With Illinois football practices closed to media, detailed information is limited. We must rely on the word of the coaches. But it sounds as if the Illini are making good progress in spring practices.
"I thought it went very well," Illini coach Tim Beckman stated afterward. "We put guys in situations. We've got to keep on practicing those situations; that's what football is all about. Making plays on third down, making plays on the goal line and other situations."
Beckman will announce Wednesday's IPOP practice players sometime Thursday after film has been graded. The coach shared Monday's winners.
Beckman is not a fan of evening practices, but spring academic schedules limit opportunities earlier in the day. He believes morning practices will be necessary this fall so that everyone will be able to schedule their classes later in the day. That will allow same-day film grading.
The past few years, the Illini began spring ball upon conclusion of spring break. But Beckman prefers to split it up. He explains why.
"We did it at Oklahoma State, and I thought it was one of the best things we've done. It gives the guys a chance to maybe rehab a little bit for those guys that might have gotten dinged up a little. And it gives us more time to be with the kids."
When the Illini use a regular punt, Justin DuVernois is by far the most consistent in practices. He has been booming high, long kicks consistently all spring. Brad Janitz and Garrett Stroup are involved there as well. Of course, Ryan Lankford continues to work on his rugby style punts.
When the wind is blowing in Memorial Stadium, which is frequent, it becomes obvious why the Illini struggled with punt returns last fall. Illini assistant coach Billy Gonzales is working hard to teach his returners how to respond to changing wind conditions. But it can be a frustrating job.,P>Two of those considered leading candidates for the job have trouble adapting to wind changes. One is simply inconsistent latching onto the ball, while the other seems confused whenever the ball is being held up in the wind. A number of balls hit the earth before being touched. Someone will get the job, but the Illini may need to try someone new back there.
It is a five way battle for placekicker this spring. Taylor Zalewski, Patrick Dunn, Nick Immekus, Brennen VanMieghem and J.J. Blau all showed ability again Wednesday. The most impressive part has been their consistent accuracy. Zalewski has the strongest leg, but all have good legs.
Dunn made a 50 yarder with a mild wind at his back Wednesday. He had room to spare. Zalewski's booming 50 yarder was even longer, but he pushed the ball a little to the right of the goal posts. Ryan Frain will have plenty of competition once he arrives on campus this summer.
In one position change of note, redshirt freshman Zeph Grimes is now working with the inside linebackers. Ashante Williams and Earnest Thomas appear to be 1-2 at Star, and Tajarvis Fuller is a candidate there also. Grimes is shorter than Ralph Cooper, but he has speed to go with an aggressive style. Whether he remains there is yet to be determined.
Scott McDowell and Patrick Flavin are both battling for a spot backing up Simon Cvijanovic at left tackle. Flavin is tall and slender for his size, tipping the scales at 275 on his 6'-7" frame. McDowell was listed at 290 last fall, but he is now 278 as he works to build good weight through weight training. So while both redshirt freshmen are athletic and have great potential, neither is as strong at the point of attack right now as would be ideal.
Right after warmups each day, Beckman provides some individual competitions to get adrenalin going for the rest of practice. Besides matchups between linemen and between receivers and defensive backs, Beckman sometimes adds assistant coaches to the mix.
Wednesday, Director of Football Operations Adrian Melendez was matched up with Director of Player Personnel John Hauser. Melendez showed surprising quickness for his age, but Hauser coached defensive backs at NIU and was a db himself not long ago. Hauser dominated.
"I think Nathan, Reilly, Miles and Chase have all done a good job. They're great leaders for us. They know what they need to do for us to make us successful. They're making strides and getting better every day."
All head coaches at the major college level feel great pressure to win, and it tends to make some of them more uptight, especially with the media. But Beckman seems free of burdens as he visits in a relaxed manner before and after practices.
"I love it. When you walk out the door, this is what you do. This is what you believe in. You love being on the football field. We've got a long ways to go, but the guys are working hard, and they're doing what we ask them to do."
Of course, the situation will be a different in the fall, when games are at hand.
"Yeah, maybe a little bit. But this is the best profession in the world, in my opinion. I enjoy doing it. I enjoy being around these players. Shoot, it's a blessing to be head football coach here."
Media will not be permitted at practice Friday.
"Friday is a good little hitting day for us. They've got seven days off, and they'll be back Sunday night for a team meeting and get back at it Monday."