Chip Long Excited About Tight Ends, Fullbacks

When tight end/fullback/H-back coach Greg Nord left the Illini for Kentucky this summer, there was concern it would disrupt the team. But despite the short notice, Coach Ron Zook appears to have hired a highly competent replacement in Chip Long, and he has taken the ball and run with it. It is his first full-time job, but he has adapted like a veteran.

Chip Long was a graduate assistant the last two years at Arkansas, but he was the tight end coach. So he already had some background for his new role with Illinois. Despite his whirlwind hire, he is coaching like a veteran.

"I'm doing great. When football starts I'm fine. I'm good as gold. I couldn't be happier. Once I got done with the other stuff including moving, I'm just coaching and teaching."

It helps that he has coached the exact same offense at Arkansas that he is doing now under Offensive Coordinator Paul Petrino. In fact, Petrino recommended him for the job.

"Yeah, we basically haven't missed a beat. Everything I believe in, Coach Zook and Coach (Joe) Gilbert have let me do what I know how to coach. They've done a great job of accepting it, and we're seeing some results. They're really taking off with it."

Camp Rantoul is a new experience for Long, but he finds definite benefits from being isolated with the team off campus.

"It is. But I couldn't ask for a better situation coming in as I have. Now I'm around my guys 24 hours a day, so I can be with them, see how they react. You can find out a lot about a kid in 24 hours as opposed to a couple months. It's really been a good opportunity for me to be around them all the time."

Long is happy about the group of athletes available to him at the tight end and fullback positions.

"Things are going great. My guys are doing a tremendous job coming out here every day and working, taking coaching from the meetings and on the field. They're getting results and making plays. I'm very excited about these guys and their attitude."

In the spring, it appeared the Illini had tight ends who could block and others who were good receivers. Finding some who were competent at both was more of a challenge. But Long makes no distinctions.

"I wasn't here in the spring, so they all had a clean slate with me. They have taken up what I believe in, so they've all been blocking well. I've added a couple new wrinkles in how they run routes, and they're all doing a great job. They're working, trying to take coaching. They're trying to make plays."

Zach Becker is the unquestioned leader of Long's group. He had pins inserted into both feet this summer to heal stress fractures, so he has been allowed to go slowly through the first few practices.

"Yeah, the first few practices we've been limiting him to get his legs back under him. He's doing a great job. Zach's a really special kid. He knows about every position. I don't have any worry about him being ready to play. We're just kind of taking it slow."

Long agreed Becker is #1 at fullback, H-back and tight end, with a proviso.

"Yeah, but he's got a lot of guys pushing him. London Davis is doing a great job. Justin Lattimore is coming along. The kid who is really exciting right now is Evan Wilson. He's doing a great job."

There are also challengers at fullback, although one is a walkon and the other a freshman.

"Fullbacks Chris Willett and Jay Prosch are doing a tremendous job. So it's always good having fullbacks for the season because they get dinged up. It's good to be able to rotate three really good guys in there so they can all stay fresh. Zach can play all three positions, and he's gonna be on the field."

Long says it is too early to create depth charts.

"Right now I've got so many guys, I really don't go 1's and 2's. Evan Wilson is playing well right now. The more snaps you get the better you play. Justin's come on strong these past two days. I just kind of rotate them evenly with the 1's and 2's. You do well with the 2's, and I want to see what you can do with the 1's."

Wilson is a 6'-6", 237 pound Georgia freshman. He has made his presence felt despite his youthfulness. Being slender, one wondered if he would be a competent blocker. Long believes he can be.

"Oh, yeah. He's done a great job. That's one of the things I was anxious to see how he'd do, and he's put his face right in there and didn't skip a beat. He's been a great surprise in camp and a big surprise to me.

"He learns really well, he's really conscientious, asks millions of questions in meetings and comes out and applies them on the practice field. And he's a really tough kid too. That's a good sign. He's gonna be a great player for Illinois.

"He has great hands. What I really like with him, when he gets tired and hot he's able to focus and do what he's coached to do when he's tired. That's a really rare thing in a freshman. He does a great job of fighting through that."

Besides Becker, Davis has the most experience. As a freshman he struggled catching the ball, but hard work and dedication have helped him overcome that.

"He's been great. He's done a great job catching the ball. We really focus on exploding your eyes on the ball with a quick tuck, and he's really done a great job of emphasizing that. Attacking the ball in the air.

"London has been a big break for me. He's an older guy, a leader. He could have come in, acted a certain way and made it hard on me. But he's been nothing but great. I couldn't be happier about it."

Lattimore has added strength and bulk to his slender frame, allowing him to improve his blocking.

"He's come along really well. He's one who's taken our teaching to heart. He's getting to the size to hold his own. He's starting to get a tougher physical mindset. Every day in our room we preach physical, physical, physical. He's a physical blocker, he'll be a physical route runner, he'll be a great receiver. He's doing a great job of turning the corner with that. I'm happy for him."

At fullback, Willett and Prosch are competing with Greg Fuller for what Long hopes will be a three man rotation to include Becker.

"Chris Willett and Jay Prosch have been working, and Greg Fuller as well. We have to keep rotating the three fullbacks. We usually go with the hot guy, the guy who's playing the fastest.

"It's a long season and a long camp. We work them each equally, and I kind of go with who's being most physical that day. Each day they've got to come out and prove it to me who's gonna play."

Prosch is an Alabama freshman who is a workout warrior, coming in with an extremely well-muscled body at 250 pounds. He has shown some quickness and ability to catch the ball.

"He is. He's done a great job. The first couple days the game was fast for him. But he's settled down and getting comfortable. I always try to hold them back, but he's gonna be a great player. There's no doubt about it. He's a really smart kid."

Willett is a walkon originally from Liberty High School in Livingston, New Jersey. He transferred to Illinois from Missouri and has three years of eligibility. His body build and overall demeanor on the field remind of a young Zach Becker.

"Chris has been great. He's a bull in the china shop. He might not know where he's going quite yet, but he's going full speed and gonna try to hit somebody as hard as he can. I love that. I can coach the rest of it. He's been really good for our group. He's added intensity and passion to my group."

Illini tight ends and fullbacks will play a more important role in the offense this year. Based on early results and the compliments from the players, it appears Chip Long has made a strong early impression and is firing his guys up to make contributions throughout the season.

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