Illinois coach Tim Beckman begins spring ball Wednesday with an eager squad of conditioned athletes. They participated in highly competitive winter drills and found out about Beckman's expectations for them. Those that demonstrated consistent excellence the past couple of months were rewarded for their efforts.
"We just got done with our All-In banquet. Our first quarter of this year is done. The first quarter entails winter workouts. We had our All-In banquet for brunch after our workout was done.
"To be involved in this All-In Club, just do everything right. You've got to have 100% participation through winter workouts. Your position coach has to say he's done a great job with doing what he was supposed to do throughout winter workouts. The strength coach also talks about what you've done to make yourself a better Illini.
"If you were late to class, (you lost points). You're on Illini time, so if your class is at 9:00 am, and you are there at 8:52 am instead of 8:50 am, sorry. You're not in it. If you miss a rep in one of the workouts because your foot hurts, sorry. It's being 100% involved in everything you do.
"The one thing that we took out, we had a young man that had a death in his family. We let that go. Some of the things might have been tic-tac, but that's the game of football. We want to make sure we're performing at that level all the time.
"The guys that made the All-In Club ate eggs and steak, waffles, sheet cake and all that good stuff. The guys that did not make the All-In Club ate porridge. I think it was a little bit of an eye-opening experience for some of them.
"We asked our players to go above-and-beyond. Be 10 minutes early, be on Illini time. Sit in the first two rows of your class. Compete at a level that we think is a championship level.
"It was great to see that we had 21 individuals on this football team that made strides to get better, and we had a few that didn't. So they've got another quarter, and this next quarter will be spring football, where we'll compete and do the exact same things.
"We will hold our young men accountable on and off the football field to make the Illini program better. I expect that there will be more than 21, now that they understand that porridge isn't quite as good as steak and eggs."
Ironically, Beckman had to eat porridge.
"I didn't make the All-In Club because I had to go down and give a speech in Naples. I missed a meeting, so I had to eat the porridge too. I was speaking to the alumni, which is very important. But I didn't make it either.
"Half our coaches didn't make it because they were not in the top four of the team rankings (during winter workouts). We had eight teams, so four of them got to have steaks, and the other four had porridge.
"It's something we're going to do every quarter. Our next banquet will be on Memorial Day after spring ball. Again, they've got to be 100% in. So you'll either get to eat hot dogs, or you'll get to eat steaks. You'll either use silverware, or you'll use plastic. That's the way life is, so you need to be 100% if you want to receive the benefits."
Beckman is pleased with how hard his players have been working and adapting to new coaches and new schemes.
"I'm very proud of the way this team has performed. They practice hard, they work hard. That's a credit to Coach (Ron) Zook and his staff. It's just getting that mindset of being consistent, doing it consistently."
The first spring practice begins Wednesday afternoon. Beckman and his staff are looking forward to it.
"As a coaching staff, the excitement is there because we know that we get to do those things that we look forward to doing as a coach: teaching them the X's and O's and working football-specific drills on the football field with our football players. That will get started tomorrow morning at 7:30 am with meetings, and then we'll be on the football field that afternoon at 5:45 pm."
The Illini will use a variation of the Oklahoma Drill early every practice. Competition is the name of the game to Illini coaches.
"Right after stretches are over, we're going to have what we call 'Make-A-Play.' It's going to be one-on-one battles. It may be (Ryan) Lankford against (Terry) Hawthorne. One-on-one with (Miles) Osei throwing the ball and (Graham) Pocic blocking against (Akeem) Spence. Make a play or you don't make a play.
"So that's some of the things we do right after stretch. Everything that we do throughout practice is competition. These players understand that that's the game, being able to perform when your name is called."
Spring ball will likely not involve installing the entire playbook. Beckman wants every play to be practiced to perfection.
"To me, it's building a consistent level. It's not about 500 plays offensively or defensively. It's about putting in place the plays you know you're going to be able to run, and fine-tuning them each and every day. If it's three plays, make sure they're three perfect plays.
"We're going to teach them attention-to-detail concepts and make sure we can perform those three plays, offensively, defensively and special teams, to perfection. That to me is what wins football games. It's not about the number of things that you put in, but it's about the detail that you put those things in." Beckman and his staff will adapt their systems to the abilities of their players. So the Illinois offense may not be a true spread this season.
"I'm not going to bang my head on the table. We're not going to do it this way if we don't have the personnel to do it this way. It's going to be tailored around the people we have so that our players can be successful."
The quarterbacks have been involved in a great deal of preparation with the playbook up to now.
"They're allowed to meet with us the last four weeks. They've been working on football; football's a 12 month job. They've been studying themselves on tape, they've been studying opponents on tape, they've been doing things to make themselves better, on their own and with Coach (Chris) Beatty. That's the game of college football. You've got to work at getting yourself better every day."
Beckman has been working to develop leadership on the team. He mentions some players who have shown quality leadership.
"We had what we call the leadership lunches with every class to build leadership because I think it's so important for a football team to have that.
"Terry Hawthorne has had a great winter and has done some outstanding things. He was a member of the "All-In." All three of our quarterbacks (Nathan Scheelhaase, Reilly O'Toole and Miles Osei) have done an outstanding job. All three have done an outstanding job of leading. Now the challenge is doing it on the football field.
"Scheelhaase has been outstanding. I've been around football now going on my 23rd year, and he's a leader in every aspect on and off the football field. He does an outstanding job. But I also think Reilly does a fabulous job of leading. He just hasn't been around as long. I think Miles does a great job."
Scheelhaase has started the last two seasons, but his status is not guaranteed.
"It's an open position; every position is open. He will take the first snap because he's been our starter. But it's whoever is the most consistent. That's for any position."
