Illinois offensive coordinator and receivers coach Paul Petrino has much to do and little time to do it. Besides getting his offense to function as a unit and play error-free, he is seeking the best players at every position. Last Saturday's scrimmage likely helped that process, but spring practice is only half over.
"Picking all 11 guys is on our mind. There's competition at all spots, and everybody's battling. It's really just finding out who all the best guys are. The next two weeks are gonna be big."
"I think there's a lot of competition between Ford and Leshoure."
It was Leshoure who made the biggest impression in the scrimmage Saturday. He gained over 100 yards using both quickness and power. Petrino has a philosophy of "feed the studs," and Leshoure is prominent in his thinking.
"Leshoure obviously. That's the guy you're gonna hand the ball to. I think he had a good day too, no doubt. The very first day I was hired, I thought he'd be one of them."
Leshoure made significant process toward improving his body last year, and it appears he has undergone even more transformation since then.
"I think he has. He's been running hard. He's just got to figure out how to finish a little bit better. That's something we've all got to work on."
Leshoure had a couple disciplinary problems his first two years on campus. Is he consistently trustworthy now?
"He's been good since I've been here. He's a hard worker and a good kid."
Petrino says his offense requires some new learning by Leshoure and the other running backs, but he believes they will adapt readily to the changes.
"He'll have a guy blocking in front of him, but sometimes it might not change a whole lot. We might have different types of runs than he's had in the past, but it still comes down to getting the pads down and running hard. We'll probably have a few more downhill runs with a lead blocker."
There was more running than passing in the latest scrimmage, but much of the day was spent practicing specific situations like beginning on the offense's own 1 yard line plus numerous third-and-short sequences. Petrino needs a strong running game to set up the pass and keep the defense off balance.
"We'll try to be 50-50, but we'll try to do what we do best. The way the scrimmage was set up, coming out on the minus one, you've got to run the ball to get out of there. So there were a lot of runs there. And then some of the stuff going in at the end. In the middle, I tried to throw several passes in a row.
"I don't really care about the percentage as long as we keep the defense on their toes. As long as they don't know when we're gonna run and pass, then we're in good shape. You get the running game going, and it makes everything easier. Especially off play action. That's gonna be a big thing."
As receivers coach, Petrino has a reputation for developing good receivers into great ones. At the least, he works them extremely hard. A.J. Jenkins, who may be one of the top two receivers along with Jarred Fayson, says he is the hardest coach he's ever had. Petrino says that's a good thing.
"Yeah, it's a compliment. I also talk to him on the phone, and I'm around him more than any other coach he's had. I think if you build a relationship with them and they know you care about them, then you can coach them hard. I think that's the key."
No talk about the offense can be complete without mentioning the quarterback situation. Nathan Scheelhaase ran with the first unit all last week, but Jacob Charest and freshman Chandler Whitmer are still in contention for the job.
"I want to have pressure on them to see who responds best to pressure. I want them all out there competing for a job."
Less has been stated about Whitmer, but Petrino definitely likes what he brings to the table.
"Whitmer is a little more of the purest thrower. He has a really nice throwing motion. And he throws it hard. So he's a little more of the pure guy who can drop back and hum it."
Petrino and quarterback coach Jeff Brohm are still standing near the huddle to call plays during practices. By fall, hand signals will relay the plays, but not now.
"I want them playing right now, not learning all the signals. I don't want someone else coming in and stealing our signals.
"I think right now we'll be out there with them, and then we'll have them work on that all summer. We'll make a tape, a signal tape they'll do on their own in the summer, and then we'll use it a lot in the fall. I want them to just play right now and not sit up at night memorizing signals."
Petrino works hard and expects his players to do the same. But perhaps the key to his success is the closeness he shares with his offensive players.
"I try to get as close to all of them as I can. We all have to be together. The more you get to know them, the more you can coach them better. What buttons to push."