Asmussen: Assistance from assistants
It was a time to learn. From multiple angles.
For the Illinois players, the 15 spring sessions gave them a chance to digest new offenses, defenses and special teams. Terminology is different. So are expectations.
For the Illinois coaches, the workouts gave them a chance to find out what kind of players they have on hand. And what they need to do to win.
With the spring session fresh in their minds, I sat down with the three coordinators earlier this week. Defensive coordinator Tim Banks and co-offensive coordinators Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales will soon be hitting the road to recruit, looking for the next Nathan Scheelhaase, Michael Buchanan and Terry Hawthorne.
Mostly, they liked what they saw. Here's the spring perspective of each coach:
The former Cincinnati co-defensive coordinator inherits a unit that finished seventh nationally in total defense.
Of course, some of the key players from that group are gone. Whitney Mercilus is expected to be a first-round pick in Thursday's NFL draft. Linebackers Trulon Henry and Ian Thomas and defensive back Tavon Wilson are also hoping for an NFL shot.
But Banks returns top players in all three defensive sections: Akeem Spence and Buchanan up front, Jonathan Brown at linebacker and Hawthorne at cornerback.
"I thought it went well, again considering we're putting in some new concepts, some new terminology," Banks said. "I thought the kids were real eager to get out there and get going and try to learn it as fast as they can."
While the offense is getting a complete overhaul, the new Illinois defense has some similarities to the one run by Vic Koenning.
"Conceptually, they did a lot of the same things last year that we're going to do this year," Banks said. "The biggest thing is the terminology is slightly different. That was a bit of a learning curve, but we have some bright kids. For the most part, they adapted extremely well."
One advantage for Banks is the familiarity he has with the rest of the staff. He has worked with linebackers coach Mike Ward. He has spent time at camps with cornerbacks coach Steve Clinkscale. Banks has known defensive line coach Keith Gilmore since early in his coaching career.
"It was really a very easy transition," Banks said. "They're all good coaches and work extremely hard."
Gilmore is the lone holdover from Ron Zook's staff. He has knowledge about the returning players that he shared with the rest of the staff.
"We leaned on him a ton early, just talking about the strengths and weaknesses as he saw them," Banks said. "For the most part, he was dead on. It really helped us a lot in how we could best utilize some of the players."
Banks isn't spending a lot of time dwelling on the 2011 season. The coaching staff is new. So are the ideas about the best way to make it work.
"This team will stand on its own merits," Banks said. "The only thing I can say about the past, is it great to have experienced guys? Absolutely. It's always great to have some kids who have been in the battle before. But the reality of it is every year you have to stand out there and make a new name for yourself."
After working almost a decade as a successful high school coach in Virginia, including winning a state title, Beatty started his college career as Hampton offensive coordinator in 2006. During stops at Northern Illinois, West Virginia and Vanderbilt, Beatty has coached every position on offense except the line.
At Illinois, he is working primarily with the quarterbacks. But as co-coordinator, his duties extend to the entire offense.
He was happy with what he saw in the spring.
"The majority of it, I felt pretty good about," Beatty said. "It's all a process when you are installing new systems and new ways of doing things.
"I think the kids did a good job. I think they got better from (practice) 1 to 14. The kids got a better grasp of what we were asking them to try to do as an offensive philosophy."
The new offense won't look like what you saw in 2011. Switching systems is never easy, Beatty said.
"They're accustomed to the old way of doing things," Beatty said. "There's always a little bit of a transition.
"The kids wanted to get better. They understood they struggled down the stretch (in 2011). Hopefully, we can do some things to try to rectify that. I think they bought in to what we're trying to do."
Like Banks, Beatty didn't dwell on the past. The styles of offense are different. When he looked back at 2011, Beatty did it to evaluate the talent on hand. The new offense takes different pieces from the current staff. It's part Beatty, part Gonzales, part Alex Golesh, part Tim Salem and part Luke Butkus.
"It's the Illini offense," Beatty said. "Everybody does the same stuff, it's the way you present or the way you do it. It's how you attack situations. The plays are generally the same."
The offensive coaches are working well together, Beatty said. They have known each other for years.
"The bottom line is that no one has the big ego," Beatty said. "It's 'What's best for Illinois?' "
At Vanderbilt, Beatty was part of the West Coast offense. At West Virginia, he used the spread.
And at Illinois?
"Our thing is the tempo," Beatty said. "We want to try to keep defenses off balance. We want to make you defend from sideline to sideline."
The personnel will determine the plays Illinois calls.
"That's what the 15 days were about, figuring out who could do what well," Beatty said. "Now, we've got a better indication."
He has worked for superstar coaches Urban Meyer and Les Miles. He has been a part of two national championship teams at Florida and worked the 2012 game for LSU.
Next goal: help Illinois reach the 2012 Big Ten title game. He wears a bracelet with the date as a constant reminder.
To help get there, Illinois spent the spring working on the offense and instilling an attention to detail. "The little things," Gonzales said.
"They've learned kind of base concepts, run and pass, but we didn't put everything in," Gonzales said.
He was impressed with the ability of the players to grasp the new offense. It's more than football for the players, who also have schoolwork, family and a social life.
The position coaches are currently meeting with their players, giving them a goal for the rest of the spring and summer.
"At my position, the receiver position, some guys need to work specific drills a little bit more than other drills," Gonzales said. "How do they come out of the break? Some need to work on their releases. Some need to be able to track the ball a little better."