Some other Illini upperclassmen were also singled out by their head coach.
"I'm proud of all the seniors. Terry has done a great job. Buchanan has done a great job. He didn't make the All-In club, but Mike has shown me being out front, being a leader. Steve Hull has done a great job.
"Ashante Williams is another one who stands out. Akeem Spence. All those guys that have been involved in this program and understand what being in a winter workout is all about. They have performed extremely well.
"I think we're an athletic group. I think our secondary has some athletes, I just wish we had a little bit more. But with those faces that are back that have played, you see a good nucleus of players. I think Jonathan Brown has done a good job. He's been there, he understands what it takes to be a Big 10 football player.
"Offensively, I think Ryan Lankford has done a good job. We don't have the depth at wide receiver that we'd like to have. Same as at running back, there's not the depth. When Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young are healthy, then there's no question they've got the capabilities. We've got to keep those young men healthy."
Young had another setback in the winter.
"Donovonn has been a little bit dinged up in his foot. He's not been involved in every workout that we've had. He'll be ready for spring of course, but we put him on the shelf for a week to two weeks to make sure his foot is doing better and progressing the way it needs to progress. He had a stress fracture in high school. That seemed to be bothering him a little bit in winter workouts."
There are only three running backs on the spring roster. Redshirt freshman Josh Ferguson and Ean Days will compete with Young. Ferguson lost his freshman year to injury, and a second injury slowed him during the winter. But Beckman appears to like what he sees.
"He's been doing good. Josh had a little bit of an issue with a shoulder at the beginning of winter, but he's back and full go. He's been outstanding the last three weeks."
Possibly the best fortified position is tight end. How do those players fit into a spread offense?
"We've got a lot of tight ends, and they've done an outstanding job. We're going to have to utilize those tight ends the best we see fit. We are going to play the 11 best who are the most consistent. If that means three tight ends are on the field, three tight ends are on the field. We can still do some other things in the philosophy of our offense."
The Illini need to fill a couple holes on the offensive line. Beckman mentioned Scott McDowell as impressing among five freshmen linemen. He has a couple multi-year starters he hopes will be anchors, but finding depth will be a major emphasis this spring.
"Hugh Thornton and Graham Pocic have had outstanding winter workouts; it's going to be a battle between (Ted) Karras and (Tyler) Sands at the other guard position; I think Michael Heitz has done a great job. I'd say right now, there's not a lot of depth. We look forward to when they put pads on and we can see how they look with pads on."
A couple weeks ago, Corey Lewis said he was in great shape and excited to be entering spring ball after two years sitting out with a damaged knee. Unfortunately, he may now be suffering still another reoccurrence.
"Corey is one of the down notes right now. Cory is in New York getting his knee looked at again. The same knee. We'll have to make a further call on that within the end of the week. He will not be in our practice tomorrow. We're checking to make sure the ACL is intact."
Buchanan has made a strong impression with Beckman. He played the Bandit position the last couple years, a linebacker/defensive end hybrid. It sounds like he will be playing a similar role this year, but his position is now called by another name.
"It's the Leo position. A Leo is basically an outside linebacker in the 3-4 defense. He can stand up and drop, or we can rush him. Then in the 4-3 defense, we can stick his hand on the ground, and he can come off the edge. Mike can really play both of them, the field side end or the Leo position."
Some of the special teams last fall performed poorly. Beckman was asked how important it was to make improvements in those areas.
"It's huge. Huge. We talked about this with our football team throughout winter workouts. Having a role on this football team, to make it a championship football team, we've got to make tremendous strides in special teams. That is something that will constantly be pushed in practice.
"One of our rules is, if you're going to be a starter on offense or defense, you're going to start on one special team also, except for quarterback."
Beckman described a similar reason for breakdowns in special teams as shared by the previous coaching regime.
"I think it's got a little bit to do with depth. The more depth you have, the stronger your special teams can be. We need to find a dynamic returner. That's something we're looking for.
"And then the consistency level of playing a freshman punter. We lose (Derek) Dimke, who is an outstanding asset to any program. So someone is going to have to step in and fill his shoes. Again, it's consistency and depth."
There is one primary solution to depth problems, both on special teams and elsewhere.
"You definitely build depth through recruiting, there's no question about it. It is a major concern. We are gonna have to take our young players and force-feed them. We've got to bring them along so we can get them ready for the Western Michigan football game. Coach Zook did an excellent job recruiting, we just need to bring in more of them."
Plans haven't been finalized yet, but Beckman has agreed to continue Camp Rantoul in some fashion. He may not have a scrimmage at Rantoul High School, and not all practices may be open to the public. But he sees value in continuing the relationship with Rantoul.
"We will be up in Rantoul, I can say that, in some way, shape or form. I think first of all it's tradition, and I'm big on tradition. I think it's something that is unique; not every team gets to go elsewhere and be involved in team-building and two-a-day practice.
"We are going to make a decision that we think is best for this football team, best for the community and best for the Illini Nation. I think going to Rantoul would be a plus-plus in all those categories.
"It's your first year, and you'd like to keep as much secret as you possibly can. But I know it gets out. So we will definitely have some of those practices opened up to fans."
Summarizing, Beckman wants to use spring ball and fall camp to produce a lineup that can face a tough schedule head on and achieve success.
"Our goal is to play 14 football games next year, there's no question about it. We go week by week, practice by practice, one step at a time and repeat everything that you do. Guys have proven that they can play Big Ten football. But now they've got to prove it again every time they step out there on the football field. That's why we practice.
"Hopefully at the end of spring ball, we'll have 22 names. But when practice begins again, will go back to competing and finding out who is the most consistent of those 22 players."