'Mixed emotions' on dropping of Camp Rantoul

Lovie works late on recruiting; Illini prepare for Saturday's public performance

CHAMPAIGN - Illini senior center Joe Spencer has some fond memories of Camp Rantoul. 

Training with veterans Hugh Thornton and Graham Pocic on the open fields at the former Chanute Air Force Base. Watching 330-pound former teammate Alex Hill perform a bellyflop during the team's annual trip to the adjacent Rantoul Aquatic Center.

"I don't know if pool day can ever be topped," Spencer said.

Spencer won't create anymore memories there with Lovie Smith announcing Friday that the team will keep training camp on campus this fall.

"I think mixed emotions," Spencer said. "I think Rantoul is probably where I learned the most football. Just going there four years and getting a ton of work. It's a great place. We get away. We do a ton of work there. A lot of football. Those four camps I've had at Rantoul have been the biggest of building me as a football player. It'll be missed. It's definitely a grind. You have your ups and downs there, but you have your ups and downs when camps are here. We're just following Coach Smith."

Rantoul hosted Illinois football for parts of 17 of the last 18 Illinois football training camps, starting under head coach Ron Turner in 1998. Smith said keeping camp on campus just made more logistical sense for the Illini, who must transport more than a hundred of players and staffers to a dated motel 20 minutes north of campus. He did not give a definitive answer on whether he would think of returning to Rantoul.

"For me, my preference has always been to keep changing camp (at home)," Smith said. "I think you can get better work at your facility. There's a reason we have these good facilities, meeting rooms, where we eat. All those things should allow us to get the type of work that we need. We have a few class schedule conflicts also, so to be down here should be a good thing for us."

Smith's Chicago Bears spent each summer training camp in Bourbonnais, more than 90 miles from the Bears training facility in Lake Forest. He said that didn't shape his opinion of a training camp on the road.

"It was a little bit different situation there," Smith said. "I think they go there because they can't really accommodate fans at their training facility (at Halas Hall). Where we are down here, fans (can access). Practice will still be open to the public. Hopefully, we can get a lot of people who want come see us go through training camp. In Chicago, we had it a way. In Tampa Bay, we had it at our facility. So I think you can get good work done in both places."

Late night recruiting

Smith called his first recruit at 12:01 a.m. on Friday, the official end of a two-month quiet period and an evaluation period that extends through May 31.

Only Smith didn't call the player with your old-school voice call. He dialed up the first recruit on his FaceTime app, which allows face-to-face communication with recruits via camera phones.

"Each day brings new experiences," Smith said. "I've been looking forward to that day where we could talk to some of the prospects where we could initiate it. The response, like it has been throughout, very receptive. Had a lot of fun. While you guys we were sleeping, we were hard at work late last night."

Word is that Smith didn't leave the office until around 1:30 a.m.

"He was fantastic," offensive coordinator Garrick McGee said. "I think the reason he was so good because he really enjoyed doing it. It wasn't like, 'We're here all night.' He really enjoyed doing it. Some of our coaches were talking about it. That didn't nothing motivate us to want to recruit even more because he was the last one here last night. We were all gone. He was here after me. He outworked all of us last night."

The Illini are expected to host dozens of visitors for Saturday's practice. Check out some of the names here.

Public viewing

Illinois fans will get their one chance to watch spring practice on Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Practice starts at 1 p.m. though fans are allowed to tailgate at Grange Grove starting at 9 a.m., which coincides with a merchandise sale inside the stadium's west hall. Admission and parking are free.

The practice -- it is not a spring game nor a scrimmage -- will not be televised or streamed online. Smith and the Illini players will sign autographs on the field following practice at about 3:30 p.m. For more details, click here.

"Hopefully, the fans will have a chance to see how far we've come," Smith said. "Very excited. It's one thing to be on the practice field, but things change a little bit once you get fans in the stand. Just having the chance to scrimmage live at Memorial Stadium and all of that should change a little bit."

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