CHAMPAIGN - Lovie Smith has spent most of the summer recruiting prospects or recruiting fan and donor support. Such is the life of a college coach.
But Smith got into coaching to, you know, coach. So Thursday afternoon's 150-minute training camp kickoff was a welcome splash back into football for Smith, despite heat indices that hovered around 100 degrees.
"I've kind of enjoyed every step along the way, but, yeah, all of that is the setup for this time right now," Smith said. "I was thinking the other day, I've had a lot of opening days for training camp in my career and you get pumped up and excited about every one. I haven't been getting eight hours of sleep of course this week."
This marks just the second time in the last 19 years that Illinois will not host part of training camp at the former Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul. Smith's first practice drew a few hundred fans to the east side of Memorial Stadium, which fortunately was shaded by the stadium's columns and high brick walls.
Gone is Camp Rantoul. Welcome to Camp Lovie.
The Illini have ditched camp in the open fields 20 minutes north of Champaign, overnight stays in the dated Quarters Inn and nightly staff trips back to Champaign to do laundry. Smith prefers the comfort and multi-million dollar facilities on campus.
Illinois director of football operations Tim Knox, who has organized the last five Illini training camps, said the staff hasn't experienced any change yet because the Illini always ran the first few practices on campus as the players wrap up summer school.
"The weird thing is right now it feels like normal because we were always here the first few days," Illini senior center Joe Spencer said. "When Sunday we don't get on the bus to Rantoul, I'm going to be like, 'Oh, this is a little weird.' We've talked about it some. It's nice to be here. A lot of our technology is here and some options with the night practices and do some stuff for the fans. Rantoul was great, and I loved my time there. I learned my most football there and kind of built who I am as a player there. It definitely tests you. We'll just get tested here now."
Camp Rantoul allowed fans to get a week or two glimpse at Illinois football. Camp Lovie is open for the first 16 sessions (through Aug. 20).
The Illini brought in sets of short bleachers to watch the practices on the practice fields east of the stadium. A concession stand and restrooms are available. Team posters are available and fans can get autographs after practice. Parking is available in the northeast lot of the State Farm Center.
Some fans are still pinching themselves that Lovie Smith is their coach. For the players, it's starting to become business as usual.
"I think the moment of shock and awe is past," Spencer said. "When he first came in, we were like bright-eyed and bushy-tailed," Spencer said. "Now, it's set in. I know freshmen coming in are still wide-eyed, but that's normal for freshmen. I think it's now just and understanding that we're one unit, one goal. We're going towards winning all our home games, beating Northwestern, winning the Big Ten. The biggest thing is who Lovie Smith is. He demands respect when he comes in a room. You constantly see that."
- Smith said Illinois has "legitimate training camp battles for positions." On offense, the main battle is for the fifth offensive line spot, the strongside guard position. Redshirt freshman Gabe Megginson, a former four-star recruit, took reps with the first team on Thursday. Senior Connor Brennan received first-team reps during the spring. On defense, there are battles at strongside linebacker and cornerback. Redshirt freshman Justice Williams ran with the first-team linebackers on Thursday, though sophomore Julian Jones also is competing for the job. At the No. 2 cornerback spot opposite Jaylen Dunlap, senior Darius Mosely and redshirt sophomore Chris James received first-team reps. Redshirt freshman Cameron Watkins and JUCO transfer Ahmari Hayes also may compete for the spot. Smith said most of the special teams roles, especially the returners, are open competitions.
- Lovie Smith spends most of his practice time with the defense. He coaches the nickel backs individually but bounces around defensive groups, watches and offers some counsel when he sees fit. But he mostly lets his coaching staff coach. "I'm trying to see everything," Smith said. "I want to spend a little bit more time on individual stuff really with the offensive guys to see them a little bit because I don't see them much. But I need to be able to find it all."
- On Monday, ESPN first requested Lovie Smith to join SportsCenter. Smith requested Wednesday. With the date set, Illinois associate director of athletics Kent Brown, head of the media relations department, worked on the logistics. Satellite options are few in Champaign-Urbana, but WCIA-TV, a competitor of ABC (ESPN's parent company, allowed ESPN to rent their satellite equipment to run the interview. Brown set the backdrop as the Red Grange statue and the final product turned out well.
- Lovie Smith will miss Saturday's practice to attend the Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony for two people he knows well: Tony Dungy and Orlando Pace. Dungy was a mentor for Smith, who coached under Dungy with the Buccaneers from 1996-2000. Smith coached Pace as a member of the Ohio State, St. Louis Rams and Chicago Bears staffs. "No one has meant more to my career than what Tony Dungy was able to do for me," Smith said. "I normally wouldn't miss practice, but you won't see me here on Saturday." Smith said he probably won't miss much. "Now, once practice is over, on the way back I assume it will already be downloaded on my iPad," Smith said. "It will be just like I'm here as far as I'm concerned." So who is the second-string head coach? Former UAB coach Garrick McGee would make sense. "We have a few guys that will be running it, all right?" Smith said with a smile. "Our special teams coordinator Bob Ligashesky will take care of the special teams. Coach Nickerson and Coach McGee will take care of the rest."
- Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman addressed the team during a break in the practice. Whitman, a former Illini football player, discussed his playing days with the team. "It's always awesome to hear him talk," Joe Spencer said. "You talk about an Illini, there he is. It was just kind of a welcome and understanding what it means to be an Illini and how fortunate we are here. Take a look at that stadium and what those columns mean, what Memorial Stadium means, what the history of our program means. The cool thing with him is he's our AD and our biggest fan. He's a former player and he's an alumni. Anything we want or we need from him, he's right there. He's in our pocket."
Though Illinois linebacker Hardy Nickerson's father's name is Hardy Nickerson, the younger Nickerson is not technically a "Jr." because father and son don't share a middle name. The younger Hardy's middle name is "William Lindsay," while the elder Hardy's middle name is "Otto."
The Illini linebacker normally is called "H2" by his family. Some call him "Young Hardy." Some do call him "Hardy Jr." -- a name that doesn't anger him even if it isn't correct. Heck, Smith has called him Hardy Jr. since he was a toddler.
Regardless of what we decide to call him, young Hardy Nickerson is a heck of a linebacker -- he led Cal with 112 tackles last season -- and fills a huge need in the middle of his father's first Illini defense.
In the video below, Nickerson discusses his first Illini practice, reveals that his father first brought up the idea of a transfer and discusses his role in his one season with the Illini.
Illini offensive coordinator Garrick McGee discusses the backup quarterbacks, the role of tight ends in his offense and running back Reggie Corbin.