UI football notes: 'We proved a point. ... We're coming to dominate'

UI football notes: 'We proved a point. ... We're coming to dominate'

CHAMPAIGN — The one constant during Lovie Smith's tenure as Illinois football coach has been his desire for the Illini defense to create turnovers. Three-plus takeaways is the goal. Heck, it's a team motto.

It's also a goal the Illinois defense hit just twice last season and only six times total so in Smith's 36 games at Illinois. Rutgers was the most common victim, turning the ball over 11 times in the last three years' worth of Big Ten matchups.

The Illinois defense hit that three-plus goal during Saturday's spring game at Memorial Stadium. Sean Coghlan, Nate Hobbs and Quan Martin each came up with an interception, with Coghlan and Hobbs turning them into a pick-six apiece. Deon Pate added a goal-line fumble recovery as Team Butkus defeated Team Grange 24-10.

Saturday "was really our first day getting multiple turnovers," Pate said.

Hobbs partially credited the improvements on defense this spring to the collective experience that group now has. The 6-foot, 185-pound cornerback has 17 starts through his first two seasons.

A change in mindset, Hobbs added, has made a difference, too.

"I think (Saturday) we proved a point that we're tough and that we can come to play," he said. "We're not just coming to play. We're coming to dominate.

"Every day we practice, but it's not quite like this. (Saturday) was the first game-like simulation — moving the chains and staying in the whole drive. ... Sometimes we didn't even have to stay on the field. We could just get a turnover and end it right there."A good day for the Illinois defense Saturday meant struggles for the Illini offense. The script has flipped in the last few days, according to offensive coordinator Rod Smith.

"We pretty much handled them the first couple weeks of spring," Smith said. "They've handled us the last couple days. Now, once again, we're playing touch football. I'd like to see it on regular because I'm competitive. That's my nature. But it should go back and forth. If it's always one-sided, then you've got reason for concern."

Smith didn't seen many positives from his offense in the spring game, and that wasn't specific to one position. He saw plenty of room for improvement from several groups.

The format of the spring game also didn't help matters, in Smith's opinion.

"It's hard to get anything generated when you can't really run the football when you're playing touch," Smith said. Illinois' first-string offense and defense didn't tackle fully to the ground.

"It's hard to get into a rhythm," Smith continued. "That was disappointing, but at the same time you've got to be able to pitch and catch and throw the football at times. We did it once in a while, but we didn't get ourself into a rhythm."Illinois was thin at a couple positions Saturday because of injuries. The wide receiver group was down Edwin Carter (out all spring) and Jordan Holmes (newly in a boot), while Ra'Von Bonner joined Mike Epstein (also out all spring) among the running backs missing.

Defensive end was also thin. Owen Carney and Isaiah Gay have missed all of the spring practices, and Pate was moved from defensive tackle to defensive end on Saturday.

"When I was in high school I was naturally a (defensive end), but I came up here and gained a couple pounds," said Pate, who arrived at Illinois at 6-3 and 245 pounds and is now listed at 280.

"I feel like I can fit any spot on the field," Pate continued. "This spring has gone pretty good, but I've got a couple of things I can work on — just my footwork, shedding (blocks) and reading my keys."Bonner sidelined meant a bigger opportunity for rising sophomore running back Jakari Norwood. He had one of the biggest plays of the spring game with a 52-yard touchdown run in the second half.

"When we made the play call, I knew we had a shot at that thing busting because of the alignment of the defense and what we thought we could get out of it," Smith said. "Sure enough, it kind of came out the way we thought it would. Jakari just took it to the house.

"He's got legitimate speed, and he's got big-play ability. Any time he gets a crease — gets a lane like that — he's got a chance to do big things with it."

Norwood had five carries for 29 yards last season as a true freshman. Playing in just three games, though, meant he was able to redshirt behind Reggie Corbin, Dre Brown, Bonner and Epstein.

"Patience is key with everything," Norwood said. "I just have patience and wait on my turn. ... Being around Reggie and Dre and Ra'Von, they've taught me a lot of things."Caleb Griffin scored the first points of Saturday's spring game with an early 29-yard field goal.

The Danville graduate added a 48-yarder before the end of the first half, too.

"It felt really good getting out there for the first time like it's meaningful," said Griffin, who redshirted in 2018 as a true freshman behind Big Ten Kicker of the Year Chase McLaughlin.

"I've had a good three weeks, in my opinion, of spring ball, and I'm hoping to keep it going for this last week and finish off strong," Griffin continued. "Then I've got to work in the summer and be ready for fall camp."

Griffin is battling James McCourt to replace McLaughlin.

"We're both making kicks," Griffin said. "We're both missing a few — not many — but we're both making most of our kicks. That's awesome to see. That's competition."Scott Richey