Paul Petrino comes to Illinois with an excellent reputation for offensive genius. Now out of his famous brother Bobby's shadow, he is now in charge of his own offense. Bringing in friends Jeff Brohm and Greg Nord to help him install his style of play helps, and he has used his organizational skills to help players learn the system over the winter.
"We can meet with them two hours a week," Petrino explains. "We set up a meeting for an hour once a week. But they can come in and watch on their own. So what we did, we organized the offense in seven days to insert it. We organized it into days, the bread and butter of the offense, we handed out the days, how it would be inserted, what it would be like, so they know what will be put in first day of spring, organized it by weeks.
"We did the same with tapes on how things will be done so they have it on tape on what will be put in so they can watch it on tape and know what is going to be done. They have the playbook right there, watch it on tape and can come ask a question."
That should help, but the best teacher is physical repetition. Spring practice begins March 30, so Petrino and his staff will soon find out how much the players have absorbed on their own. Changes in terminology are major, so absorbing everything to where the players can play relaxed and with abandon will take time.
"Quite a bit of changes," Petrino admits. "In the offensive line, I tried to keep the calls they make up front as close as I could to what they did last year. Some of the terminology last year, I tried to put into our offense. That makes it easier to learn but overall, how we step into the huddle and call the play is completely new."
Probably the biggest challenge for Petrino and quarterback coach Brohm is finding a starting quarterback. Juice Williams held that job for four years. Those remaining on the team are young and inexperienced. Their development will be key.
Jacob Charest received experience last fall as a redshirt freshman, but it was sporadic at best. He is taller than the others at 6'-3", and his presence in the pocket has impressed onlookers. Demonstrating leadership and hitting a high percentage of his passes will be important for him in his starting quest.
Redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase is a student of the game and has the skills to succeed. He is a good leader, has a decent if not great arm, and he has tremendous quickness and athleticism. He likes the new challenge and should provide excellent competition for the position.
Freshman Chandler Whitmer graduated high school early to get a head start, and his natural confidence, fundamental skills and passing efficiency have made him a threat to win the job. He is listed at a short 5'-11", and he has just average arm strength. But he is a competitor who is hungry.
It may take until fall before a starter is determined to keep them fighting for a job. Whoever wins will have talented running backs and receivers to keep the ball moving.
New running back coach DeAndre Smith welcomes five returnees, four of whom have played in varsity games. Mikel Leshoure and Jason Ford shared the majority of the carries last fall. Both are big backs with Leshoure more of a breakaway threat and Ford capable of banging for extra yards. With a shortage of fullbacks, they may occasionally block for each other.
Sophomore Troy Pollard has experienced two injury-plagued years. He has bulked up since his freshman days but still has the best shiftiness among the backs. Now two years removed from knee surgery and with foot problems from last fall resolved, he might return to his freshman promise. He will also likely benefit from having a new running back coach.
Another one who should benefit from the coaching change is sophomore Justin Green. The Kentucky 100 meter dash champ has the best speed of the group, and he will undoubtedly be given more opportunity to win minutes. Freshman Bud Golden redshirted last year, and he's the wildcard. He showed decent speed and maneuverability in Camp Rantoul, as well as a willingness to fight for extra yards.
Fullback is important in the offense again, although the Illini haven't recruited that position in the recent past. Redshirt freshman Greg Fuller will get his first chance to earn time. The Thornton product is short but stocky and quick. Walkon Zach Becker will likely compete there as well after splitting time between fullback and tight end last year. A tight end may be used as an H-back to aid the run blocking at times.
Tight end is another position lacking depth but will be featured in the new offense as both blocker and receiver. Sophomore London Davis is the only one with experience, and that is minimal. Redshirt freshman Justin Lattimore is slender but will get an opportunity there. Offensive lineman Andrew Carter wants to get on the field. He is quick for a 280 pounder and will be given a chance to help at tight end also. Petrino talks about tight ends.
