CHAMPAIGN – Once was enough. Twice got Jonathan Brown kicked out of practice.
The Illinois sophomore linebacker received an early exit from Saturday’s scrimmage when he took a swing at a teammate, the second on-the-field skirmish for Brown this spring.
“It happened in the Michigan State game (last fall),” Illinois coach Ron Zook said. “It happened another time out here this spring. You got to learn. We got to correct it. Otherwise, he’s not going to be in there anyway.”
After a promising freshman season, Brown – one of the most natural and instinctual linebackers on the Illini roster – came into the spring as a likely starter despite a nagging ankle injury. But Brown may slide down the depth chart following a few tussles with teammates and the emergence of redshirt Houston Bates.
“What he fooled around and did is lost his position,” Zook said. “That’s what happens. Houston Bates comes out here and took his position. That’s fine with me. Now, he’ll have to fight his way to get it back.”
While Brown has brought Zook and his staff headaches, Bates has been a pleasant surprise. The Louisiana native is inexperienced but has impressed coaches with his motor. Bates forced a fumble and collected consecutive sacks near the close of the scrimmage.
“Houston plays really, really hard,” Illini defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said. “That’s just a great example of if you go really hard you may not always be right, but if you go really hard, you’re going to make an impact.”
Added Zook: “Houston Bates was probably the guy to me that showed up the most. I think he’s probably worked himself into the position where he’s going to play an awful lot of football.”
Spring practice #6 notes:
- The Illini scrimmaged in front of a small contingent of fans for most of the two-hour practice session at Memorial Stadium on Saturday. Backup quarterback Miles Osei wore a blue jersey, opening him up to hits from the defense – and he took a few jarring jolts. Starter Nathan Scheelhaase wore the red non-contact jersey and will wear it until he takes the field against Arkansas State on Sept. 3. “Probably a bit more (hits on Osei than we wanted) at times, but he did a good job. It makes a big difference for those guys. Even Nathan wanted to do it, but obviously you’re not going to let Nathan do it.”
- The passing game struggled, but even without starting running back Jason Ford (knee) and fullback Jay Prosch (illness in his family), the Illini rushing attack tore into the defense. Troy Pollard had a few long carries, as did both quarterbacks. The Illinois offensive line is expected to be a team strength and has proved as much this spring. “The offense was gashing the defense running the football,” Zook said. “I thought he tackled a little bit better than what you normally do in the first scrimmage, but way too many big runs, which is good for the offense and bad for the defense.”
- Redshirt freshman Michael Heitz repped with the first-string offense. The Vermont, Ill., native is competing with classmate Simon Cvijanovic for the starting job this spring, while Corey Lewis continues to recover from a knee injury. “Michael’s getting better. Him and Simon both are competing for that position,” Zook said. “I don’t know if any of them have the edge. Don’t put a lot into who’s out there first right now.”
- Coaches rarely come away from an intrasquad scrimmage happy because one side’s success is tempered by the other’s failures. On Saturday, offensive coordinator Paul Petrino left the field in a better mood than defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, who is looking for an on-the-field leader after the departures of NFL prospects Corey Liuget and Martez Wilson. “We didn’t have the leadership to say, ‘Let’s step it up and be great,’” Koenning said. “It doesn’t need to come from me.”
- Koenning has a few possible leaders in mind: senior linebacker Ian Thomas and junior defensive ends Whitney Mercilus and Michael Buchanan. “If they want to lead by their mouth, you got to back it up,” Koenning said. “I’d rather have their actions speak louder than anything they say. Right now, we got to get some guys to step up and be tough guys. Just be tough. ‘Come on. You go as fast as hard as I do.’ That’s what we need.”
- Converted offensive lineman Craig Wilson did give Koenning something to be happy about. Early in the scrimmage, the 6-foot-5, 320-pound defensive tackle – who’s further along in his development than coaches expected – followed a tackle for loss with a batted pass at the line of scrimmage. “Thank goodness we got him,” Koenning said. “He’s going to be a guy that penetrates and clogs the middle. Eventually, he’ll learn to get off blocks and make tackles. We’re not to that point yet. But you know what, I raised – or my wife raised, I should say – three boys, but what I remember of it, they had to crawl before they could walk and they had to walk before they could run.”