Asmussen: During downtime, players bear brunt of maintaining work ethic
Now comes the hard part.
There are no coaches on the sideline telling them what to do. No spring practice to keep them busy for 15 afternoons.
The next time they get together for anything official will be Aug. 5. That's the day Illinois opens its 2010 training camp. Three days later, Ron Zook's sixth Illinois team reports to Rantoul.
The final act of the spring was Monday's team meeting. Zook's message to his players was simple: "You have to be a better football team when we report to Rantoul than you are right now. And I think you will be."
The players were back in the weight room during the week under the direction of strength coach Lou Hernandez.
Zook also saw the Illini in the film room, watching video from the spring sessions.
"They are still lifting and running and working," Zook said.
The players will get two weeks off in May to concentrate on finals and get home for a short visit.
"They need a little break," Zook said.
But even during the two weeks, the players won't stop preparing for the 2010 season. Even if it's just a few minutes looking at their playbooks or looking at video.
When the break ends, the players will organize 7-on-7 sessions. With a new offense and defense, the workouts give the players a chance to gain experience in the system.
"Football is a repetition game, it's a reaction game," Zook said. "We've got to get to a point where they just react."
There will be summer weightlifting and conditioning workouts. The running picks up as the players move closer to training camp.
"When the other freshmen get here in June, that's when the running will really begin to step up," Zook said. "A football player goes to camp in the best physical shape that he'll be in all year. They're not in hitting shape, but the actual cardiovascular and strength are about as good as it's going to be. You've got to get into contact."
The players aren't the only ones who are keeping busy.
Zook's staff just completed the first of four weeks of spring recruiting evaluations. Seven assistants are allowed to be on the road at one time, stopping by as many schools as possible.
"We'll come back and put it all together," Zook said.
Zook and other college head coaches aren't allowed on the road during the spring evaluation period. Last spring, Zook went to clinics during the spring, but that practice has been outlawed.
With six new coaches on the staff, Illinois has new recruiting territories to consider. Paul Petrino's contacts in Arkansas and Memphis put them in play. Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia will see more Illinois coaches than in the past.
Illinois offensive tackle Corey Lewis likely is out for the season with a torn ACL suffered in the spring game.
Zook hasn't given up hope that Lewis can return for part of the season. The usual recovery time for a torn ACL is six to nine months. The Illini open the 2010 season in four months.
"You feel bad for Corey," Zook said. "But we'll be all right. You wait and see when they go in there. Who knows whether he'll be back? There's a chance he'll be out for the year, but there's also a chance he'll be back."
Lewis hasn't used his redshirt, so he could sit out the 2010 season and have two years of eligibility left.
Zook said he doesn't have any new information on the status of Walter Aikens. The freshman defensive back has been indefinitely suspended from the team after being charged with residential burglary. Aikens' next court appearance is scheduled for June 1.
"I've talked with his father several times," Zook said.
On the Ball
Tucked away in the transactions column this week was an item about the Dallas Cowboys signing Alan Ball to a one-year contract. The former Illini will earn $545,000.
A seventh-round draft pick in 2007, Ball has waited his turn with Dallas. Now, as he enters his fourth season, he is projected as the team's starting free safety. Not bad for a guy who spent the first 14 weeks of his NFL career on the practice squad.
The Lombardi Award watch list is out, and 12 Big Ten players made the cut.
Iowa defensive end Broderick Binns, Ohio State offensive guard Justin Boren, Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland, Wisconsin offensive tackle Gabe Carimi, Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn, Ohio State offensive lineman Cameron Heyward, Ohio State linebacker Ross Homan, Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones, Wisconsin tight end Lance Kendricks, Purdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan, Wisconsin offensive guard John Moffitt and Penn State center Stefen Wisniewski are among the contenders.
Two former football players will be among the six going into the Eastern Illinois Athletic Hall of Fame. The ceremony will be Sept. 25 before the Eastern Illinois-Jacksonville State football game.
Kevin Staple, a star running back in the early 1980s, and Willie White, a receiver in the early 1970s, are two of the honorees.
Staple helped the Panthers to a runner-up finish in the Division II playoffs as a freshman. As a senior, he was the Mid-Continent Offensive Player of the Year. He currently stands sixth on the school's career rushing list.
White caught 164 passes as a Panther, which remains second on the school's career receptions list. He is fourth on the school's receiving yards list and sixth in receiving touchdowns with 21.
Passing out praise
Illinois State linebacker Austin Davis was named the team's most improved defender during the spring. Quarterback Matt Lancaster earned the most improved offensive player award.
Running back Ashton Leggett, a transfer from Michigan State, was named the top newcomer on offense. Linebacker Brandon Westphal earned the newcomer award on defense.
The Hammer Award went to linebacker Leonard Hubbard. The former News-Gazette All-Stater is a transfer from Wisconsin.
Bob Asmussen covers college football for The News-Gazette. You can reach him at 217-351-5233 or at email@example.com.