Illinois football coach Tim Beckman kept his players indoors for their first spring practice Wednesday. It was warm and windy, and there was a threat of rain later in the evening. But Beckman planned it this way.
"I always try to get outside as much as you can. But we usually use the first two days to get acclimated to the practice regimen. So we use the indoor facility usually."
The new Illinois head man was surprisingly calm for his first day on the field. He says there is a comfort level with both assistant coaches and players.
"It's great. It's good to be back on the field with guys you've coached with. Some I haven't been with for 5-10 years. It's good to have them back and to be involved with them. We're all excited.
"We've spent four weeks with these young men. They know what we're about, they know what we expect. It's just great to get back on this football field and be with them with a football now, to work on football-specific drills."
Media are allowed to attend only the first half hour of practice, but much was accomplished in that time. The offense and defense ran plays and formations, position drills were mixed in, and there was a brief "Make-A-Play" right after calisthenics.
Supo Sanni and Justin Green had the advantage in one-on-one against receivers, the latter against Ryan Lankford. Glenn Foster sped past Graham Pocic before he could get set in their first matchup, but Pocic was better prepared the second time.
In the most exciting play for the players, grad assistants Bam Hardeman and Jon Carvin competed against one another on a downfield pass. Hardeman, the former star Florida linebacker, slowed down Carvin to prevent a completion.
Beckman says there will be no set lineups through these early drills.
"The depth charts were based on all they did the last four weeks, or Four Quarters as we call them. There's some different names that might be up there that have not been starters. That's what you practice for. Friday, that depth chart is gonna be all different."
Regardless, it was interesting to see who took reps with the first and second team offense. Nathan Scheelhaase quarterbacked the first unit, which was composed of running back Josh Ferguson, tight end Evan Wilson, and receivers Darius Millines, Spencer Harris and Lankford. The linemen were Simon Cvijanovic, Michael Heitz, Hugh Thornton, Tyler Sands and Graham Pocic.
Reilly O'Toole quarterbacked the second unit. Ean Days was the running back, Eddie Viliunas, Matt LaCosse and Jon Davis took reps at tight end, and the receivers included Kenny Knight, Jeremy Whitlow and Jordan Frysinger. The linemen were Tony Durkin, Alex Hill, Ted Karras and Pat Flavin, while Cvijanovic rotated with Scott McDowell.
Defensively, the front four consisted of Mike Buchanan at Leo, Akeem Spence and Foster at tackles and Brandon Denmark at the boundary end. Tim Kynard may be the favorite to replace Whitney Mercilus, but he wore a green jersey and didn't participate in every drill. He should be good to go by this weekend.
The inside linebackers were Jonathan Brown and Houston Bates, with Ralph Cooper and Henry Dickinson backing them up. The Star was Ashante Williams, the corners Justin Green and Terry Hawthorne, and Sanni and Steve Hull manned the safety spots.
There were multiple candidates both for the kick return and punt return jobs. Among the kick returners were Green, Lankford, Pat Nixon-Youman, Sanni, Eaton Spence, Nick Forsley and Jack Ramsey. Ramsey also fielded punts, along with Ashante Williams, Earnest Thomas, Hawthorne, Young, Darius Millines and Nick North.
Players seemed upbeat leaving the field after practice. Redshirt freshman tackle Pat Flavin stayed after to work on blocking techniques on his own. The 6'-7" Flavin has difficulty gaining weight, but he says he is up to 275 and hopes to reach 280 by the end of spring. He also says he loves his new offensive line coach Luke Butkus.
Practice continues Friday evening.