Werner: First practice provides Illini with a new reality under Lovie

Lovie Smith patrolled an Illini practice for the first time on Friday. His presence was felt.

CHAMPAIGN - Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman looked out onto the Memorial Stadium turf and took a moment to soak in the scene.

"It's pretty cool to be back here," said Whitman, a former Illini football player who is wrapping up his first official month as AD. "I thought about how the first (football) game would hit me, but I never thought about how the first practice would feel."

Due to Whitman's decisive and bold actions with the football program, Friday night's two-hour practice surely was one of the most anticipated spring sessions in Illinois football history -- because it was Lovie Smith's first.

Smith was a dream hire that has left most Illini fans in a daze of delighting disbelief. On Friday, Smith as the Illini head coach became more of a reality.

There he was, the 11-year NFL head coach, in a white Illini windbreaker ... coaching ... the Illini.

How did this happen again? Oh yeah, Whitman.

Smith's presence brought out a larger contingent of media, whose audiences hadn't cared much for Illini football content recently.

His presence made this weekend's Illinois High School Association Coaches Clinic one of the highest attended in years. Hundreds of in-state high school coaches braved the chilly temperatures and high winds -- and in the practice's closing moments, a steady rain -- to catch a glimpse (and a cell phone pic) of the Illini coach most of them had watched patrol the Chicago Bears sideline for most of a decade.

His presence gave the Illini players -- who have had three head coaches in eight months -- hope that years of instability and uncertainty are now gone.

"I think he does have a special presence," senior center Joe Spencer said. "Coming in, a lot of guys knew him and knew a lot about him. There was a certain respect given just as any major coach does. You coach in a Super Bowl, you win a Super Bowl, I perk up. Everyone perks up."

Offense and defense

Now, his practice -- no pads until the team's Tuesday practice -- wasn't really all that groundbreaking.

Like most coaches, he started with a walkthrough, 30 minutes of mostly mental work on schemes, packages and recognition. That was followed by a 10-minute stretch, about an hour of positional drills (including a special teams breakdown) and about another 30 minutes of team drills (offense vs. defense).

"We're going to teach as much as we can," Smith said. "Then we'll go through a stretch, and then it's off to the races. Once we get into our regular practice, everything is up-tempo then."

The defense, coordinated by former Pro Bowl linebacker Hardy Nickerson, is a bit more up-tempo than the offense. During team drills, the focus -- no surprise to Bears fans -- is on takeaways. Whenever a ball hits the dirt (due to fumble, incomplete pass, etc.) or is turned over, all defenders are instructed to run to the ball, pick it up and run to the end zone. Score on every play.

And it's not just the players. Nickerson, linebackers coach Tim McGarigle, secondary coach Paul Williams and defensive line coach Mike Phair all sprint too.

Nickerson yelled, "Score! Score! Score!" on one turnover, and on another play yelled at a defensive back when he didn't sprint to the ball.

"It's a lot of running," linebacker James Crawford said. "That's the one thing. It's a lot of running. It's football at the end of the day, but there definitely was a lot of running. New system, so it was kind of hard just with the first day and get the jitters out."

Said Smith: "On the defensive side of the football, it's about running to the ball. Effort. Always."

Offensive coordinator Garrick McGee is implementing his new offense, almost a replica of the one Paul Petrino ran at Illinois during the 2010-11 seasons. That's not a surprise since McGee also learned the offense under Paul's older brother, Bobby Petrino.

In the balanced offense, there is a strongside offensive line and weakside offensive line. For instance, instead of a left tackle who stays on that side of the ball, the weakside tackle switches sides based on team alignment. So linemen accustomed to one-sided footwork must be more ambipedal (Google that word, I had to). And the offensive players must again learn to huddle on every play -- something they rarely did under previous head coach Bill Cubit.

"All the plays we've probably run before," senior quarterback Wes Lunt said. "But just terminology, getting in and out of the huddle is different. There's certain structure (McGee) wants in there."

Letting coaches coach

Unlike Cubit -- who doubled as head coach and offensive coordinator -- Smith spends equal time with the offense and defense. He checked in on every position group on Friday, rarely saying a word -- except maybe a short piece of advice to a player (like showing a defensive lineman a rush move) or a quip (like telling No. 11 Chunky Clements that he needs a defensive lineman's number, not a quarterback's. 

Smith watches, observes.

"We have good football coaches here that are in charge of a position," Smith said. "I am going to let them coach it. For the most part, we set up exactly what we're going to do before we get out here. But for me, here today what I wanted to do was see all positions, to see exactly what we have."

Smith admits he's still learning his players. That's a big reason all of their helmets -- even those of the upperclassmen -- bear masking tape strips across the forehead with the players' names markered on. Smith also frequently pulled out a team roster from his windbreaker pocket.

"I have my cheat sheet here along with the names." Smith said. "I don't know all the names. But I'm learning. When you do something, I look at that list and see exactly who it was, and we had a lot of guys that stood out and made some plays today."

A new norm

Smith walks around with a quiet confidence. Unlike most of his barking assistants, the head coach rarely raises his voice.

"He's more calm," sophomore running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn said. "He's just more chill. It runs smoother. I think it's faster, and I think more beneficial. He just ain't yelling. He's really just talking to us."

Friday's professional practice looked like a typical Illinois football practice from years' past -- though maybe with the music turned down a notch and fewer military cadences played over the PA system.

But it wasn't a normal practice. Because of the man who led it.

Just months ago, Lovie Smith patrolling Illini practices seemed preposterous. After Friday though, it is the norm.

Who could blame Whitman for soaking in the new reality he had created?

"There's excitement, anticipation," Smith said. "That's all behind us now. Once you get that first day under your belt, then you kind of take off from there."


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