Defense dominates spring game

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Defense dominates spring game

James Beutjer courier staff

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Brian Ward’s newly implemented 4-3 defense showed early promise at the Bruce Craddock Memorial Spring Game at Hanson Field on Saturday.

Roughly 750 fans were in attendance to see the Western Illinois defense shine in a few scrimmage situations.

Even with it still being a relatively new scheme, the front four of the Leathernecks defense stood out to Western head coach Mark Hendrickson as the most improved aspect of the team.

“I’m very pleased on how all the defensive players picked it (the 4-3 alignment) up this spring,” Hendrickson said. “But the area I think improved the most was the defensive line. We went to a new front with four down linemen.  Dwight Harris, Delector Durley, Chip and Eddy Holtschalg are very good defensive ends.

“Those guys came a long way with Jake Sprague, our new defensive line coach,” he added.

Next fall, the Leathernecks will have 15 returning starters, 40 letter-winners and have a bevy of new coaches. In 2012, Western will be warranted by a newly acquired mindset. The first objective was the set goal of achieving spring progress, according to Hendrickson.

“We stressed to our team that each practice needs to count, and this was practice 15, our spring game, and it was another step in the right direction,” Hendrickson said. “One of the first things to hit me overall, how ever many live (11-on-11) reps we had all throughout spring, the offense didn’t have a ball security error at any time. We took care of the ball very well, and that’s a big plus. On the other side of it, we want the defense to take the ball away.

“We used three different centers throughout the spring and two different quarterbacks, and to have the QB center exchange down pat, that went very well.”

Junior quarterbacks Josh Hudson and Wil Lunt were even more optimistic when asked about what this team could achieve.

“We just have to keep working hard, we have a good team here,” Hudson said. “I know I can speak for all these guys when I say, anything less than a conference championship would be a disappointment.”

Lunt agreed with Hudson, and said he knows what it will take to have a successful season. “Hard work, and lot’s of it,” Lunt said. “We had a great winter, now add in a great spring, to go with a different, much better mindset. But we’re just going to have to continue to work harder so we can improve and be ready to go by August.”

On a football “climate-perfect” afternoon, the Leathernecks got the scrimmage rolling with a variety of position-based drills that were soon followed up by a few series of 7 on 7, or pass skeleton. The next action to transpire showcased an 11 on 11 thud scrimmage. “Thud ball” is full contact line play with no tackling allowed. Thud featured a situational 3rd down and seven series that saw the offensive starting near midfield, some special teams, coupled with several series that began from the offense’s thirty-yard line. The scrimmage was wrapped with five series that included over 20 live-tackle plays.

During one thud drive series, the white jersey offense converted three consecutive 3rd and longs, with all of them being done so through the air. Senior tight end Alie Walker had two of those catches, with one of those resulting in a 7-yard touchdown. Senior wide receiver Charles Chestnut hauled in the third on a seam route, which netted 25 yards. Sophomore running backs Nikko Watson and Jason Stigler provided some early excitement for the ground game that showcased their “hard-running” styles. Watson received the majority of the workload in live-action, where he was able to tally 37 yards on 9 carries — averaging 4.1 yards per carry. Stigler carried the ball just three times for minimal yardage.

The defensive unit’s success in thud came from defensive ends Delector Durley Jr., Jimmy Holtschlag, and linebacker Luke Venegoni, who each recorded a sack.  During the special team portion of the scrimmage, junior kicker Pat Smith converted all of his eight field goal attempts from both the left and right hash, on kicks that ranged from 27 to 37 yards out.

However, the early success the offense unit experienced in thud shifted over to the defense once live-tackle began. The first and second team defensive units allowed only one first down over the course of the first three series. Their live-tackle series total was four stops out of five.  Durley Jr. was credited with a sack, coupled with some nice tackles made by linebackers Ryan Carr, Theon Dixon and JJ Raffelson. Cornerback Jonathan Rollins came away with what was probably the biggest hit of the scrimmage.

It wasn’t until the fourth live-action series that the offense would provide those in attendance with some airmail fireworks. On a second and eight from the purple team’s 44 yard-line, Lunt connected with a wide-open Chestnut on a play-action post route, for the white team’s first and only score in live action.  

The margin of competition for the starting quarterback position that pits Hudson against Lunt didn’t widen after this spring game, it narrowed.

“The quarterback race is on; it’s wide open, and we’ll add two freshman in the fall and see what happens,” Hendrickson said.

“The competition has been narrow all the time, and it became even tighter. The race is on…they both improved during the spring, and both of those guys became better quarterbacks.”

Western opens fall camp in the first week of August, and will begin their 2012 football campaign at Hanson Field on Thursday, Aug. 30 against Butler.

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