CHICAGO — Tim Beckman didn’t take his first Illinois football team off campus for a spring practice in Chicago.
After experiencing it for the first time on a chilly Friday night at Gately Stadium, the Illinois coach is looking forward to return trips. It’s too early to speculate if the practice will take place back at Gately, where a few hundred fans and a handful of recruits — both signees in the Class of 2013 and potential prospects in future classes — turned out, but Beckman made it clear Illinois will return.
“The first year we had to put the system in,” he said, “but this will be done every year.”
Beckman said Gately served as a nice central location for the practice, which consisted of individual drills for the first half hour before a 90-minute scrimmage. Quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O’Toole operated out of the shotgun and under center in new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit’s system.
“We thought everybody could get to this area,” Beckman said. “That’s why we chose this area. Nothing special other than location.”
Osei focusing on wideout
Scheelhaase took snaps with the first-team offense Friday, while O’Toole did likewise with the second team.
Lined up out wide with the first unit was another player who threw the ball last year but likely won’t do so this year.
Miles Osei joined Ryan Lankford, Spencer Harris and junior college newcomer Martize Barr in the wide receivers’ group Scheelhaase had to work with.
“I think it’s good because I get to just focus on the craft and focus with a good group of guys instead of having to learn different positions,” Osei said. “I can really focus in on it and try to perfect it. It’s exciting.”
Cubit likes what he has seen so far from the former quarterback.
“He’s a guy that’s a team player,” Cubit said. “I think he brings a presence in the room. You always need one of those guys who knows everything that’s going on. It’s nice to have because they can make the receivers who are more isolated in their thinking and make them see the big picture.”
Osei said he doesn’t get the urge to step back and unleash a left-handed pass.
At least not yet.
“I just want to go out there, make plays and win,” he said. “That’s the bottom line.”
Beckman said linebacker Jonathan Brown, still recovering from a shoulder injury that plagued him last season, is progressing. How soon that translates into playing at full strength remains to be seen.
“He’s taking reps,” Beckman said, “but he’s not tackling.”
Another Illinois linebacker coming back from injury is Henry Dickinson. The sophomore missed all of the 2012 season and said he won’t play in the spring game.
The sophomore suffered a broken leg that caused ligament damage before the season started, so it was a welcome feeling for the Tennessee native to see the field again with the second-team unit Friday night.
“I’m still not 100 percent yet and still have no contact, but I should be ready to get back in the drills full go at the start of the summer,” Dickinson said. “It’s not a mental thing. I just have to strengthen it. I’m going through rehab, and it’s going really well, but I’m still not there yet.”
Dickinson worked off to the side on drills focused on his lateral movements during some of Friday night’s scrimmage.
“I’ve got to work up to where I can play with contact,” he said, “but it’s great to be out there with the guys.”
Lenti on hand
Frank Lenti Sr. has coached hundreds of games at Gately Stadium.
The legendary Chicago Mount Carmel coach, whose Caravan call Gately its home field, was at Friday evening’s practice along with Friday afternoon’s news conference at Soldier Field.
His son, Frank Lenti Jr., works as a video production specialist within the Illinois athletic department.
“That’s one of the reasons I came down was to visit with him,” Dad said. “It’s hopefully going to draw them a nice crowd with kids, parents and anyone else that is interested in watching Illinois football.”
Gately — which also hosts several Chicago Public League games on a typical fall weekend — received a facelift two years ago. New turf, lights, bleachers and a scoreboard were installed.
“They just did a great job with it of revamping it, literally from the ground up,” Lenti Sr. said. “They dressed up the stands and widened the area around the field for safety concerns. We’ve always enjoyed being there, but now it’s an even nicer place to play.”
Lenti Sr. has one former Mount Carmel player — defensive lineman Vontrell Williams — on Illinois’ roster. Williams redshirted the 2012 season for Beckman’s squad.
Lenti Sr. and his Caravan — which has two players of note in the Class of 2014 in running back Matt Domer and defensive tackle Enoch Smith Jr., who both have offers from Illinois — are fresh off winning a Class 8A state championship last November at Memorial Stadium. It was the 10th state title team Lenti Sr. has coached in a 29-year career that has produced a 326-59 overall record.
The veteran coach is hopeful Beckman’s second season in Champaign will fare better than his first.
“Whether you’ve been a head coach for one year or 10 years, every year is new and different,” Lenti Sr. said. “He’s had time to evaluate and figure out what to do with the program and the players to motivate them. The unfortunate thing is sometimes you get those fifth-year seniors that skip the NFL, and it becomes more about them playing in the NFL than playing for Illinois.”
Soldier Field game talked up
Beckman has coached in NFL stadiums before. Just not Soldier Field.
With the backdrop of the Bears’ home field behind him, the Illinois coach stood in the Skyline Suite addressing his squad’s game against Washington on Sept. 14.
“I’ve had the opportunity to coach in a couple NFL venues as a head coach and as an assistant coach,” Beckman said. “They’re very, very exciting times for a college student-athlete.”
Having a game at Soldier Field for the first time since the 1994 season-opening 10-9 loss to Washington State can prove beneficial to the program’s recruiting efforts, Beckman said.
“One of the biggest cities in the country is two hours away from us,” Beckman said. “We call Chicago a state, and the reason we call it a state is because we have every one of our coaches recruiting in the city. The football is outstanding, and one of the things that I continue to stress to the high school coaches and the prospects in this area is we are your team. We would love that opportunity for you to showcase yourself and your talents only two-and-a-half hours away. Again, I can’t say enough of the importance Chicago has in the recruiting (process).”
And the Bears. Beckman said when the Illini staff brings in a recruit, it shows him a DVD featuring Red Grange, the former Illinois and Bears halfback.
“It’s so interesting to see those young men and their parents as they come out and are involved in our weekends that they get to see the importance of Red Grange, the University of Illinois and the Chicago Bears had in the success of college and professional football,” Beckman said. “As a coaching staff, as a football team and as a community ... I can’t tell you the excitement of playing here.”
Beckman said the idea for the game at Solider Field came from Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas.
“Of course, I was totally behind it,” Beckman said. “Right now we’ve got this game scheduled, and we’re excited to have other opportunities to possibly come up here and play at Soldier Field.”
Thomas did not lay out a timetable for possible other future games in Chicago, but he said it might happen every two years, depending how the divisional alignments in the Big Ten are determined once Rutgers and Maryland join the league for the 2014 football season.
“Certainly we play Northwestern up here on an every-other-year basis, so my sense is it would be on the opposite years,” he said. “I do think it’s important for us to not minimize the things we’re doing in central Illinois, but to really capitalize on the opportunities offered in the great city of Chicago.”