After the completion of summer workouts in 1998, former Illinois head coach Ron Turner called a team meeting. He reiterated the goals and expectations for our team heading into the season. But before he dismissed the team, T-shirts were passed out by the equipment staff that simply stated "Camp Rantoul."
Coach Turner said,”We are taking training camp on the road to limit distractions, get out of our comfort zone, learn to play as a cohesive unit while being in an environment to completely focus on ball.”
That started the tradition that has survived three coaches. Current Illini head coach Tim Beckman prepares his team for two weeks of training camp near the closed air force base 20 minutes north of Champaign-Urbana. Get the practice schedule here.
Training Camp…it's a necessary evil that every football player has to endure before the start of the season. During a two-week stretch, football practice takes place -- sometimes twice a day -- while the weather is extremely HOT! Conditioning tests not only take place before camp starts but throughout to make sure that every player is both mentally and physically prepared for the season.
Every day, from the first practice to the last, seems to run together because the beginning of the week is no different than the end of the week. Plus, your shoulder pads never seem to dry out no matter how many fans they turn on in the locker room.
The first two weeks of fall camp is a review of what you learned during spring football. In those 15 practices between March and April, every team works on the fundamentals: blocking, tackling, passing, receiving or learning a new scheme etc. Training Camp simply allows more time on the field and meeting rooms with your position coach or coordinators. It's "Football 101": knowing your alignment, assignment and adjustments whether your offense, defense or specialist.
When we arrived in Rantoul, I was surprised to see how close everything was in proximity to the air force base. The hotel had a dining hall. The fields were across the parking lot and the locker rooms across the street. Shuttle vans were only needed for film review and team meetings roughly 10 minutes away on base.
A typical day at Camp Rantoul seemed a lot like "Groundhog Day." For example, the air horne goes off at 6am for wake up and breakfast. At 8 a.m., all players must be suited up on the field for practice No. 1. Off the field by 11 a.m. to get treatment, dip into the cold plunge for recovery and shower. Lunch took place between 11:45 a.m. to 1 p.m.
After lunch, it was time to relax until 3 p.m. Then it was back to meetings to review the morning practice and continue to install the next set of plays and schemes for the evening. Then it was back to the field, suited up by 5 p.m., for practice No. 2. After the second practice, time to hit the cold tub, shower and eat dinner between 6:45 to 8 p.m. Then another round of meetings to review the second practice and install more defensive, offensive and special teams tactics for tomorrow's practice.
Finally, head back to the hotel for a snack between 9:30-10 p.m. Before bed check, review your notes of both practices and the new installation of plays for the next double session. Lights out at 10:30 p.m. just to start it all over again the next day to the sound of the air horn at 6 a.m.
Keeping focus despite familiarity
With that type of redundant schedule, mental fatigue sets in quickly, which can quickly cause a lack of focus. Both offensive and defensive units can anticipate the plays called in the huddle, according to each unit's alignment. For example, Power-O was a staple of Coach Turner's offense. The key to reading it as a defender was the location of the fullback in an offset I-Formation to the strong side. Everyone on the defense knew what was coming, so your technique could get sloppy by not going through all of the keys at each position.
Some players may not step with the right foot or some may run around a block instead of dealing with the offensive lineman. After all, most of the offensive, defensive and special teams plays have been installed, and we’ve seen the majority of the plays since spring ball. But our coaching staff held us accountable by having daily competition within our position groups to keep us honest and keep camp fun. For the linebackers, we had a chart for every defensive statistic from tackles for loss, interceptions, sacks, pass break ups, etc., to make our position group, defense and team better.
Dancing on the way home
Once the inaugural Camp Rantoul came to a close, players forgot about the two weeks of monotony that included mental and physical fatigue. We also missed sleeping in our own beds.
The last day of camp can be quite entertaining. With house music blasting in celebration, I had no clue that some of my teammates and some members of the coaching staff could dance or -- at the very least -- had rhythm. In a dance battle of about 15 guys, the clear winner was former Illini running back Rocky Harvey. The team knew how fast Rocky was as a player, but we had no idea that translated to dancing. Harvey made all competitors bow out with the famous Chicago-style footwork that included a mix of James Brown and M.C. Hammer.
Harvey had an encore performance a few weeks later when he danced around Middle Tennessee State with 24 rushing attempts for 215 yards and 3 touchdowns for the first win of the season.
Micheal Young is the football analyst for IlliniInquirer.com. Young was a four-year starter for Illinois football and a team captain. The St. Louis native also played for the NFL's Arizona Cardinals from 2001-04. He serves as a color analyst for several broadcast outlets and co-hosts an Illini podcast with former UI teammate Carey Davis on Huddlecasts.com.