Paul Petrino is a whirling dervish on the practice field. A receiver coach extraordinaire, he pays attention to more detail and requires more from his players than most if not all other coaches. The energy is high, the activity intense.
The Illini will no doubt drop some balls this year, but it is likely they will drop far fewer than previous years. Each practice begins with a turn at the Jugs Machine, which spirals balls to the receivers at high velocity.
Receivers face 10-15 balls fired at them in rapid succession from close range. They stand close to the machine to begin with, but they are then asked to get closer and closer the more they catch. Some get as close as 6 feet from the machine by the conclusion of their turn.
When they catch a ball, they are required to secure the tip of the ball into their arm pit and then yell out either 'blank' or 'words' depending on what they see on the ball after it is within their grasp. This forces them to concentrate not only on catching the ball but seeing it into a secured position. Through repetition, the receivers become extremely adept.
To make the drill even more interesting, a receiver catches balls while 3 other Illini players stand around harassing him, as if they are defenders in a game. While the other receivers wait their turn, they practice quick hand movements to prevent a defender from latching onto them in bump coverage. Nothing is left to chance. Few if any balls are dropped during these drills.
Then they run laterally from one side to the other to catch balls. A few balls are dropped, especially if they try to simply reach out to the ball. Petrino constantly reminds, "Drive through the ball."
After they've gone from both sides, the receivers are required to run to a cone lying on the ground and then cut back toward the ball. A come-backer is an important route for a receiver.
The last practice day of Camp Rantoul, Petrino had a couple receivers demonstrate a blocking drill he planned to begin upon returning to campus. He called it the Bag Drill.
He stationed one player with a blocking pad and then had another receiver get into proper blocking position with his butt down and eyes up. With both hands positioned on the sides of the pad with thumbs up, he had them punch the pad in rapid-fire succession 20-35 times at his discretion.
He then had both players rotate 90 degrees and repeat. Then he had them rotate back 90 degrees and repeat, then 90 degrees further and repeat. Then, the blocker was to run to a second player with pad and shift side to side to prevent the pad person from getting past him.
After a few times back and forth, he was to run to another station where he had to repeat the pad punching he did earlier. Then, to a fourth station for a second attempt at side to side blocking.
All the while, Petrino kept repeating, "Feel the burn." He knew his guys would run out of arm energy, but continuing past one's tolerance level helps to condition the arms for stronger blocking assignments. It is unknown how often this drill will be utilized, but even once will have a positive impact on receiver blocking.
Petrino is heard easily over the other sounds of practice. While some of his comments are more colorful or demonstrative, a few phrases are repeated frequently.
"Snag the ball out of the air. Take it away from the defender."
"Make a little noise."
"Where's the blank?"
"Eyes, quick tuck, blank or word."
"Drive your arms."
While he is quick to attack any mistake, Petrino is equally quick to compliment good play. He provides constant positive reinforcement, which serves as a reminder his attacks are to make them better and not to demean them.
In 7 on 7 and 11 on 11 drills, Petrino is a constant presence. He demands his receivers work for extra yardage after a catch. Even though he is still in a knee brace from his ACL surgery, he sometimes runs with his players after the catch is made to encourage them to seek extra yardage.
He harps on every little mistake as it could mean the difference between success and failure. Every route must be precise, every movement planned and repeated properly. He also requires his guys to move to the ball instead of waiting for it to come to them. He wants them to extend their arms and catch the ball with their hands.
Petrino also expects the great catch. He is constantly cajoling his troops to make the extra effort. When one long bomb tipped off the outstretched hands of a receiver, Petrino showed him a better technique and told him in no uncertain terms that play should have gone for a touchdown.
He is such a stickler for details, he teaches things some receiver coaches might overlook. For instance when a ball is underthrown, receivers are supposed to come back for it. However, Petrino reminds them to disguise their decision to slow or reverse course until the last second to prevent the defender, watching the receiver and not the ball, from realizing the ball is underthrown until it is too late.
The Illini have a large receiver corps, and many are expected to receive playing time this season. They will play beyond their skill level thanks to the care and dedication of an excellent receiver coach.