Illinois offensive line coach Joe Gilbert taught his linemen how to block for a spread option attack last year. Now, the offense is a blend of several styles with strong pro-style elements. He has needed to learn new terminology and teach new techniques.
"Obviously, it's a new offense coming in. I enjoy the offense. I think there's a lot of different things that we're doing. I enjoy coaching the different techniques, the different checks and things that go with it. So it's been fun for me, and the kids have bought in to what we're doing."
Not everything is new, but Gilbert believes the changes have renewed players' hunger to learn their jobs well.
"With the things we have to focus on up front, some things are similar, and then there's some new things. I think it's been a good change from the standpoint of the kids coming in and not having the same old thing.
"They've known the previous offense for I don't know how many years, and they're doing something different. So they've got to focus a little more. They've got to be in tune with all the things that are going on. It's a different terminology.
"They were focused last year, I just think some times as a player you think, 'I know this play.' So now they've got to process the information, which does help them focus a little more. They are in tune a little bit more."
One basic difference is that the Illini linemen are in a three-point stance most of the time. Gilbert foresees no problems with that adjustment.
"They're in a three-point stance, but if you go back to last year, at the end we had both tackles in the two-point and the guards in a three. I think the difference this year is our tackles are a little more in a three-point stance than they were last year. For the guards it's no different. For our tackles, it is a little bit of a change."
Illinois now has strongside and weakside guards and tackles. In other words, they switch sides of the center depending on the situation. It can serve to confuse the defense as the Illini will now break from the huddle and get the play off quickly. Is there an advantage tp this approach for the linemen?
"What seems to end up happening is they do the same things over and over. The strongside and weakside keep working the same techniques. The biggest change for the kids is they have to work both out of a right and left-hand stance. And your footwork's got to work both right side and left side."
Some linemen indicate a preference for one side over the other. Do you need to recruit more flexible players, or can they learn to be equally effective on both sides?
"It just means you've got to coach them both. When you practice, you have to plan out to make sure the kids work both out of the right side and left side. Before they just worked one side, but now they need reps on the other side as well."
Gilbert says the technique adjustments for offensive linemen are not as major as one might think.
"The spread zone is still part of our offense. We're still a zone team, but we're running some different schemes up front. Basically when you're a power team, there's double-teams, there's guys pulling, so all those things are still in there. It might be just a little different scheme, but as far as techniques go, the kids are still doing basically the same things."
Gilbert hasn't needed to make major changes in his coaching approach since last year.
"Not really. The techniques of the game are pretty much the same. Obviously, you plug them in to fit specific plays. But as far as changing techniques, it's been pretty much the same. The calls have been pretty much the same. The terminology of the exact plays has changed."
Illinois coach Ron Zook was insistent on keeping Gilbert on staff when hiring a new offensive coordinator. He recommended Gilbert to Paul Petrino, and Petrino agreed with Zook's assessment after meeting with Gilbert. That eased the transition considerably, making him feel wanted.
"It does. You always get worried about fitting in when there's a new change. I couldn't be happier with the way everything has turned out. I'm excited about being here."
Petrino brought Jeff Brohm and Greg Nord with him. Does Gilbert sometimes feel like an outsider?
"No I don't. They're such great guys. Everyone has been really good about accepting DeAndre (Smith) and myself. Me being here and knowing Coach Zook a little bit has helped the transition for those guys.
"Say, Coach still wants to see this, or this is where we practice on the different fields. I can still help the new guys out with that kind of stuff. Everybody has pitched in and bought into the whole thing. Everybody is on the same page."
Zook feels highly enough of Gilbert to name him Assistant Head Coach. It requires more work, but he considers it a compliment.
"Yes sir. I was excited. It put me in shock a little bit when Coach told me he was doing that. He told me now the 2:00am phone calls are my issues now. But I take that as a real honor. Especially with Coach because I know it means something to him."
The offensive line struggled at times last year, and it lost All-Big 10 guard Jon Asamoah and center Eric Block to graduation. But Gilbert has enough returning talent with which to work.
"We've got the same core guys coming back. We lost Jon and Block, but we have some competition going on right now which is a good thing. It pushes everybody a little bit."
During the first week of practice, the starting line included tackles Jeff Allen and Corey Lewis, guards Randall Hunt and Hugh Thornton and center Tyler Sands. Gilbert believes there is enouth depth to provide good competition for jobs.
"Right now, I've been real pleased with Jack Cornell. Ryan Palmer is pushing. Ryan played for us quite a bit last year. Corey Lewis is there, so I think we have great competition there. And we'll have great competition at center between Graham Pocic, Tyler Sands and Ryan Sedlacek. There's some guys that are gonna push and stretch the guys in front of them for playing time.
"I think when it's all said and done we're gonna have a good 8-10 guys that can go in and get snaps to keep guys fresher. The more guys you have to do that, come the fourth quarter you've got a chance to be a little bit fresher against the defense instead of running the same five guys in."