New offensive coordinator Paul Petrino is a busy man these days. Speaking on WDWS radio Saturday morning, Petrino described his recent activities.
"I've been out on the road recruiting hard. That first week with the players I got to meet with a lot of them. I'm excited to have them get back to school, finish up this recruiting class and get started on the offense.
"I've made cut-ups of all the players we have returning. Anytime the skill players touched the ball, and then I watched the linemen returning. I think I have a pretty good feel for the talent coming back, but you never know exactly what you have until you work with them on the field."
Recruiting is still his primary responsibility until the February signing date. He has been working to hold onto recruits already in the fold while beating the bushes for sleepers who might be worthy of a scholarship offer. With all the coaching changes around the country, there may also be new opportunities as commitments from those schools undergoing changes re-evaluate their situations.
"I can't really talk about recruiting, but you always have to be alert to what's going on out there in the profession. Anytime, whether it's a guy that's let go at Texas Tech or anyone, I think the first thing every coach in the country does is get their recruiting lists to see who's on it. And obviously, if it affects somebody you already knew, that's a big alert too."
Once the latest recruiting class is signed, sealed and delivered, Petrino will focus on preparing his players for his offensive style. Selecting a starting quarterback from the trio of Jacob Charest, Nathan Scheelhaase and spring enrollee Chandler Whitmer will be a primary goal.
"I watched all the snaps Jacob had. For Nathan, I had to go back to his high school tape. Those are the two quarterbacks I've watched a lot of. And we have Chandler Whitmer coming in, which is nice. I've watched high school tape of him. Those three will all be here in January. It will be good for them to be in spring ball and see who's best."
"He'll be back. I've talked to him a lot since the day I got the job. We met two or three times before he left, and we've talked a lot over the break. He's onboard, he'll be back."
Petrino works directly with the receivers. He believes there is a lot to work with. The list includes former quarterback Eddie McGee, who appears ready to make the switch a permanent one.
"As far as I've heard right now, he's a receiver. I think he can (help us). I'm excited to work with the wideouts. I've made tapes of him and Jarred Fayson, Jack Ramsey, A.J. Jenkins, Fred Sykes. There's a lot of talent at that position. We've just got to get to work and work hard.
"I think the biggest thing at receiver is repetition. Catch a million balls a day, work on your footwork and your breaks. You can get better at that position. You have to have the talent first, but I think we have the talent. We've just got to work our tails off.
"I feel real good about our talent at running back and receiver. The big thing to me right now is quarterback just because there's not that much tape to watch of any of them in college football."
Petrino feels strongly he can help the offense most by working with the receivers in practice.
"I've coached both the wideouts and the quarterbacks throughout my career. When I've been able to coordinate and had the choice who to coach, I've picked the wideouts because I can get my personality across to the whole offense better.
"I'll be working with the quarterbacks anyway, to see what they're doing. When the wideouts are playing fast and playing hard with great energy and flying around, that usually carries over to the whole offense."
Illinois used a spread option offense the past five years, so Illini players have to learn some new techniques and terminology. Some say Petrino's offense is pro-style, but he refuses to be limited by definitions.
"First of all, it comes down to who your quarterback is. In our four years at Louisville, our offense probably looked different the first two years because of Stefon LeFors, who was a little left handed kid who moved around a bunch. We moved him around a lot and used more runs with him. And then there was Brian Brohm, who was a true pocket quarterback like (Ryan) Mallett was last year at Arkansas.
"You definitely have your base offense and what your package is, but you adjust it by what the talents are of your quarterback. When you watch us next year, you're gonna see a lot of different personnel groups, trying to get pressure on the defense running groups in and out, different formations.
"And then the ability to spread the field to make them defend the whole field. Throw a lot of quick three-step passing game, some drop-back, run the ball real well and then throw some deep play-action off that. And then if you have a real athletic quarterback with a lot of mobility, you can use that off of play action."
