Asmussen: The week that was
On Sundays during Illinois spring football, beat writer Bob Asmussen will wrap up what he saw and heard from Tim Beckman’s team:
— The current Illini were infants when TIM BANKS was swatting away passes as a Central Michigan cornerback. They weren't born when TIM SALEM was setting passing records as a Minnesota quarterback.
But for some, especially those who grew up in Illinois, they have a playing memory of their offensive line coach: LUKE BUTKUS.
Part of the legendary football family, including superstar uncle DICK, Luke Butkus is back at his alma mater. And the current players know all his time as a starting center. A third-team All-American in 2001, Butkus helped Illinois win its first outright Big Ten title in 18 years. He was a three-year starter and anchor of RON TURNER's offensive lines that went to two bowls in three years.
Does Butkus talk about his glory days?
"All the time," offensive guard HUGH THORNTON said. "I know he was a great player. It's a great opportunity for all of us to play for a coach who played our position here and believes in tradition. He's really big on bringing tradition back. Right now, we're starting to embrace it as a group."
Butkus "brings passion" to the job.
"His motor is running all the time," Thornton said.
Butkus hasn't been a full-time college assistant. No big deal to coach TIM BECKMAN, who values his young assistant's time in the NFL with the Bears and Seahawks. PETE CARROLL's call helped Beckman on Butkus. Not that he needed much persuading.
"He bleeds Orange," Beckman said. "We can't be more proud to have him back."
Butkus is loving every minute of it.
"It's unbelievable," Butkus said. "At some point, you've got to take a deep breath and just look around. This is home. This place has got a special place in my heart."
Butkus isn't satisfied with simply returning home. He wants to win. Like the team did during his playing days.
There have been plenty of changes at Illinois since Butkus played. Like the fancy new weight room, which got a financial boost from his former teammate DAVE DIEHL.
"He lets me know about it all the time," Butkus said. "I like to say all my blood, sweat and tears paid for a little bit of this as well."
Butkus has the support of former teammates Diehl, TONY PASHOS, JAY KULAGA, DAN CUTTER, RAY REDZINIAK and others.
"I'm very fortunate to have this job," Butkus said. "We're all part of this. They're like family to me."
Butkus said he has taken bits and pieces from all of the coaches he has worked with, including Turner and former Illini offensive line coach HARRY HIESTAND.
Recruiting will be a big part of his job. He's got name recognition in Chicago and beyond.
"I have to let people know about this place," Butkus said. "We need to get them to come down here. If they get around us and they get a feel for who we are and they want to go somewhere else, then fine. But give us a chance."
— Thornton and center GRAHAM POCIC are being asked to lead the younger guys on the line. They are glad to do it.
"In everybody's career, there's a time where you have to be a follower," Thornton said. "And there's a time when you have to step up and be a leader. I think Graham and myself are doing a good job getting guys on board."
Butkus has been happy with their work.
"This is their line," Butkus said. "This is their room. Graham is really stepping up. He's taken a role and I've seen that change in him. Guys respect Hugh because he's a tough, hard-nosed kid. Both of them are doing a great job."
— It appears that Illinois will continue to practice in the morning during the 2012 season.
Former coach RON ZOOK moved the workouts to the mornings in 2011 in an effort to avoid class conflicts.
Beckman said the morning workouts seem to fit the class schedules best.
At Toledo, Beckman's team practiced in the afternoon. But that was likely to change in 2012, too. With the high number of midweek games played in the MAC, schools are moving toward morning practices.
— Former Illini fullback JAY PROSCH is petitioning the NCAA to be immediately eligible in 2012 after transferring to Auburn. The school is waiting to hear a ruling.
Given the proximity to his ailing mother, who is battling brain cancer, Prosch would seem to have a great case.
It has happened to other athletes in the past, including former Illini offensive lineman AKIM MILLINGTON. He left Oklahoma in 2005 and was allowed to play at Illinois the following season.
While Beckman's staff certainly would have found a place for Prosch, his fullback days were likely over at Illinois. At Auburn, he will continue to play the position he was recruited for at Illinois.
Auburn has made no promises to him about playing time, but he figures to be on the field early if allowed by the NCAA. Given his size and strength, Prosch should be ready for the NFL in two seasons.
