Spring game notebook
Listen to Saturday's spring game here.
Read Bob Asmussen's in-game blog here.
Beat writer Bob Asmussen's news and notes from Saturday's spring game
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His numbers Saturday weren't overwhelming. Three catches for 17 yards and one run for 2. But there's no doubting Arrelious Benn's impact on the team during the spring.
The junior-to-be has taken more leadership responsibilities. He's determined to avoid a repeat of the 5-7 2008 season.
"It's all about winning," Benn said. "No matter how we get it done, as long as we've got more points than the opposing team."
The attitude of the team is different, Benn said.
"Being home during the bowl season hurt," Benn said. "We had a great team last year, we just didn't get the little things done to put us in a position where we need to be. A lot of guys are hungry."
Benn had a little fun before Saturday's game, slipping into the Blue huddle while wearing an Orange team jersey. He was quickly shooed away.
After Saturday's spring game, Benn was eager to get to a television to see who picked teammate Vontae Davis. Miami took the Illinois cornerback with the 25th pick in the first round.
"I talked to him (Friday) night," Benn said. "He couldn't sleep because he was so anxious for today."
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The four Illinois tailbacks each had at least seven carries Saturday. And none of the four had more than 10.
"I don't think that you have to have one guy," Illinois coach Ron Zook said. "If one guy separates himself, great. You need everybody and you need them all."
Zook will get no arguments from the competing players. Mikel Leshoure, Jason Ford, Daniel Dufrene and Troy Pollard all expect to play during the 2009 season.
"The rotation is going to change probably every game," Leshoure said. "The only thing different with the starter is he'll be on the field first and he'll probably take the first series. Other than that, it's not really a big deal."
Both Ford and Leshoure have improved physically since the 2008 season. Leshoure dropped 10 pounds, which stopped the rumors about him moving to linebacker or fullback.
"You hear a lot of negative stuff all the time," Leshoure said. "That doesn't get to me. I played linebacker before. It was fun. But I like to run the ball and score touchdowns."
Leshoure scored the first touchdown of the game, pounding his way in from the 3.
Though they are competing for playing time, Ford and Leshoure are friends.
"We're real cool," Leshoure said.
That's the way it will be with incoming tailbacks Bud Golden and Justin Green. Leshoure served as Golden's host during his official recruiting visit.
"Competition will only make you better," Leshoure said. "If I was scared of it, I wouldn't have even come to D-I football."
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In his first game as a middle linebacker, Martez Wilson was second on the Blue team with six tackles. He also broke up a pass.
Wilson has been getting advice from former Illini middle linebackers J Leman and Brit Miller.
"They just tell me to stay in that film room, watch film with Coach (Dan) Disch," Wilson said. "Just know the position more than anything."
His teammates see improvement.
"He seems like a different person from what he was the previous two years," Benn said. "He's playing faster and he's wanting to do it more. He's going to come out and lead the defense this year.
"He's doing all the little things that he needs to do to get better."
What was considered an experimental move earlier in the spring is now looking permanent.
"That's probably where he's going to end up," Zook said. "The (middle) linebacker as we know it is a little bit different than it was back in the day when people lined up with two running backs. He can hold his own in there against any of the linemen. He can run and make plays. You don't have to worry about matchups with pass coverage."
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Chris Duvalt closed his final spring at Illinois with a team-high five catches and a touchdown.
"That was very fun," Duvalt said. "This is my last go-around. Why not make it my best go-around? I'm trying to make everybody around me better and make myself better also."
The converted cornerback doesn't think there are too many receivers.
"All of us can play," Duvalt said.
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Backup linebacker Evan Frierson had the only interception in the game, picking off a deflected Juice Williams pass in the second quarter. The interception came one play after the Blue team had recovered Jeff Cumberland's fumble.
"At the time, our team was down and we needed a pick," Frierson said. "I always like to be around the ball. I like to run and hit."
The redshirt freshman said the linebackers played well during the spring session.
"I think we answered a lot of questions," Frierson said. "Coming into the spring, everybody was doubting us, saying we were going to be such a young unit. We are all just trying to make each other better."
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The winner of the Illinois-Northwestern game will now win the Land of Lincoln Trophy. The new trophy replaces the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk, which has been retired by the schools.
Fans of both schools were given a chance to vote in an online poll. The design of the new trophy will be decided later but likely will include some version of Abraham Lincoln's stovepipe hat.
"To be certain, we are very excited to introduce the Land of Lincoln Trophy as our series rivalry prize," said Northwestern athletic director and Illinois alum Jim Phillips. "Northwestern versus Illinois is always a highly anticipated football game for our student-athletes and fans. The new trophy is symbolic for our great state and the two proud Big Ten institutions that reside in it."
Zook said he hasn't had much time to think about the new trophy.
"It's kind of like the Chief issue," Zook said. "I'm just a football coach and I'm just going to keep on keeping on."
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Junior defensive end Jerry Brown had two sacks. The coaches aren't sure what kind of an impact Brown will have in 2009, Zook said.
"When he's not in the academic study hall, he's had a good spring," Zook said. "We all know he's talented. It's a little (premature) to get too high on Jerry right now because he's got some academic issues he's got to get cleaned up."