Beckman Shows Coaches The Illini Way

The Fighting Illini football team is hosting Illinois high school coaches this weekend, and they were invited to a spring practice Friday evening. There was some scrimmaging as the Illini continue to learn new systems and perfect techniques. Former Illini Dave Diehl of the Super Bowl champion New York Giants was on hand to observe and help his buddy Luke Butkus with the o-line.

Illinois football coach Tim Beckman put his team through its paces Friday night in Memorial Stadium as part of the Illinois High School Football Association Coaches Clinic. He was excited for the opportunity.

"I thought it went great. We had 1200 great high school coaches from the state of Illinois here. It's been a great opportunity for us to showcase what we're doing. And to show how Illini football is progressing."

There was some situational work that included hitting, but it was not the scrimmage advertised previously. That occurred two days ago.

"We had a big scrimmage on Wednesday. We had over 150 snaps. I thought they got after it pretty good after having a good go of it on Wednesday."

Besides the coaches, recent Illini signees Ryan Frain and Vontrell Williams took in the action. And former Illini offensive tackle Dave Diehl gave a pep talk to the players prior to practice. Beckman was thrilled.

"This is what this place is all about, the tradition, the type of individuals that we have that graduate from this great university. He's had the opportunity to play in and win two Super Bowl rings.

"He talked to the team and told them a little bit about his season this year. At one time when they were 7-7, they had to make some improvements to get themselves into the playoffs. They did that and ended up believing in one another.

"He told the kids to look to the right and look to the left and look behind them: that's their family. Exactly the same things we've been trying to talk to our players about."

Since Diehl donated the funds to purchase all the equipment in the large, impressive UI football weight room, Beckman doesn't mind if Diehl enjoys the benefits while in town.

"He can work out in this weight room anytime he wants."

Beckman said Friday's practice was devoted primarily to technique.

"We're going back to the basics, the fundamentals of tackling and blocking and catching the football. We put them in situations like third downs and two-minute situations to try to continue to push our players the way we want to practice."

Quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole continue to run with the first two offensive units.

"They're competing, they're doing exactly what we ask them to do. Both run with the ones. But you know, Nate's proven that he can be a starter, and he's won some football games here. But Reilly's also proven to us in the 9 practices that he's very capable also."

Miles Osei played running back at times, but one of the assistants confirmed that Osei would be a starter at a MAC school right now as a quarterback and would compete for a starting spot at Illinois if Scheelhaase were absent. But his athleticism is needed elsewhere at the moment, and he's enough of a team player to do what the coaches want.

Donovonn Young and Supo Sanni wore the purple jerseys of players who could do no drills. One should be back before the end of spring ball.

"Supo will be out for the remainder of the spring. Hopefully we'll get Donovonn back soon and get him a couple reps with the kids. Right now, that's it for major injuries."

There were a couple position changes of note, but it must be remembered spring is a time for experimentation. Right now, D.J. Woods is playing defensive tackle, rookie Daniel Rhodes is playing defensive end, and Earnest Thomas is at safety to shore up that position in Sanni's absence.

Despite the numbers at receiver, it was obvious the team lacks quality depth there. Darius Millines is the quickest in and out of his cuts, and Ryan Lankford is fast in open space. But much improvement is needed there. Tight ends Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse spent some time split out to shore up the position.

Depth charts for the day for first team offense included Graham Pocic at center, Hugh Thornton and Ted Karris at guards, and Simon Cvijanovic and Michael Heitz at tackles. Tight ends Eddie Viliunas, Evan Wilson and Davis rotated. Millines was joined by Harris and Jordan Frysinger at receiver. Scheelhaase was the quarterback and Josh Ferguson, who seems ideally suited for the new offense, was the running back.

The second unit included Jake Feldmeyer at center (Tony Durkin also saw action there), Alex Hill and Tyler Sands at guard, and Scott McDowell and Patrick Flavin at left and right tackle respectively. Matt LaCosse was the tight end along with Zach Becker and Davis. O'Toole was the quarterback, with Osei at running back. Receivers included Lankford, Fritz Rock and Jeremy Whitlow.

The defense was led by a defensive line of Michael Buchanan and Justin Staples at ends plus Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster at tackles. Inside linebackers Jonathan Brown and Houston Bates were joined by Star Ashante Williams, who had an interception during the evening. The corners are Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green, and the safeties are Steve Hull and Pat Nixon-Youman.

Second stringers on defense included Tim Kynard and Brandon Denmark at ends and Jake Howe and Austin Teitsma at tackles. Linebackers were Ralph Cooper, Henry Dickinson and Tajarvis Fuller. Cornerbacks are Jack Ramsey and Eaton Spence, while Thomas and Ben Mathis played safety.

Justin DuVernois hit a couple booming 55 yard punts with the wind but dubbed one for 35 yards. Against the wind, he was a respectable 35, 38 and 41 yards on three punts. Garrett Stroup hit a couple 50 yarders with the wind, but his one attempt against the wind measured only 22 yards. Brad Janitz appeared behind the other two. Darius Millines and Josh Ferguson were seen fielding punts.

Going against a brisk wind, the placekickers kicked in the order of Taylor Zalewski, Nick Immekus, Patrick Dunn and Brennen VanMieghem. Dunn missed one from 35 yards, while Immekus and Zalewski missed 41 yarders. Dunn and Immekus each nailed 45 yarders.

Besides the interception by Ashante Williams and a later pass breakup, defensive highlights included a big stop by Denmark on a 3rd and 2 run by Miles Osei; Cooper stuffed O'Toole for no gain; Foster diagnosed a 3rd and five run by Osei for negative yards.

Also, Green had a big breakup of a Scheelhaase pass; Buchanan sacked Scheelhaase; Kenny Nelson sacked O'Toole; and Fuller and Dickinson sandwiched Evan Wilson to break up a pass from O'Toole.

Highlights on offense included a ten yard burst by Ferguson; Viliunas caught an 8 yard touchdown reception from Scheelhaase; O'Toole hit Whitlow for 12 yards; O'Toole connected with Osei and LaCosse for short touchdown passes.

On the biggest single yardage gainer of the night, O'Toole found Lankford open over the middle for 25 yards. Also, Scheelhaase converted a 3rd and 15 on a 17 yard completion to Evan Wilson. And Becker rambled for a good gain on an outside run.

There is one staff change to report. Director of Player Personnel John Hauser, a coach at heart, felt he had to get back in the game. So he accepted a position with The Citadel and reports to Charleston, South Carolina, on Monday. He is replaced by Paul Nichols, who worked with Beckman at Toledo.

The Illini resume closed spring practices Monday.

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