With the multiple Big Ten-SEC bowl ties, Illinois could see Prosch again in the postseason. After the way he blocked against Northwestern in 2010, his former teammates know it won't be easy to stop him.
— For years, the Illini Quarterback Club has held its weekly luncheons on Fridays. Until 2012.
With the chance to have players speak at the weekly luncheons, the Club will host the events on Mondays.
— Minnesota will visit Illinois on Nov. 10. Without GE'SHUN HARRIS. The receiver has been dismissed from the team by coach JERRY KILL for violation of team policy. Harris was charged earlier in the month for felony credit card fraud.
— The entire staff from Division II C.W. Post watched Monday's practice and visited with the Illinois coaches. The C.W. Post coaches are friends with Illinois co-offensive coordinator CHRIS BEATTY.
Beckman welcomed the C.W. Post staff. He has traveled in the past to watch how other programs do their work.
"All the time," Beckman said. "I try to learn as much as I can. Like I've said, nobody knows it all."
Beckman is willing to share.
"It's a fraternity," Beckman said. "Everybody knows what everybody does. It still comes down to blocking and tackling. We like to share and see if they'll share with us too."
— Each Friday during spring drills, the Illini are watching one quarter of tape from the 2011 game against Northwestern. Or, as Beckman likes to call the Wildcats "the team upstate."
It's a tradition Beckman started during his time at Toledo. There, the Rockets spent spring studying up on rival Bowling Green (the team down South).
"It's a rivalry," Beckman said. "I have a lot of respect for the upstate. I really do. Coach (PAT) FITZGERALD has done a tremendous job. He's a class individual."
Northwestern isn't the only team on the minds of the players. They are being given scouting reports each practice on the 12 opponents for 2012. And there are quizzes.
On Wednesday, Louisiana Tech was the opponent of the day. A sample question: "How many yards per game in the air have they averaged since Sonny Dykes took over the program?"
— Sure, the plays are new. So are the coaches. And even the weather.
Other than a windy first day, which was scheduled to be indoors anyway, the Illini have had near perfect working conditions. No cold or rain.
"I think Coach Beckman ordered the weather," Illini leo (defensive end/linebacker hybrid) MICHAEL BUCHANAN said.
"This has been unbelievable," Beckman said.
— The players aren't the only ones getting a spring break. Beckman is going to give the staff time off, something they haven't had much of since joining the Illinois program.
Beckman plans to visit his parents in Florida for a couple of days before returning to C-U.
"My father (DAVE) has had a little bit of a sickness and I need to go see him," Beckman said. "He's a fighter. He's a coach."
— The son of former Illini offensive lineman CAM PEPPER is getting positive press for his eating habits. Long snapper TAYBOR PEPPER is walking on at Michigan with the hopes of competing for a starting job.
The lone holdup for Pepper, who is considered one of the top senior long snappers in the country, is his size. He's got the height (6-foot-3), but hasn't filled out like his dad, who played at 270 in 1990.
In a story for AnnArbor.com, RICK REZLER writes that Pepper is bulking up with peanut butter sandwiches. He is actually setting an alarm for 2 a.m. each day to wake up and eat a bedside sandwich.
- "It's a huge change. Practice tempo, schemes, coaches, what they expect. Everything. And I love it. It's a little more aggressive. Now, with me stepping up into a big role, I'm going to have to take a lot on and get a lot of work in." — Linebacker HOUSTON BATES, a projected starter.
- "It's a lot easier because Coach (KEITH GILMORE) can compare the stuff now to what we were doing last year. It's real simple. We can relate to him. We know what to expect from him. And we know how to practice under his command. I know my guy." — Defensive tackle AKEEM SPENCE, who didn't have to change position coaches.
- "I'm a senior and I'm a leader of this group. I feel like it's my job, when we're having down days, to get the guys going and always lead by example." — Illini leo MICHAEL BUCHANAN.
- "The biggest thing we want to do is sharpen our fundamentals. That's what we talked about, getting better at tackling, body position and really just learning the system. We really just have a small portion in (of the defense). The guys are starting to grasp it. You can see them starting to play a little faster." — Illinois defensive coordinator TIM BANKS.