Illini defense showing signs of life

Illinois' Football Scrimmage (2:49)

Highlights from Illinois' football scrimmage at Memorial Stadium on Saturday (2:49)

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Illinois defensive coordinator Vic Koenning couldn’t describe himself as being truly happy over his side’s play during Saturday’s scrimmage, but he could confirm that his mood had improved from a week ago.

After taking its lumps during last week’s scrimmage, the Illini’s defense showed signs of life Saturday as it put some pressure on the quarterbacks, broke up a couple pass plays, made a few tackles for a loss and forced a handful of turnovers during the two-hour scrimmage at Memorial Stadium.

“I’m not ticked off,” Koenning said. “I just think we have to continue to improve.

“I’m trying to do my best to be a positive influence. You sure can coach a guy hard if you tell him you love him. I’ll tell you what I’ve told probably 20 guys in the last three hours that I love them. We’re going to coach them with love. We’re going to coach them hard.”

It’s a mentality senior defensive lineman Clay Nurse has welcomed.

“I don’t think there’s any making coach Koenning happy unless it’s a perfect game,” Nurse said. “That’s great. That’s what you want from your coach. He’s not satisfied with anything.”

Junior linebacker Martez Wilson was among the defensive players who impressed on Saturday. He was constantly around the ball, sacked first-team quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and recovered a fumble in end zone for a touchdown.

Defensive backs Trulon Henry and Miami Thomas each had one interception.

“It was a step forward,” Nurse said. “We got a few turnovers. We made a few more plays. We got a couple more sacks. It’s a step forward.”

Illinois coach Ron Zook was pleased as well.

“I thought the first defense played extremely well,” Zook said. “I thought both first groups played very well.”

Change of scenery: Saturday’s scrimmage was schedule to be held in Rantoul, Ill., but it was moved to Memorial Stadium due to rain.

Play of the day: Senior Eddie McGee is looking more and more like a true receiver every day.

McGee, a quarterback-turned-receiver, made the catch of the day on Saturday. With defensive back Miami Thomas standing in front of him in the end zone and quarterback Miles Osei’s pass underthrown, McGee leaped, reached over Thomas’ back, caught a portion of the ball and wrestled it away from Thomas for the touchdown.

Sharing the load: Junior running backs Jason Ford and Mikel Leshoure each gave the defense fits on Saturday.

Ford displayed his power as he ran over defenders and even carried some them with him. On a touchdown run late in the scrimmage, Ford dragged a handful of his teammates into the end zone with him.

Leshoure showed off his ability to find the open room. He scored late in the scrimmage on a run of about 50 yards when he broke outside and sprinted past the defenders. He also had a shorter touchdown run on the first-team offense’s second possession.

“We’re both power running backs,” Ford said. “Both us can break it. It’s still a competition, but we understand both us can come out and do the same thing.”

Not a fair fight: Redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase would prefer if he wasn’t wearing a red jersey during the scrimmages and could be hit like his other teammates.

He does understand why he’s protected, but it doesn’t mean he has to like it or accept the times when the defense is awarded sacks because it gets near him.

“No, I’ll never let [the defense] say they won when I have a red jersey on,” Scheelhaase said. “I hate that. I hate that with a passion. I can’t stand that. … But they played well. I thought they played better than last week. We both came out with great intensity. That’s the thing l liked about it. It’s more of a team chemistry.”