Gonzales inherits an offense that was effective the first six games of 2011, then struggled during an 0-6 finish.
"They understand that they can win and that they have won in the past," Gonzales said. "It's not like you're inheriting a program where they haven't done very well. These guys, they've had a little taste of success. At the same time, everything we're going to be talking about here is finishing. Let's finish the entire season. Let's not just win the first six and then have a dropoff."
Gonzales will tell you it is harder to adapt to a new defense than a new offense.
"I'm biased," Gonzales said. "I always say the defense is ahead of the offense. They get to react and go hit somebody. We've got to make sure we're hitting the right gap and blocking the right guy."
Some Illinois fans were worried about Scheelhaase's sub-.500 passing day in the spring game. Gonzales isn't fretting. Not even close.
"He had a really good spring," Gonzales said.
The spring game could have been scripted, set up to make a particular player look good. Instead, Illinois had a competitive game with the players divided equally.
Change of plans?
If you are about to buy a plane ticket for the Illinois-Arizona State on Sept. 8, you might want to hold off for a week or two.
There is a rumor circulating that the game might get moved to Sept. 6 or Sept. 7.
Arizona State officials said no plans have been made to switch the game. And Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas said he has heard the rumor and asked both Big Ten and Arizona State about it. Nothing has happened yet.
But there is a possibility that the game could be picked up by one of the three Pac-12 television partners: ESPN, Fox or the new Pac-12 Network. Currently, ESPN has a Thursday game for the 7 p.m. slot (Pitt at Cincinnati), but could add a late game.
Illinois would have to agree to switch the game. Given the national exposure of a Thursday or Friday night game, the answer would likely be "Yes."
If the move is made, it will likely happen within the next month. Television schedules for the first three or four games of the season are being decided now and will be released soon. Stay tuned.
During his weekly appearance on WDWS on Saturday, Thomas said Illinois is considering playing a nonconference football game every other year at a Chicago venue, either Soldier Field or a reconfigured Wrigley Field.
In even-numbered years, Illinois plays at Northwestern. In odd-numbered years, Thomas said he wants Illinois to have a presence in the Chicago area.
Illinois last played a nonconference game in Chicago in 1994, hosting Washington State at Soldier Field. The 10-9 Washington State win didn't draw a large crowd. Bringing in a name opponent would be a priority, Thomas said.
Notre Dame was mentioned as a possible opponent, but Thomas said it will be difficult to set up the games because of the number of Big Ten matchups already on the Notre Dame schedule. The Irish annually play Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue.
A temporary solution
Sean Payton has nothing to do. For a year. Arkansas needs a head coach. For a year. Why not match the two?
Payton could move to Fayetteville, serve as a figurehead and help coach the Razorbacks to what could be one of the best seasons in school history. He could let the current staff do all the work. He could help out in the offensive meeting room, but let Paul Petrino run the show. Having a Super Bowl-winning coach on the staff has to be a good thing. Even one tainted by an NFL suspension.
There really isn't much of a downside, other than Arkansas having to deal with the minor outcry. After Cyclegate, the school can handle it.
For Payton, it would be a chance to keep busy and also earn some cash. What, is the school going to sit on all of the money it doesn't have to pay Petrino? Doubt it. Might as well give some to the Saints former/future coach.
Payton isn't supposed to have contact with anybody from the NFL during his one-year suspension. That will be a lot easier if he has something else to do.
Worth the money
On Thursday, Boise State approved a new five-year contract for Chris Petersen that will pay him almost $12 million. The school got a bargain.
Given his staggering success with the Broncos, Petersen could have moved on to several high-profile jobs. But he has wisely decided to stay at Boise State, where he is 73-6 with two BCS bowl wins.
The question for Petersen is pretty simple: Can he win a national title in Idaho? If the folks in charge of the BCS make the expected changes in the system, going to a four-team format, it greatly increases the chances for Boise State. So, there is no reason for Petersen to leave his happy place for somewhere like, oh, Arkansas.
What is it about the Northwest? Two of the top coaches in sports, Petersen and Gonzaga men's basketball leader Mark Few, have repeatedly turned down opportunities to move elsewhere. If you like where you are and the money is good, there is no reason to leave.
Of course, Boise State's going to have to be willing to continue to pay. Thursday's signoff on Petersen's latest deal is a positive sign.
Dan Hawkins and Dirk Koetter had great success with the Broncos, but Petersen has taken it to another level. One few thought possible. When you name the top 10 programs in the country, Boise State has to be on the list.
Former Illini fullback Jay Prosch didn't have a carry in Auburn's April 14 spring game. But he was given credit for a solid day by the running backs, knocking defenders away like he did at Illinois.
Auburn's offense beat the defense 36-27.
Michigan is catching some heat for not sending its marching band to the 2012 opener against Alabama at Cowboys Stadium.
Hard to believe a rich band alum can't come up with the cash to send the Wolverines to Arlington. Alabama's band will be at the game, so why not Michigan's?
Athletic departments are faced with budget questions all the time. But with the amount of money spent on football at the school, and the giant stadium that fills above 110,000 each week, the cost of sending the band to the big game has to be a pittance.
Now, on the positive side, the fans who attend the game or watch on television won't have "The Victors" ringing in their ears until October.
Bob Asmussen covers college football for The News-Gazette. Reach him at 217-351-5233 or firstname.lastname@example.org.