3 Reasons Why Junior Day Was Cool

Find out why Illinois' junior day was a successful recruiting event...

- Saturday's practice marked the first of the spring in full pads, and the player's emotions and energy accompanied that accordingly. It's not that the first two sessions, with the players decked out in shorts and helmets, were dull or flat. It's just that, there's something more electric when you're able to hear the pop and see the thuds. It was business as usual until a drill called the gauntlet was initiated. The drill goes like this…a quarterback hands off to a ballcarrier. In front of him is an offensive lineman pitted against a defensive lineman, charged with stopping the runner. At the next level, a receiver goes against a member of the secondary. Should the runner get past the first stopper, he's got another one to beat before he's out of the danger zone. Or the gauntlet. Get the picture? It's pretty intense and an old-school football look. Keep in mind, there were at least a hundred recruits and parents on hand. Throw in hacks like me and other onlookers —there was quite an audience for this performance. So what did the staff do? Well, the edges of the gauntlet pit are crowded to begin with. The offense lines one side and the defense is on the other. The players have only a couple yards side-to-side to work with. A tunnel north to south (or south to north, whichever) is formed. There's only one way out —dead ahead. Anyway, the staff did the smart thing. They invited the recruits and parents to crowd around and watch. Everybody was on top of everybody, shifting and jockeying to get as close as possible. When Josh Ferguson slithered his way through one time the rest of his offensive teammates raced behind him to party up. When the defense made a stop, a mob would break out. The whole thing was chippy and on edge. It was a great way to showcase the competition and a great example of "fun football."

- Maybe this was something that I found to be cool more than the recruits did, but there were some random people floating around that made the day feel like an event. Former quarterback Trent Green was there with his son, an underclassmen quarterback out of Missouri. It was kind of a funny back-and-forth between Taylor and I. I told her from the jump —that guy looks like Trent Green. I'm good with faces but not always names. I had both in this instance, but we couldn't be sure. During the practice, the guy that looked like Trent Green had a few moments where he was acting out a football scenario. Taylor made a few jokes about the dad that was doing football on the sidelines. Turns out though, it was Trent Green, the most qualified guy in the building to be acting out football scenes to instruct his son. Anyway, not sure how many of you value an Indiana quarterback who's most notable NFL days were with Kansas City. But it never hurts to have name recognition like that in the building. Also on hand, the Mayor of Champaign. Yeah, Coach Beckman invited Don Gerard out to the complex to take it all in. I spoke with Gerard for a little bit. He was loving it up, telling me about his days around practices because his dad was involved in athletics. Turns out Gerard was in a band in the 90s and the group had a song that received major airplay in Atlanta. He actually played a concert or two in Athens, where I went to school at UGA and lived for five years. We raved about Athens, the magical place that it is, before Gerard and I concurred - summers in Champaign are pretty damn fine, too. Athletic director Mike Thomas showed his face, too, as did Beckman's wife Kim. It was pretty clear -- the place to be on Saturday was at the football complex.

- I'm not trying to state the obvious or be unnecessarily negative. But Illinois isn't going to sell itself. I know there are kids that grew up all Orange and Blue and all that. I'm speaking in terms of, Alabama, Ohio State, Oregon, the situations at those places sell themselves. Tradition, winning, perception, jerseys, whatever. That starts to build on itself. I'm not saying it's easier to recruit there, but there is more than what's coming out of Nick Saban's mouth in a recruit's living room working for Alabama. Illinois is trying to establish that. Until then though, the staff has to work hard to sell the vision to prospective kids and, just as importantly, the parents. Saturday proved to me that the staff is doing all that it can. The whole day was organized, proactive and dynamic. It was practice and then a damn good lunch spread and then current players spoke and then half the kids went with their position coach and the other half went to the weight room for a film presentation and the parents were given a crash course on NCAA eligibility and school entrance requirements and my sentence is still running on. The day had a good rhythm to it and the flow was exactly what it needed to be. Every coach was there. Every staff member was there. Most had on dress pants and a tucked in shirt. Every single stop along the way, kids and parents were encouraged to ask questions. Everybody was open and honest and available. it was all very detailed, but it wasn't boring. The staff was doing it's thing, the current players put in their time and guys like Jimmy Fitzgerald and Dre Brown were willing to put in work, too. It was a family, being genuine and forward-thinking to try to build the program the right way. I've been a straight shooter about all things Illinois. I'm sure you guys remember my thoughts on signing day. I can say, I'm impressed with the way the staff is going about this. It's either going to work or it doesn't — I'm a big 50/50 guy. It will or it won't. If it does, I can see why. And if it doesn't, it wasn't for lack of bringing fresh ideas and strong work ethic into the mix.


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