Second Year Brings Petrino Closer To Goals

Many Fighting Illini fans are excited about the potential of the offense in 2011, with good reason. There is plenty of experience plus exciting rookies. Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino is now in his second year, and he can expand on the offensive packages used in 2010. If everyone contributes, the offense can break season yardage and scoring records.

Paul Petrino is an energetic dynamo who demands perfection from his players. Now in his second year, he expects improvement over 2010.

"It's great. It's so much better. You kind of understand what everybody can do, and they understand what we expect. They can get through the whole practice.

"When we first got here, they'd die in the middle of it. There's a lot of things that are a lot better; you feel a lot more comfortable. Every day you're gonna get better or you're gonna get worse. Every day we want to improve.

"We averaged a lot more points in the last seven games than we did the first six games. We don't need to wait this year. We need to start right from day one and average that all year. That's just something that we expect. That's our goal, and that's what we're gonna go for."

The top two receivers missed spring ball with injuries, and the top two running backs missed the Spring Game with minor problems. Petrino is grateful to have them all back and playing well, and he's added some excellent freshmen. He wants to attack defenses from all angles, and he has plenty of choices to begin the season.

"It's nice to have more bullets out there than you did in the spring. With the new running backs, the new tight ends, the running backs that are here, the receivers that are here. The more bullets that you've got, the better."

Of course, fall camp is designed to mold this talent into a cohesive unit. No matter how good they get in daily workouts, Petrino pushes them to keep improving.

"It's a matter of those guys coming out and working hard every day and battling. If they prepare for practice every day, have a great attitude and have great effort, we have a chance to be really good. We just keep telling them preparation, attitude, effort. Preparation, attitude, effort.

"We've had two good recruiting classes in a row on the offensive side of the ball, so there's a lot more competition at all the spots right now. That's when you get good. Every week, you have to go out and prove it. If they're not proving it, they won't play that week."

A primary reason for optimism is the return of quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who learned much in his first year at the helm and is much improved.

"Quarterback being in the second year is real big. We put a lot of pressure on a quarterback. He makes all the checks at the line of scrimmage in a game, and the protections. Just mentally, he is so much sharper. It makes him feel more confident. He can go out there and play and not worry about making mistakes."

Petrino's creative mind is working overtime with all the possibilities.

"Right now, we're putting in all kinds of stuff. What we'll do in game plans, when we break it down as we go into a game, I think it will let us carry more stuff. Nathan will be able to handle more."

One concern last season was the passing game. With a year under his belt, Scheelhaase is now more confident in the pocket and can find secondary receivers.

"Nathan's arm strength is really improved. His accuracy has improved, and his quick release has improved. Every aspect of his passing has improved, we've just got to keep improving on it."

With a powerful offensive line anchored by four experienced lettermen, the Illinois ground game should be potent also. Add a running back corps featuring two quality seniors and two outstanding rookies, and Petrino looks forward to running the ball down opponents' throats.

"There's nothing better than competition. Competition beats coaching any day in the world. You can yell at them until they're blue in the face. If they know they're gonna play, they're not gonna change.

"But if they have a guy battling and competing with them, that's gonna pick their game up. It helps to have a couple guys to keep them fresh. That's how you wear down defenses the second half."

Jason Ford is in the best shape of his life. The pile-driver now has the quickness to beat people with his feet. The key for him will be staying healthy and hungry.

"I need to see him run downhill more violent, and then get up and do it again. Get up and do it again. Just wear the defense out.

"You can see signs of it. There were games last year where, in a series, he'd punish people even worse than Mikel (Leshoure) did at times. But the key is to do that over and over and over and over and be consistent, and then wake up the next morning and want to carry the ball 30 times that day."

With a bevy of receivers including A.J. Jenkins, Darius Millines, Spencer Harris and Ryan Lankford plus several excellent tight ends, some of whom can beat defenses deep, Petrino has a lot of options. He will not rest until they form the most efficient, dominant offense in the Big 10.

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