Speaking at the conclusion of spring practice, new offensive coordinator Mike Schultz discussed his transition from TCU to Illinois.
"I think it's very fortunate to come into this situation. I'm excited about the kids that were here. I've said this many times, our players have done a great job embracing me and making that transition easy. Having good players sometimes helps you coach a bit better. The kids have been great."
Schultz went through a crash course of studying the Illini offense when he was first hired. The two offenses were similar, but he still had much to learn.
"I probably went back two years and looked at a little bit of what they did. So much of the offense still stayed intact. That was one of the things that made it an easier transition. We were doing the same thing down in TCU, but I just had to learn a new language.
"That was a little bit of a challenge, but the great thing is that they have a very good staff here. Joe Gilbert has come in and done a great job with offensive line coaching. Reggie Mitchell, Coach (Kurt) Beathard and Jim Pry have all done a nice job easing me through and helping me through. I am not perfect. We worked our way through this thing as a staff."
To the casual observer, it appeared Schultz was firmly entrenched in his new role throughout the spring. His previous experience no doubt helped him with his new team. But his first spring practice required a learning curve.
"I'm glad we're through the first one. Without a doubt, I feel like this is going to make the transition going into the fall extremely easier. I wouldn't be normal if I said I knew what to expect.
"I'm working for the first time in eleven years for a new guy. It was a learning experience. Going into Rantoul, my comfort zone is going to be so much better and so much farther along than what it was going into the spring."
Schultz helped produce some great running backs at TCU, and he spent much time working on that aspect of the Illini offense in the spring. But he disagrees with the notion he favors a running game.
"I wouldn't necessarily say it's all about the running game. I just want to be balanced. The offense has stayed pretty consistent to what we did last year. I guess we've tweaked it a little bit. I think after every season, no matter where you are, you're gonna look back and see what you did well, you're gonna see what you did poor.
"Some of the things you do poor you may not want to do any more. And some of the things you do well perhaps you can find a way to do some of those things a little better. We just kind of went back and examined all the good things they did and tried to build on those. And adjust some of the things we didn't do well to try to get more mileage out of them."
Illinois had great success with its passing game most of last season, but its running game suffered at times compared to the Rose Bowl year of 2007. Schultz will definitely continue to pass the ball, but he realizes a balanced attack is the most effective way to neutralize any defense.
"We want to be balanced. I think you have to be able to run the football. I believe that, and I know Coach Zook believes that."
Illinois has utilized quarterback Juice Williams' ability to run the option with great success in the past. But it must also be able to gain yardage on the ground through more conventional means. Schultz departed temporarily from the option in the spring to work on those other areas.
"By taking out the option, we've had to expand and work on other areas that have been a great asset to us. Sometimes the threat of the option is just as good as running the option.
"I remember talking to (Louisville coach) Steve Kragthorpe back when he was at Tulsa, and they had played a similar opponent that we had played. We got to talking about it. The threat of the option is a deterrent for blitzes.
"We still believe that we have to run the football. We have to be able to throw the play action pass and the dropback pass. We're not where we were, but we're not where we need to be."
Once Schultz molds the Illini offense into an efficient unit, he must then put on his play-calling hat and make the crucial decisions during games. With his many years of experience calling plays in the press box, he has learned to remain calm and under control during high-pressure situations. He credits his assistants for his calm demeanor under fire.
"First of all, I've got a lot of help up there. I have a guy (Kurt Beathard) that sits right beside me that tells me things. I've got two guys on the field that are telling me things. And Reggie Mitchell signals in things, and he's fantastic. I have a very good supporting staff that puts me in a position I can do things. I give a lot of credit to those guys."
Schultz is like a chess master in the press box, planning his approach several plays in advance and reacting quickly once down and distance are known. He has learned over the years to keep his emotions under control so he can make wise choices. He knows he can't dwell on the last play.
"You've got to. They only give you 45 seconds to make a decision. I think that's a common denominator for all guys. I've done this for awhile now. I hate to say my age, but I'm 51 now so I've done this for a few years. I don't know if I was like that in year one when I was tryng to do this."
Part two will discuss the status of the offense coming out of spring practice.