Paul Petrino is now in his second year as offensive coordinator at Illinois. Every returnee has now been in the new system for a year and has a better understanding of it. Petrino began to see the benefits of that experience this spring, although two top receivers and perhaps the best running back sat out most or all of spring.
"Overall I was happy with the spring. The biggest thing we wanted to improve on was the passing game, and we did that.
"Right now, I think our offensive line and Nathan (Scheelhaase) are both playing real well. When that's the case, you have a chance to be real good. We've just got to get a couple of those receivers back."
An improved passing game begins with quarterback. With a year under his belt, Scheelhaase understands the offense better and sees more openings in defenses. Petrino described his quarterback's Spring Game showing.
"Our first drive was impressive because he converted some third and mediums and longs. That's something where maybe we didn't do all the time last year. If we did, it was on quarterback runs. We converted passing game today. That was good to see.
"Those play-actions that he hit all spring, we didn't even put them in last year. When we threw play-action, we took him out."
Petrino devoted plenty of practice time to play-action this spring, and the difference was noticeable.
"There were some days where we threw a bunch of play-action down the field, which we wanted to get better at. We didn't do as much of that (for the Spring Game). The wind was blowing hard, and we didn't throw as many deep balls.
"But we really improved on that. Nathan's at a whole other level, for me to call plays. So that's a great thing to feel."
The running game was ineffective during the Spring Game. Seniors Jason Ford and Troy Pollard missed the action with injuries. In fact, Ford missed over half the spring. It made a position of strength into an uncertain one.
"At running back, we've got to get the young guys ready to play and everyone else healthy. Have them all battle and see who it is that's gonna make plays for us. I think there were more yards out there today than we got."
Ford ran extremely well the first week or so of spring, until a strain in the back of his knee ended his involvement. It would have better for everyone concerned if Ford had been able to secure the starting berth with consistent play the whole spring.
"I think you always want to know that. But the good thing is we've got a long pre-fall camp. It's not like you get two weeks and then you've got to go play a game. We'll have a bunch of hits and a bunch of scrimmages, so we'll have a good feel for what he can do."
Is there concern about Ford's frequent injuries?
"I think you always worry about someone who's been banged up a good bit. He's got four to five weeks to prove to me that he can. He's got to have a great summer, and then he can prove that in the pre-fall."
Pollard was having his best spring until dinged with a mild concussion. He may not be an every down back, but he could steal the spot with a good fall. Ean Days also showed some things when moved from defense.
"Troy had some great scrimmages. And thank God for Ean Days. He's a tough kid and gave us everything he had. He was all we had the last two scrimmages."
More than anything, injuries prevented Petrino from developing his offensive game strategies to their fullest. Ford has lost weight; what can he do now that he couldn't do before? Petrino must wait until fall to find out.
"We talk to them about the film is their resume. The biggest thing for me is, I've got to see what their best plays are, what they do best. That's probably the most disappointing thing for me, is not getting to call plays for him in a bunch of scrimmages to see what he does best. What I can count on in key situations.
"Right now, that position is wide open between the guys coming back and the freshmen coming in. If you want it, go get it. Rantoul will be real important. Someone should want it because there's some real good linemen blocking in front of them. Someone's gonna get them 1000 yards. I just don't know who it is yet.
"We're gonna run the ball well, there's no question about that. We've just got to find out who that main guy is gonna be."
What does the Illini offense need to improve the most for the 2011 season?
"Execution. Continue to understand the offense and getting all the little details down. Doing exactly what you're supposed to do on every single play. We expect perfection. We want it on every play. If we don't get it, we're not gonna be happy."
Petrino is an energetic, fiery coach. His dad, a long-time coach at Carroll College in Montana, visited spring practices with his wife for a week or two. One might have thought Petrino would calm his rhetoric or somehow behave differently with his mom and dad watching. If anything, the younger Petrino became more intense.
"I coach every day like he was here. I fly around and work hard like he was watching me. I always think he's here. I always wanted to do my best for him. Everybody has someone they want to do their best for, and that's certainly who it is for me.
"He tells me things, but he doesn't do as much now as he used to. He definitely tells you things that you can improve on. I just say, 'Yes sir,' and go back and check. He's usually right."
Petrino will give his best every hour of every day. If his players do the same, the Illinois offense should be potent this fall.