The tight ends in Illinois' offense haven't seen many passes come their way in the past, but that will change.
"It's by what the tight end can do. We were lucky enough the last two years to have D.J. Williams. He led all tight ends in the country in receptions two years ago. The year before, all our wideouts were true freshmen. They got better. He still had a lot of catches (this year), but not as much as the year before. In our four years at Louisville, we had four different tight ends now in the NFL that we used a lot."
As a selling point for future tight end prospects, Petrino says his tight ends get more types of opportunities than conference rival Iowa, who brags about their tight end utilization.
"We'll stretch the field, throw downfield to them. Iowa throws to their tight ends, but what do they throw? They throw an arrow out of a three step drop, and a late shoot off of play action. We'll definitely use them down the field and run options with them. Whatever they do best.
"Tight ends are a big factor in our offense. When the defense has to defend the tight end and the wideouts, that helps stretch the field and get people open.
"I was lucky enough to get Coach (Greg) Nord to come up here. He worked with me at Louisville. We're going through the personnel right now, and we'll have to look at that more through the off season and spring ball with them."
Right now, Illinois has only one scholarship player at fullback, redshirt freshman Greg Fuller. But Petrino plans an expanded role for the fullback in his offense.
"We'll use the fullback. Sometimes, that came down to who could get the job done. Sometimes, we'll be a tailback, fullback, tight end and two wide outs, and sometimes it will be two tight ends, a tailback and two wideouts with the tight ends used as a fullback.
"At times, I like to have a big lead blocker for the back. That's the way you can pound people, especially in the fourth quarter when you have a lead and the defense is on the sidelines watching. Beat them up. That's how you win games in the fourth quarter."
It will take awhile for Illini players to learn the nuances of the new offense. It will be doubly difficult for the quarterbacks, who must be able to audible depending on what the defense presents. Petrino was asked if it was harder to change from a spread to pro style attack or vice versa.
"That's a good question. There are so many things right now that are called spread and are called pro type. I'm not positive which one we usually do. For years when I was coaching for John L. Smith, we were in one-back. So I guess that would be predominately spread. When we go to make changes, it doesn't seem that tough.
"And then, when I came together with my brother (Bobby Petrino) when he got a head job after being with the Jets and the Jaguars, we took what he had done under Tom Coughlin and kind of put it all together. We're kind of a combination of the spread and the pro-style. I don't know which one's easier to do."
Petrino is willing to adapt to the talents of his players.
"I think you go in and find your talent. In the first year, because of what they've recruited for, I don't know if you totally change everything. You have your philosophy and your package, and then it all comes down to what your players do best. We talk about who your studs are, what ways you can get them on the field and get them involved. It may come up a little different each year."
He was asked what he learned as a coach in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons.
"You had access to every play in the NFL. So I'd sit there on weekends and go through every play from the whole year in the NFL. Then I'd go every play against cover two, do it again against cover 3 and against quarters. It was great information to study and learn. I probably learned as much as anything just studying other people, learning football."
Some offensive coordinators prefer to call plays from the press box, where they can see the field and the defense better. Others want to be on the field with the players. Does Petrino know where he will be for games this fall?
"You've got to get a feel for your quarterback, how you're gonna treat him, how you're gonna talk to your other players. And then what Coach (Ron) Zook thinks. We haven't made a definite decision on that yet. We'll probably decide at the end of spring ball.
"On the field, you can see the players and be more in touch with how they're feeling. But there's no doubt you can see better upstairs."
He is comfortable with quarterback coach Jeff Brohm and Nord upstairs, so he has options.
"You've got to get a feel for if it's a young group and I need to be down there and keep them motivated, keep them fiery. Or if we have some good leadership so I can go upstairs. That's probably what it comes down to."
Petrino has gotten off to a quick start with the Illini. Fans are encouraged by how he describes the offense and his enthusiasm for his new role. Now all he has to do is get the offense to respond and become efficient by fall.