Spring game notes: Neal thrives
CHAMPAIGN — Illinois lost a play-making linebacker with Jonathan Brown's departure.
Perhaps they have found a new one.
T.J. Neal left a solid impression on his teammates and coaches after Saturday's spring game.
Neal finished with six tackles, including two for loss, on the victorious Blue squad.
"It was probably his best practice of the spring (Saturday)," STAR Earnest Thomas said. "He really showed what he's been trying to do each and every day."
Defensive coordinator Tim Banks agreed.
"We're very excited about T.J.," Banks said. "I know he didn't play as much as he wanted to play last year, but that didn't deter him. He picked up where he left off as far as the preparation. He's really had a productive spring."
V'Angelo Bentley accomplished a feat Illinois didn't perform last season.
Return an interception for a touchdown.
The cornerback intercepted a pass from Chayce Crouch in the second quarter and ran 89 yards for a score to put the Blue ahead 21-7 with 4:36 left in the first half.
"It was a Cover 4 call," Bentley said. "I could have pressed, but I played off just because it was third-and-13. There's no need to press there. I just played my technique. I jumped it, and I tried to get to the end zone as fast as I could."
Thomas was one of the Blue team captains in charge of selecting his team.
He was satisfied after Saturday's game since he leaves Illinois with a perfect record in spring games.
"It's sweet. It is," Thomas said with a smile. "That's what I was thinking about all week. I didn't want to lose my last spring game."
Thomas said the feeling of his final spring practice now in the past hasn't completely sunk in. For a simple reason.
"Because we've still got a long offseason," he said with a laugh. "We went through these 15 practices, and now it's just flipping that switch to get back in the weight room and get better with summer workouts."
Donovonn Young hobbled off after a run in the first half.
The running back favored his right ankle, but made it back onto the field later in the game.
One intriguing offensive talent this spring who didn't get the chance to play much on Saturday was wide receiver Mikey Dudek.
The true freshman and early enrollee from Neuqua Valley tweaked his hamstring at Thursday night's practice.
He didn't contribute much on Saturday and spent most of his time watching on the sidelines after the first Orange series.
"He came up to me and he tried to go," Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said. "He was really upset. That kid's a competitor. That's what's going to make him a good player."
Illinois didn't have the services of LEO Dawaune Smoot (elbow) on Saturday.
The Illini coaching staff have liked what they have seen from Smoot this spring in the role of a possible pass-rushing threat.
Illinois compiled seven "sacks" on the day, with Kenny Nelson and Paul James each having two would-be sacks since Illinois defenders couldn't hit the quarterbacks.
Illinois coach Tim Beckman still wants to see more out of his defensive line, a position of concern last year, and James in particular.
James missed the first nine practices this spring because of academic issues.
"We've got to be able to create some more edge pressure," Beckman said. "Rep-wise and getting back in shape, (James) has made strides to get himself better. This summer is going to be crucial for him because he's got to be a factor for us."
The pass wasn't necessarily intended for Kevin Carroll.
But the walk-on wide receiver and St. Thomas More product was more than happy to find himself on the receiving end of the first touchdown of the game.
Carroll — the first STM alum to play football at Illinois — caught a 10-yard pass from Reilly O'Toole in the back left corner of the end zone to give the Blue team a 7-0 lead after the first series of the game.
"That was pretty awesome," said Carroll, who didn't record another catch. "I'm from Champaign, obviously, and I'm a townie, but it was awesome to score that first touchdown with my friends and family here. I've been dreaming about that since I was 4 years old."
Carroll redshirted last year. It isn't likely he will see the field much this season, but the 19-year-old, whose dad, Michael, played at Illinois from 1981-83, doesn't seem to mind.
He's enjoying his experience with the Illini.
"This is my family here," Carroll said. "I spend four-plus hours a day with these people, and they've just welcomed me in. It's been an amazing feeling. Ever since I was a little kid, I've been wanting to play football at the University of Illinois."
Illinois wore two number stickers — No. 14 and No. 40 — on its helmets during Saturday's game.
One was for Abe Woodson (No. 40), the former All-American running back who played at Illinois from 1954-56 before a solid NFL career with the San Francisco 49ers. Woodson, 79, died in February.
The other sticker was for Derwin Tucker, a defensive back at Illinois from 1975-78 who wore No. 14. Tucker, 57, died in January.
"We wanted to make sure that we honored them," Beckman said.
Simon Cvijnaovic has finished his last spring in an Illinois uniform.
The starting left tackle will keep tabs, however, on what future springs look like at Illinois.
His younger brother, Peter, just got done with his first one. Albeit in limited fashion.
A shoulder injury kept Peter — a fellow offensive lineman like his older brother — sidelined for the spring after he enrolled early.
"He knows that he has to stay in shape, and that he can't fall out of shape," Simon Cvijanovic said. "He's got to keep up on his footwork, and he's been asking me to help him out, so when he is ready to come back, he can jump right back into the rotation."