Illinois football coach Tim Beckman, like all football coaches this time of year, was thrilled to be back on the field with his players as fall camp began Monday at Camp Rantoul.
"The reason why you coach is to be around the players. It's exciting. We had a great meeting last night on leadership and the things this football team needs to be successful. We're back, and I'm excited about being back."
Whether Rantoul remains a viable option for fall camp in the future remains to be seen. But Beckman was complimentary about the setup.
"I love it. It reminds me of a Cleveland Browns camp I went to as a kid. I like utilizing this. I think they've done a fabulous job with the locker room. I like what we're doing here."
Beckman's father Dave, who coached at the prep, college and pro levels for 40 years, spent the day observing his son and the team.
"He's not involved, but he's here. I can't be more proud to have him involved. He doesn't offer any suggestions, he's just here."
There are split sessions the first three days. Half the team practices in the morning, and the other half practices in the afternoon. It allows each player more reps as he learns everything needed for the season. For the most part, freshmen have been paired with starters on the Blue group, and the second and third units represent the Orange group.
"We want to make sure our young players are learning from our veterans."
Ryan Nowicki is a recent addition to the team, and today is the first day it can be announced publicly. Nowicki is a redshirt freshman from Arizona who transferred from the troubled Penn State program. He lined up at right tackle today.
"Everything is official this morning," Beckman declares. "We're happy to have Ryan Nowicki on our ball club. Depth was the major concern that we've talked about since spring ball was over. It's something we need to continue to address. Being able to add Ryan will add to that depth."
NIU transfer Tommy Davis lined up at safety and also practiced receiving kicks. Beckman spoke in generalities about Davis's first day.
"I thought Tommy did some good things. He made some first year mistakes, but he's a young man we were able to get for this football team to add depth."
Senior tackle Corey Lewis has suffered through three ACL surgeries on the same knee, the latest this spring. Beckman updates his status.
"He's day by day. We'd like to use him as quickly as we can. He's here at camp and rehabbing. He's also learning. So he's one of our 105, but he will not be participating during camp."
One major change in practice from previous years was the addition of a mix tape blaring loudly during 7 on 7 and 11 on 11 sessions. Beckman says there is a more practical reason than just helping motivate the players.
"I always have done it. It's important that the players realize we're going to be in stadiums with 60 to 100 thousand people, and we've got to be able to communicate. That's the reason we put the music on, so they have to communicate not just verbally but through hand signs."
Nathan Scheelhaase was sharp the first day, as was Miles Osei. Both worked with the first unit at times. Reilly O'Toole had younger receivers to work with, so there were some growing pains at times. But all three did well.
Darius Millines and Ryan Lankford both caught some nice passes, and redshirt sophomore Fritz Rock demonstrated he can add depth as an outside receiver. Tight end Jon Davis has much thicker shoulders this year, and he was used in a variety of ways. Fellow soph tight end Matt LaCosse has bulked up as well without losing his speed.
There were four interceptions in 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 work in the two workouts combined. Jonathan Brown intercepted Scheelhaase and took it to the house. Freshman cornerback Jevaris Little caught a tipped pass thrown by Chase Haslett and did the same. Redshirt freshman Eaton Spence intercepted an O'Toole pass, and freshman Ta'Jarvis Fuller intercepted Haslett.
Illini practices continue Tuesday morning with the Orange unit toiling in the morning and the Blue facing the hottest part of the day in the afternoon.