Texas Bowl preparations allowed Illinois to have 15 extra practices. That is equivalent to spring ball, and Petrino says Illini took advantage.
"No question. I kind of thought that all along. We made great improvement. Obviously, you could see where Nate (Nathan Scheelhaase) made huge improvement, starting off the game 13 for 13. Anytime you can get those extra practices, that helps you a ton."
"Darius, Ryan and Evan, all three of those young freshmen made big plays, so that's great. Anytime that can happen, I think that builds great momentum in the off season. They're all working real hard right now."
Scheelhaase scored the final touchdown of the Texas Bowl on a naked reverse where no Baylor player was anywhere near to him. The Baylor head coach appeared distressed about it, but Petrino did not call that play specifically at that time.
"We'd been running a play about 15 times in the game before going into the last series. They didn't really adjust to our unbalanced set. So I told Nathan, 'Hey, if they do ever overshift everybody, you can keep it.' He had the freedom to do that.
"The call on that play was actually to hand it off, but we had given him the freedom going into the last two drives to take it himself. That is what they did. We're not out there to make friends. We've got to do what's best for the team."
Petrino is an aggressive play-caller. Ideally, he'd go for it every time on fourth down. And he will continue marching for touchdowns even with a sizeable lead; after all, that's what an offense does.
"The biggest thing you do, we tell the players our goal is to be the best offense in the country. That's what we're always gonna strive for as an offensive goal. Number two is to win the game. We all work hard every day at practice to be the very best. We've drawn that line in the sand; we're never gonna not go for it."
The Illini lost their star running back plus four other seniors from the offense to graduation, but Petrino believes it will be better this year.
"Every year we think we're gonna be better than the last year. With everyone understanding the offense more, and your quarterback coming back with a year under his belt, a lot of good experienced linemen, I think we've got a chance to be real good.
"We've just got to work hard. All that matters is today and tomorrow. Go out there and keep working hard, keep improving."
The returnees now know what to expect, so Petrino can add more of his offensive package than was possible last year with so many youngsters in their first seasons.
"No question. That kind of happened as the year went on. It all starts at quarterback. How much you do is how much your quarterback can handle. That will allow us to do a lot.
"I look for all those young guys to be way better, getting bigger and stronger. It's exciting to get out there."
Several factors conspired to limit the Illini passing game last fall, problems they are working to overcome this spring. Scheelhaase favored a couple receivers over the others, but he should be able to spread the ball around as he learns more about his younger receivers.
"No question. We tell the players all the time, their play is their resume. The more times you show in practice that you can make plays, the more they're gonna believe in you. I think right now Nathan feels really good about our crew of receivers."
Last spring, Petrino made the quarterbacks practice live at times, with the defense free to tackle them. He might be a little more cautious with his starter this spring since there are only two scholarship quarterbacks available.
"We'll try not to let them hit Nathan, but I don't see any reason we can't hit Miles (Osei). The best thing he does is running, and football is a game of contact.
"I got hit every day in practice. The more they hit, probably the less you're gonna get hurt. It will be the head coach's decision, but I'd be all for letting them hit Miles.
"You never know how they're really gonna play until they get hit. Anybody can play good when they're not gonna get hit. That's the only way you can evaluate them."
"Replacing Mikel will be big, but the good thing is, Jason got a ton of reps last year. He understands it, and I think he's really motivated right now and working hard. I expect him to have a great spring."
In part two, Petrino talks more in depth about his receiver corps. He shares his opinion of the freshmen receivers to arrive this summer in part three.