Spring Game Offers Something For Everyone

The Fighting Illini football team held a draft Tuesday of players and coaches to compete against one another in the annual Spring Game Saturday. Coach Tim Beckman shared information about the draft and described the format for the game, which will be fan friendly despite limits on play calls to keep opponents from getting a good scouting report on a new team.

Illinois football coach Tim Beckman split his seniors into two groups and let them draft the players and coaches they believed could help them win the Spring Game Saturday. That is not all they chose.

"We let the seniors pick the teams, but they picked everything else also. They picked what color uniforms they want to wear and what coaching staff."

Everything Beckman initiates is a form of competition for his players. Seeing them play with two equally matched teams encourages competition, but it also gives the coaching staff insight on who the players feel give them the best chance of winning.

"It's very unique as a head coach and as a coaching staff to bring your seniors together and let them have a lot to do with who they think are players that can help them win. It was an outstanding deal, one that you continue to learn on as a football coach each and every year that you have it."

He also likes to see how first and second teamers mesh with each other despite not getting many practice reps together. He gave an example of the #1 center and #2 left guard.

"It's a game. It's an opportunity for Graham Pocic to play next to Alex Hill, and that hasn't been happening a whole bunch. Alex hasn't been rolling with the ones. That's the difference in this game in comparison to playing ones against the rest."

And it forces reserves to play extended periods to see how they respond when tired.

"As a coach, you want certain players really pushed throughout this football game, to be able to play four quarters of football. There's some guys that have proven they can do it. We're only going on practice # 14, so in my opinion everybody's got to be pushed. But there's some guys we know are capable of playing good football, so we've got the get the younger guys the reps."

Beckman wouldn't provide an exact rundown of the draft selections, but he confirmed the first pick.

"The number one pick overall was (Nathan) Scheelhaase. And then uniquely, they went to a couple of defensive linemen. And then always, the offensive line is very crucial. If you look at the way the (interior linemen) are split up, I placed them on the teams. So the players who were really involved in the draft were the tackles."

The format of the game should be exciting for players and fans alike. First of all, Blue team honorary coaches Doug Dieken, Tim McCarthy and Dana Howard will give their team a pep talk before entering the field of play. And Jeff George, Mike Holmes and Brit Miller will do likewise for the Orange.

"We're going to split up the locker rooms, one in the home locker room and the other in the visitor's locker room. It will give them a chance to get fired up."

The game itself will follow different timing rules first and second halves.

"The first quarter will be just like we run a first quarter. At halftime, we are going to coach the guys on the sidelines. Every coach will be on the sidelines. At halftime I'll introduce our guest coaches. We'll have a little highlight tape of each of the guest coaches as they played here. The second half will be a running clock. Only in a two-minute situation will the game be stopped.

"We are playing this game as if it's a game. There's nothing that's going to be scripted. I've been at places before where everything was scripted to make big plays. No, this is a game, a competition. The winner will be rewarded, and the loser will get their beans and weenies. That's life, and that's the game of football. Play this game to win."

The Illini held a special team competition during Monday's practice. Beckman did this for two reasons. One, he wanted them to get plenty of practice. The other has to do with concealing concepts from opponents.

"We will not show our special teams. We will not have a kickoff or a kickoff return. We'll just place the ball on the 30 if a touchdown is scored. We'll kick field goals, but they'll not be fully rushed. I think that's very crucial, especially since we are a new staff, and we do some different things on special teams."

The fans should see a highly competitive contest, but it will not expose plays that might be a surprise to early fall opponents.

"It's gonna be vanilla. We are not going to come out and show a whole bunch of stuff. A couple rules that we do have, they're allowed to do a certain number of trick plays. They can have a couple first half and second half."

However, Beckman plans to involve fans directly in the action to increase their enthusiasm for the game.

"During the game, I will be going into the stands with a microphone to let the student body call a play. We'll have the headsets on, and in the first quarter I'll walk up and grab somebody out of the stands on a third-down situation.

"He will put on the headset and actually talk to Coach (Billy) González or Coach (Chris) Beatty. He will have four choices and will tell the coaches what he'd like to do in that situation.

"We'll see what kind of coaches we have up in the stands. We want to make them part of this football game because it's an opportunity not only for our football players to get better and play a game, but also for our fans and student body, our Illini faithful, to be involved in the game."

Scheelhaase will quarterback the Orange offense. But expected starting receivers Spencer Harris and Ryan Lankford are on the Blue squad. Scheelhaase will be throwing to Fritz Rock, who Beckman says has stepped up this spring, Jeremy Whitlow and Jordan Frysinger.

He will have his starting left tackle Simon Cvijanovic and starting center Pocic for protection. Miles Osei will be his top running back, with Donovonn Young seeing some action now that he's returned from injury. Matt LaCosse and Jon Davis will be stationed at tight end.

The Blue offense will be quarterbacked by Reilly O'Toole, with Anthony Williams joining Harris and Lankford at receiver. Michael Heitz will play left tackle this game. He and Hugh Thornton could open some holes on the left side for Josh Ferguson and Zach Becker.

Blocking tight ends Eddie Viliunas and Evan Wilson should also help what could be a strong running attack to counter the Orange team's passing. On paper, the Blue team appears to have more firepower, assuming O'Toole can lead them effectively.

However, the Orange unit stocked up on defensive linemen to counter that rushing game. Starters Michael Buchanan, Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster are joined by Tim Kynard in a formidable line.

Starting linebacker Houston Bates and starting defensive backs Justin Green and Pat Nixon-Youman also help make the Blue defense appear stronger, although walkon Austin Abner is the other safety since Supo Sanni and Steve Hull are both sitting out with injuries. They also have punter Justin DuVernois to give them good field position.

The Orange unit has star cornerback Terry Hawthorne, who will also see some time at receiver. In addition, top linebacker and starting Star Ashante Williams add quality to the defense. Starter Justin Staples will be joined by backups Jake Howe, Austin Teitsma and Darrius Caldwell along the line.

Senior corner Jack Ramsey should aid their cause, but safeties Earnest Thomas and Nick North are inexperienced. Top two kickers Nick Immekus and Patrick Dunn should provide scoring potential when the offense bogs down.

Overall, Beckman is pleased with his team's progress during the spring.

"I'm proud of the way this football team has responded. Practices are different, coaching styles are different, everything's different for these kids. They're 18 to 21-year-old men. For them to respond and see that we've gotten better every single day of practice, that was the goal.

"Are we where we need to be yet, of course not. I don't believe anybody is in the country right now. But we have made strides to make ourselves better. That's a credit to this football team and this senior class."

He gave one of numerous examples of spring improvement.

"Our inside drill we did in practice number three was the worst thing I've ever seen in my life. When we did it on Monday (practice #13), it was far above what we were expecting after that third practice."

Spring emphasis was on perfecting plays rather than installing everything and creating confusion and missed assignments.

"It's never all installed. You're always changing certain things, tweak a play or make a play better, or same play with a different formation. Defensively, we haven't put in all the blitz tracks we are capable of running yet. We wanted to really evaluate our players on the fundamentals of football. We've probably installed about 50%, to be honest with you."

Saturday will be the first and only time the general public can watch the Illini until fall. It should be an interesting and entertaining competition, so the Illini hope everyone will show up to support the team.

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