Chip Long had precious little opportunity to relax into his position and learn about his players before he was thrust into his first season on the Illinois staff. To say his life was hectic is an understatement. After a year in the system, Long is much more relaxed.
"It's been a lot of fun. There's a complete year with your group. When I came in, I had a week and a half before we started Rantoul. It's been great working with them for a year.
"I couldn't ask for a better group. The two young kids are joining in. It's really a dynamic group with a lot of combinations. It's real exciting."
Long helped develop newcomer Evan Wilson into an effective tight end last fall, and walkon Eddie Viliunas became reliable as a second blocker. They weren't able to help the passing game as much as the UI wants, but that improved as the season went along also.
Freshman Jay Prosch came in from Alabama to shore up the fullback position. The Illini hadn't recruited fullbacks when they used a spread offense, but the pro-style approach now implemented needs a blocking back. Prosch went from an unknown to a powerhouse in one short season.
This year, senior Zach Becker rejoins the group after 18 months of inactivity from stress fractures in both feet. And new freshmen Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse bring athleticism and great potential. From a position of weakness in 2010, Long now functions from a position of strength. Everyone benefits from the competition for playing time.
"That's one good thing. Last year, Evan and Jay came in to add competition. Now these two come in. Everyone's had to elevate their game."
Long is pleased how well they all help one another.
"Absolutely. You don't have one bad person in that room. They all pull for each other, and they all want to win. That's great. That's why they're so much fun to coach."
Davis and LaCosse were the talk of Camp Rantoul. Long elaborates on their situation.
"They just need to keep getting better and better. Keep learning. They still have a ways to go, but their talent there is unmatched. They have a gear that you don't see very much. Both guys do things well, but they both do different things very well. It will present a lot of mismatches.
"They're still learning the position. One was a running back, the other was a quarterback, so they never really played the position. So it's just stance and alignment. But they're really bright kids, and they've come a long way. They can make plays.
"Right now, I've got to be careful with this package so they can do things they do well. They're gonna be tight ends. They're obviously talented receivers. But they're gonna be great run blockers and field stretchers as well. They're gonna be two good players.
"It takes time, especially when you've never played the position. But they're learning; they work really, really hard. At least they're tough. They're willing to do it. It's exciting to see them progress."
Including squadman Justin Lattimore, there are now six players who can help at tight end. Prosch and Chris Willet play fullback, with Becker also capable of helping there. How they are all utilized depends on what Long can learn about each one by game time. He wants to keep his substitution patterns unpredictable, requiring blockers to be receivers and vice versa.
"Right now, we're just giving them a bunch of combinations to get a feeling with what they do best. I know what Evan, Eddie and Zach do real well. That's my job, to put them in position to do what they do best.
"The freshmen are getting better and better against the run, but we haven't been in practice long. I'm gonna get those kids where they keep having success, keep having success and keep building on things."
Long realizes the freshmen allow more creative play-calling because they can stretch defenses with their pass routes. But how much they are used depends on their learning curve.
"They're good receivers already. Evan and Jay are good. They'd don't have that gear, but they have a year in the system and have played major college football.
"These young guys haven't. That's why you've got to be slow with them. You want to do what they do well, but you've got to gradually get them into the whole offense. There's a lot that hits you in the face when you've never played the position."
Do they figure to play as true freshmen?
"They'll have a package, there's no doubt about it."