to the media, and you can read all about it here and here.
  • Wisconsin's offense moved the ball decently but struggled to finish drives, as Antonio Fenelus picked off a Scott Tolzien pass and safety Aaron Henry broke up a pass in the end zone. It was a theme throughout the scrimmage. There's little doubt Wisconsin can control the clock and keep moving the chains with its balanced attack, but it must execute in the red zone.
  • Freshman running back James White had a good day and could push Zach Brown for the No. 3 spot on the depth chart. White had runs of 29, 26 and 22 yards, the last for a touchdown, in the scrimmage. Starting tailback John Clay, by the way, had 11 carries for 51 yards.
  • Backup quarterback Jon Budmayr had a tough scrimmage, going 0-for-9 passing on his first three series with two near interceptions. He finished 9-for-27 for 107 yards for a touchdown and an interception. Wisconsin really can't lose Tolzien and would get a big boost if Curt Phillips can return from his knee injury early in the season.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Northwestern media day has come and gone, and I learned that at least one Big Ten coach (Pat Fitzgerald) has read the blog. Only 10 more to go.

The schedule is shaping up a bit for next week. I'll be spending Wednesday at Camp Rantoul with the Illinois Fighting Illini, before heading over to Purdue for media day on Thursday. There could also be some surprises along the way.

Here's your daily diet of links:

  • If you're just waking up, Ohio State defensive backs Donald Washington and Jamario O'Neal have been suspended for the first two games of the season. Not a major blow, given that they'll be back for USC, but it could shake up the dynamic in the secondary.
  • Oh, and some guy named Terrelle Pryor spoke with reporters at Ohio State media day. He was a pretty popular man, Paul Schofield writes in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Items of note: Pryor rooms with starting quarterback Todd Boeckman, gets a lot of reps in practice and likes hanging out with the older players.
  • More on Ohio State media day from The Columbus Dispatch's Buckeye Blog. Left tackle Alex Boone knows how to roundup the linemen -- "If you're big and fat, let's go" -- a group that includes Michigan transfer Justin Boren. 
  • Wisconsin star tight end Travis Beckum sat out Thursday's practice with "tightness in his lower body," but it doesn't appear to be too serious, Jim Polzin writes in The Capital Times. Also, defensive lineman Brandon Hoey's career is over after lingering back problems.
  • The Badgers seem pretty solid at outside linebacker, but the middle is a concern. Enter Jaevery McFadden, who could unseat incumbent Elijah Hodge for the job, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Jeff Potrykus writes in the Badgers Blog.
  • Indiana quarterback Kellen Lewis practiced with the third-team offense on Thursday, The Hoosier Scoop blog reports. Wow. He's really going to have to earn his way back.
  • Apparently Akron doesn't like its chances to upset Wisconsin on Aug. 30. The school gave back some of its allotted tickets, so get 'em while they're available.
  • Strong defense is a given at Penn State, but a strong season hinges on whether the offense can make up ground, Jeff Rice writes in the Centre Daily Times.
"Penn State has scored a total of six points in its last two trips to Camp Randall Stadium, where it faces Wisconsin on Oct. 11. It has scored a total of 23 points in its last three visits to Ohio Stadium, where it will face the Buckeyes on Oct. 25."

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