Tate: Butkus tackling a challenge
There are those who might consider this chucking the youngster into the pond to teach him how to swim.
The most critical and complicated position on Tim Beckman's new UI football staff is being handled by the staff's least experienced college coach. This is not the defensive line, about which the late Jim Valek joked: "You snap the ball and they throw a fit." No, this is offensive line where cooperation and technique are as important as muscle.
Luke Butkus, who played alongside current NFL stalwarts Tony Pashos and Dave Diehl on the UI's 2001 Big Ten champions, has the task of rebuilding a front five that struggled in 2011.
Illinois has established returnees virtually everywhere else. The defense, which ranked No. 4 nationally in tackles for loss (7.9) and No. 7 in total defense (286.2 yards), returns eight starters from the 20-14 bowl win over UCLA.
Skepticism focuses on an offense that ran aground at midseason, failing to score a first-half point in five of the six games in the late-season losing streak.
With a superb kicker (Derek Dimke), the Illini struggled to even reach field goal range. They averaged 11 points in those six games, most of the points coming too late to help, and fingers pointed directly toward the offensive line.
Is that fair?
"I don't know," Butkus said, "but it may be partly true. We are not looking back. We talked about it, and threw it away."
So here we are. It's yours, Luke. Sink or swim!
Butkus is comfortable in old-new surroundings, at ease in a community where uncle Dick Butkus was the premier defensive player of his time.
"I'm home," he said from his Memorial Stadium office. "This is cool. It means the world to me to be back.
"When I played here, I learned from Harry Heistand (now at Notre Dame), and I was his assistant when he was with the Bears. Harry is an outstanding line coach."
From Chicago, Butkus moved to the Seattle Seahawks, where Beckman became aware of him through his brother, Ted Beckman. The Illini head coach was immediately impressed by Luke's desire to help his alma mater.
"We're not here to run a million schemes," Butkus said. "Whether it's spread or I-formation or two-back, our job is to move people up front, and to protect the quarterback in the passing game. Ours is the hardest position because offensive line technique is unnatural. You don't grow up to be an offensive lineman."
His evenly-divided units didn't do a good job of protection in the recent spring game. UI defensive ends frequently evaded blocking efforts by the tackles. You might say Michael Buchanan and his buddies ran wild.
Biggest question now is whether position changes should be made. The top two seniors, Graham Pocic and Hugh Thornton, line up at center and guard. Either could play tackle.
Butkus won't say, evading with the comment: "Spring ball gave me some ideas. We're going to play the five best linemen, regardless of position. They're team players. I've met with each of the linemen individually in the last few days.
"Don't worry. We're going to have the best summer of work these guys have ever had, and we'll have a left tackle (where Jeff Allen graduated) to protect the quarterback."
Pocic and Thornton will lead the summer workouts. A third senior, Tyler Sands, competed this spring at right guard with redshirt Ted Karras. Former head coach Ron Zook had high regard for the Karras class, also redshirting Scott McDowell, Pat Flavin, Chris Boles and Tony Durkin with an eye to the future. Their development is crucial, as is that of third-year sophomores Michael Heitz (eight starts) and Simon Czijanovic (four).
The gang is big enough. Spring weights show 15 huskies (not counting incoming freshman) average out at 296 pounds. Question is: Are there gems in the group? Who'll develop like Diehl, who served as backup before starring as a senior in 2002, and then became one of the NFL's best-paid linemen in New York?
Butkus needs several of these young giants to make that step. Otherwise, the offense won't get off the ground.
Transfer of power
The Mike Thomas attitude toward transfers is basically, "If they don't want to be here ..."
That assumes no tampering by another school, and the likely elimination of Big Ten members from the student-athlete's list.
Big Ten rules have changed. After decades in which an athlete could not receive grants-in-aid financing, that is now possible. The penalty is a loss of one season of eligibility after sitting out the first year under the NCAA transfer rule (which can be appealed in special circumstances).
The fuss over redshirting Wisconsin basketball forward Jarrod Uthoff is this: The Cedar Rapids, Iowa, product could go anywhere he wanted, but can't receive financial aid during his sit-out year unless the Badgers tender an official release ... and, if it is a Big Ten member, he would be granted only three years of eligibility.
As our Paul Klee mentioned, this is just one example out of more than 300 cases where college basketball players are transferring this year. And Illinois is interested in several, including former Centennial and Drake standout Rayvonte Rice.
Rice is a highly aggressive athlete with wing qualifies. He averaged 13.8 and 16.8 points in his two seasons at Drake, but shot poorly from the arc: 24.1 and 29.5 percent. If he comes, he would become eligible just as two wings, Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson, are leaving.
One further note: Restrictions on transferring players seem severe considering that coaches can leave on a mintue's notice for a better deal. And the coaches are the ones usually screaming about loyalty, just before they take a better job.
— Thomas believes the one-and-done rule in basketball is "too short of a window," and would prefer basketball players be required to spend two years in college before turning pro. He said: "At schools with the semester system, a basketball player can basically stop attending class in January with no consequences."
— In attending the UI women's swim banquet, Thomas was informed that 47 swimmers received academic awards at the conference's 12 instituions, and 23 of them were Illini.
— The Illini athletic director intends to replace the stadium scoreboard in 2013, and is studying the idea of ribbon boards on the north end. A new floor at Huff Hall is also in the long-range plans, along with other renovations there.
Why I Feel YOUNG ...
No La Russa. No Duncan. No Pujols. No Carpenter. No real Wainwright. But there they are, demonstrating again that the Cardinals will be formidable. Year after year, the birds on the bat keep it interesting.
Why I Feel OLD ...
I wasn’t a big American Bandstand viewer, but the death of eternal teenager Dick Clark amounts to yet another wave goodbye to youthful days. These waves are coming so frequently that my arms grow tired.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org