"We are trying to build that depth. We have moved a couple of people around, signed a couple of young guys. Coach Nord does a great job with the tight ends. One year at Louisville we were I think 5th in the country and Coach Nord coached up a fifth year walk on there, did a real good job.
"Depth isn't great, but we will make it work. That position is something we believe in. You have to make the defense do multiple things to stop that position. We will end up being okay."
The wide receiver corps was expected to be one of the best in the country last year, but it wasn't. Injuries, inconsistencies and sporadic quarterbacking all contributed. Several have moved on, so there isn't a lot of depth. But those who remain are excited about Petrino as a receiver coach as well as offensive coordinator.
There is talent available. Senior Jarred Fayson played for the first time in two years last fall and was rusty. Plus, injuries nullified his quick acceleration and top-end speed. He dropped passes, often for looking downfield prior to securing the catch. He has one last chance to prove his 5-star high school reputation was deserved.
Senior Eddie McGee seems eager to make the move from quarterback to receiver permanent. His 6'-4" height helps, as well as his speed and determination to win. He can always help out at quarterback in a pinch, but he could develop rapidly by spending full time at receiver.
Juniors A.J. Jenkins and Fred Sykes have plenty of experience, as does senior Chris James. Jack Ramsey began to assert himself last fall in his first season. They will be run ragged in spring practices since they will have more reps and less rest. But that could be a blessing, helping them become comfortable in their new assignments. Petrino looks forward to working with the receivers.
"The numbers are a little low. We signed four. I think the guys that are here are good. I think they have a chance to be a real good receiving core. I am excited for that group. They haven't caught a lot of balls. If you can get them to catch a lot of passes in practice, keep doing it, doing the reps."
"Whether it's Jarred, A.J., I think A.J. has a lot of talent, Eddie has a lot of talent, you have Fred, Jack Ramsey, all have some talent. You've just got to rep, rep, rep. Have them make plays in practice, and you give them confidence to make plays in games.
"I always tell them the film is your resume. Spring practice they have to show what plays they are good at, take that film, build it into your offense, where the 'Feed The Studs' come from, what plays on that resume they can do and get them the ball."
The offensive line will need some work. A number of changes are occurring there as well, including an unbalanced line and having strongside and weakside guards and tackes that switch sides depending on which hash the ball is placed. And depth will need to be developed in a group lacking star power.
The starting group could be serviceable if a couple inconsistent players can mature in their approach. Center may be the biggest concern as there is minimal experience there.
Redshirt sophomore Tyler Sands saw action in a couple games last fall before being injured. He is competing with redshirt sophomores Graham Pocic and Ryan Sedlacek at center. Redshirt freshman Jake Feldmeyer is another possibility if he can improve his weight and strength.
Offensive line coach Joe Gilbert will likely move people around to find their best positions this spring. Sophomore Hugh Thornton played solid as a true freshman. It is hoped he can move from tackle to guard, replacing star Jon Asamoah. Senior Randall Hunt is a returning starter, although there was always talk of finding someone to supplant him. No one has as yet.
Other guard prospects include Jack Cornell and redshirt senior Anterio Jackson. Cornell has lost some weight and may be ready to get playing time after waiting in the wings two years. Jackson was moved from defensive line last fall and reported to be coming on strong, but he never saw the field. True freshman Shawn Afryl graduated early to compete this spring. Carter is another possibility should the tight end experiment not work out.
Tackle lacks depth. Jeff Allen returns for his junior year as the most experienced lineman. He will start on the weakside. Senior Craig Wilson backs him up, but he has not yet fulfilled his potential.
Ryan Palmer and Corey Lewis will continue to compete on the strong side. Lewis was a disappointment last fall after impressing as a freshman. His emergence is needed. Redshirt freshman Leon Hill needs to get in top shape and learn the offense.
Spring ball will provide some answers, but given all the changes, the true potential of the offense won't be known until fall. These next four weeks should at least give some early clues on that process.