Daniels: Spring game a bowlful of chilly
Bring a blanket. And a heavy coat.
Temperatures will most likely be in the mid-30s Friday night when the Illinois football spring game kicks off at 8 (thanks BTN) in what is believed to be the first night spring game in Illinois history — and also the first one on a Friday.
“BTN kind of kicked it back,” Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. “We were going to start it earlier, but we want it on TV. It was just something that we felt we wanted to give a try. We hope to have a great turnout.”
The first three quarters will feature a normal clock and “will be (like) a game,” according to Beckman, with a running clock used in the fourth quarter, except for any two-minute situations. All drives after a score will start on the 30-yard line, and the quarterbacks will not take any shots from the defense.
What else can we expect? Here’s more, courtesy staff writer MATT DANIELS:
Each squad will have three former Illini players serving as guest coaches. Tavon Wilson, Chuck Kogut and John Wright Sr. will coach the Blue squad while Craig Swoope, Tim Simpson and Bob Standring will work with the Orange team.
“We’re honored to have these former Illini back,” Beckman said. “We are really excited about having those gentlemen back to share their thoughts (and) their experiences as Illini to our football team prior to kickoff.”
Wilson is currently with the New England Patriots. He made 41 tackles and intercepted four passes in his rookie season.
Simpson holds the Illinois record for career starts (48) and was a 1991 All-America guard. Swoope played five NFL seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Indianapolis Colts after he helped Illinois make the 1984 Rose Bowl. His 13 career interceptions rank third in school history.
Kogut was a contributor at linebacker from 1971 to ‘73, and Standring helped at safety in the 1973 season. Wright, a two-time All-American in 1966 and 1967, still is in the top 10 at Illinois for receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches.
Defensive line coach Greg Colby will serve as the head coach for the Blue, with receivers coach Mike Bellamy filling the role of head coach for the Orange.
“They will be the ones that are playing for a little extra,” Beckman said. “I think they said they’re playing for Jimmy John’s. Whoever wins has to buy the other one Jimmy John’s next week.”
Beckman said a golf outing featuring former Illinois players will take place Saturday at Stone Creek Golf Club in Urbana, which is close to Beckman’s house.
“We’ll be able to stop by the house as we go through the 18 holes and have them be involved with this coaching staff,” Beckman said.
Don’t expect to see linebacker Jonathan Brown in action or Steve Hull hauling in passes at his new wide receiver position. Brown is out recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, and Hull is dealing with a hamstring injury.
“There will be numerous others that we won’t have involved in it,” Beckman said of an injured list that includes 18 players who will not play.
Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said he’s not sure if running back Josh Ferguson (ankle) will play, and tight ends Matt LaCosse and Jon Davis are recuperating from injuries.
Wide receiver Darius Millines (suspension) and defensive lineman Darrius Caldwell (academics) are also out.
Beckman did not give a timetable for when he expects Millines to return.
“We’re worrying right now about the spring football game, so that’s how we’ll comment on that,” Beckman said when asked about Millines.
Tim Beckman said all the kickers and punters already were evaluated in a scrimmage this spring. Hence, if Taylor Zalewski or Ryan Frain attempts a field goal, or Justin DuVernois punts the ball, no live scenarios will play out. All punts will be fair caught, and any field goal or point-after attempts will not be rushed.
DuVernois has a steady grasp on the punting responsibilities.
“He continues to punt the ball in the areas we need and with great distance,” Beckman said. “He’s done just a superb job.”
Zalewski and Frain continue to compete for the starting place-kicking job, with Beckman saying Zalewski is “edging out” Frain right now. Neither has stood out this spring, and after the Illini scrimmaged at Gately Stadium on March 29, Beckman classified the kicking as “not acceptable.”
The Illini also are working in two new long snappers — Centennial product Mike Martin and Zach Hirth — to replace three-year starter Zak Pedersen.
“It’s a constant battle,” Beckman said. “That’s what it always has to be, really, at any position.”
Early enrollees, recruits
Illinois had 10 signees arrive on campus once classes started in January. Nearly half are with either the first-team or second-team units thus far.
“Due to depth and the situations we have with the depth on this football team,” Beckman said, “they’ve had to step up, and they’ve had to come in and be a part of this team.”
Junior college transfer Martize Barr has left an impression so far, along with cornerback Darius Mosely, who graduated early from O’Fallon, and Eric Finney, a juco transfer from California who is listed as the starter for the STAR position, a hybrid linebacker/defensive back.
“Martize Barr is the first one you have to mention,” Beckman said of the wideout who helped Iowa Western Community College win a national title in December. “He’s made strides each and every practice. Darius Mosely has come in and been a factor in our program immediately. Here’s a young man that just graduated from high school and still hasn’t gone to prom yet, but he’s in the process of being involved in a Big Ten schedule. They’ve been crucial.”
The spring game also will give Beckman and his staff a chance to woo several highly coveted recruits in the Class of 2014. Receiver commit Mike Dudek from Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville is expected to attend, along with in-state prospects like Jacksonville defensive end Blake Hance, Downers Grove North linebacker Vontae Diggs, Belleville West linebacker Tori Millender and East St. Louis linebacker Kyron Watson. East Chicago (Ind.) athlete Martayveus Carter, Grandview (Mo.) tight end Freedom Akinmoladun and Blue Valley (Kan.) linebacker Henry McGrew are other key visitors Illinois will try to impress Friday night.
“It’s the home-state school,” Hance said of Illinois while he also weighs offers from Indiana, Missouri, North Carolina State, Northern Illinois, Vanderbilt, Western Michigan and Wyoming. “It’s who I’ve grown up rooting for. That alone is pretty intriguing. They’re in the Big Ten, so you can’t really go wrong with that.”
Walk-on fills role
Tim Clary graduated from Richmond-Burton in 2011 and played his first season of college football at the University of Dubuque, a Division III school in Dubuque, Iowa. Now a walk-on at Illinois, the tight end has lined up in the backfield often this spring when the offense puts Nathan Scheelhaase or Reilly O’Toole under center in a two-back formation.
“If he’s not out there, I don’t know if we could practice,” offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said. “He was that valuable in the spring. I thought he got a ton of reps. He’s probably a guy that you go in there and nobody says anything about when you’re doing a depth chart. All of a sudden, you’re sitting here talking about him. He’s got a lot of valuable reps in the two-back system, which when we get into the fall, we’re going to be all over the place again, but he’s probably got the most experience back there. He’s going to play.”
Cubit said he wants running back Donovonn Young to have a more straightforward running approach than he has in the past.
“It really fits his running style, but he hasn’t done it in a while,” Cubit said. “That’s taken a while. What we’re doing with (the offensive line) is we’re a little bit more physical with the double teams and combo-type blocks we’re working on. What I’m a big believer in is we can run east-west every once in a while but get the ball north and south. That’s the shortest distance.”