Grade the Illini here
Mikel Leshoure drew coach Ron Zook's ire after sitting out most of last week's scrimmage with a sore ankle. Were his 129 yards on 12 carries at Saturday's spring game enough to get him back in good graces?
"We'll see, man," Leshoure said. "Ain't no telling with Coach."
The Centennial product was especially strong on the second half of his Orange team's 24-6 win at Memorial Stadium. He scored a pair of touchdowns in the third quarter, the second on a 75-yard run up the middle in which he outran two defensive backs.
In the first half, he ran five times for 16 yards.
"I thought he ran the ball well in the second half," offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said. "I thought a couple times in the first half he could have hit it a little bit harder. I thought he did a nice job and that's got to be one of the things we do well."
Said Zook: "Believe it or not, I think Mikel, in his own way, has stepped up and shown some leadership."
In December, it didn't appear that A.J. Jenkins would be a part of the Illinois team after he asked for and received a release from his scholarship.
On Saturday, he caught six passes for 95 yards and is at peace with his decision not to transfer.
"It was very frustrating last year. I didn't feel comfortable being here (anymore) and Coach Zook has really been a good guidance for me. When I was going through that transition, he was very honest with me and let me get my release," Jenkins said. "When he hired Coach Petrino, I definitely had to take a second look at it. Coach Zook kept calling me over the break, Coach Petrino kept calling me over the break and coach (Dan) Disch called me over the break. I felt like they really needed me so I felt like I was being recruited again which felt good."
In the absence of Arrelious Benn, Jenkins looks like the front-runner to emerge as the Illini's go-to receiver. None of the other 10 players who caught passes on Saturday had more than 20 yards.
"I don't really look into all that, I'm just into hard work. I'm here to play ball," Jenkins said. "We have a lot of playmakers on the team. I would love to be the playmaker. If that's my role, then that's my role."
Jenkins and lineman Graham Pocic were named the most improved offensive players of the spring by Zook.
"I can't say enough about the spring that he's had. He's had a great spring, he really has," Zook said of Jenkins.
Indianapolis Colts cornerback Kelvin Hayden and New York Jets offensive lineman Brandon Moore served as honorary coaches for Saturday's game.
Moore, who played defensive tackle during his playing days at Illinois, hadn't been back to Champaign since 2006.
"Feels like home, feels good and I'm excited about being here," he said.
Moore was having a hard time keeping up with all the moves the Jets were making on draft weekend.
"I'm sitting there with Kelvin in the equipment room and we traded Leon Washington, Alan Faneca's gone. I got to get back home and I got my phone on the sideline checking the websites."
Moore is one of six Illinois offensive linemen active on NFL rosters. That number will grow to seven this fall with Jon Asamoah, who was drafted in the third round by the Chiefs on Friday.
"I remember the scouts used to always mention they were looking at him and that he's a good player," Moore said. "I'm glad it's working out for him, I'd definitely love to get into contact with him and just impart a little bit of wisdom, especially being an o-lineman and just help him out."
Hayden spent much of his time in town driving around campus.
"It's always good to get back. It brings back memories," he said. "I was driving around and seeing all the things that have changed. It's also a lot of memories that come back to you that you don't get when you're not here."
Hayden, who played receiver and corner at Illinois, liked that three Illinois players (Asamoah, Arrelious Benn and Michael Hoomanawanui) were selected in the NFL draft.
"It was great to see those guys have their dreams come true," said Hayden, a second-round pick in 2005. "Whether it's the first round or the last round, all you ask for is an opportunity and the opportunity those guys have is a blessing."
Also in attendance Saturday were New York Giants linebacker Danny Clark; former Rams, Titans and Chiefs running back Robert Holcombe; former Illini defensive lineman Rameel Connor; and former defensive back Asim Pleas.
Illinois defensive tackle Corey Liuget kept an eye on the draft this weekend. The Miami native is hopeful to join his former teammates in the NFL one day.
"It was a great feeling that I played with the guys and they're on the next level," he said. "It lets me know I'm not that far off and I just have to keep working like those guys and eventually I'll be there."
There were times Saturday when quarterback turned receiver Eddie McGee, a Washington, D.C. native, lined up behind center and to take a direct snap. The Illinois coaching staff calls it the D.C. package.
"I like that name, but Coach came up with it," McGee said. "It just feels good being back there behind center again. The whole package is just focused on bringing some versatility. I can still throw and I'm also a good runner. It's just a lot of different things I can do out of it that defenses might not be able to handle."
McGee made a one-handed catch across the middle in the spring game and caught two passes for 16 yards.
"I'm feeling pretty good out there," he said. "I'm just trying to make my stand on the receiver thing and just do the best that I can."
Linebacker Aaron Gress was named most improved on the defense. Jeff Allen (offense) and Justin Staples (defense) got the best effort awards.
Long snapper Zac Pedersen is the most improved walk-on. The faculty award for exemplary leadership in the community, classroom and on the field went to Nathan Scheelhaase and Clay Nurse.
St. Joseph-Ogden product Zach Becker got the chancellor's award for academic excellence. The fullback/tight end's 3.86 GPA in kinesiology is tops on the team.