Spring game: Notebook
CHAMPAIGN — Bring out the jabs.
Corey Lewis has heard them before from his Illinois football teammates.
That the sixth-year offensive lineman was in Champaign when Ron Turner was in town from 1997 to 2004.
That the Cresco, Pa., native played along the line with former Illinois offensive line coach Luke Butkus from 1998 to 2001.
“You get a lot of that, and people calling me grandpa and things like that, but you take it in stride,” Lewis said. “At the end of the day, it’s all fun and games. I don’t take it personally. I’m happy to be here.”
And happy he’s healthy. For now.
Given his long list of knee surgeries (five) and missed games (30) because of his subsequent injuries, Lewis takes nothing for granted when it comes to football.
“I’ve done well so far this spring,” he said. “I’m getting a lot of good reviews from the coaches. It’s crazy because I’m still not 100 percent, and I think I’m doing well. By the time the season arrives and I’ll be 100 percent, everything is going to click.”
Illinois coach Tim Beckman said Lewis — the only Illini on the roster born in the 1980s (Oct. 16, 1989) — has brought an added maturity to the team.
“Corey Lewis comes in my office probably four to five times a week just to talk,” Beckman said. “That’s the type of young man you’re talking about. Corey Lewis, to me, is what college football is all about. His commitment to this game is just huge.”
A candidate to start at right tackle, Lewis said the process of applying for a sixth year of eligibility is an arduous one.
“You’ve got to track down everyone,” Lewis said. “For me, I’ve had different doctors, different coaches and different athletic trainers, so I had to get information from everybody. Everybody who has handled me during my five surgeries all has to get the information. We’re now on our third athletic trainer (at Illinois), so we had to get statements from all of them, and all those guys are in different areas.”
Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said Lewis had a productive spring, in practice and away from practice.
“From an on-the-field standpoint, Corey has been playing great,” Scheelhaase said. “He’s done an excellent job of being correct with his assignments. He’s really established himself as a leader. He’s been through more adversity than many guys in the country will ever have to go through in college.”
Lewis survived Friday night’s spring game intact, the first spring he’s finished healthy since 2009. For the last player in Illinois’ Class of 2008, Lewis is eager to end his career on a healthy note.
“I love football,” he said. “I could have gave it up a long time ago and just gotten my degree. I’m working on my master’s right now, but I felt football is what I came here to play.”
Scheelhaase is still the starting quarterback. Reilly O’Toole is still the backup.
Both will likely still have those labels when Illinois opens its season against Southern Illinois in a little more than four months.
“With a new offense, of course, it has created newness for both quarterbacks,” Beckman said. “They’ve both progressed. Nathan probably was ahead of the game after the first six practices. Reilly has had a good finish here. They’ve both performed, in my opinion, extremely well. The spring game is huge. We can’t get enough reps with the youth of this football team.”
Scheelhaase manned the Blue squad Friday, and O’Toole directed the Orange team. Chase Haslett played on both teams with Jim Nudera out with an injury.
“Nathan has got the step in front,” Beckman said. “This football team respects those two so much ... (and) that they can both be successful.”
Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit is the fourth signal-caller Scheelhaase has had during his career. Adapting to new coaches has become routine for him.
“Because I’ve learned what I feel are so many offenses at this point, there’s nothing new as far as concepts,” Scheelhaase said. “It’s just about putting terminology into use.”
Cubit said O’Toole needs all the work he can get.
“He didn’t play a lot last year,” Cubit said. “We’ve got to get him a lot of experience.”
Illinois wore orange bracelets last year with the date of the Big Ten championship game (12-1-12) listed.
This year, the bracelets are still around, just with a different theme.
WIN, or “Whatever is needed,” as Beckman references the three-letter acronym.
“We talk about winning today,” Beckman said. “We’re anxious and committed to just taking one day at a time. This program needs to take one day at a time and continue to strive to get ourselves better.”
All players in the program have one, and Beckman said it’s a staple he plans to use every year.
“It’s something I believe in,” he said. “It’s something we’ve always done.”
Illinois was the only Big Ten school to play its spring game Friday night. Nearly half of the Big Ten — Michigan, Northwestern, Ohio State, Purdue and Indiana — will hold spring games today. Penn State, Michigan State and Wisconsin are set to play April 20, and Minnesota and Iowa on April 27. Nebraska had its spring game last Saturday.
Seven other teams held their spring game Friday: Maryland and Pittsburgh out of the ACC, Houston out of the Big East, Texas El-Paso out of Conference USA, Bowling Green and Toledo out of the Mid-American Conference and UNLV from the Mountain West.
Illinois is on its third offensive line coach since its season ended in November at Northwestern.
Butkus is gone to the Jacksonville Jaguars, Jim Bridge to Purdue.
A.J. Ricker has worked on Beckman’s staff for a little more than a month, joining a familiar face in Cubit after he was Western Michigan’s offensive line coach last season when Cubit was the Broncos’ head coach.
“Coach Ricker has done a fabulous job,” Beckman said. “His background of being around Coach Cubit and knowing exactly what Coach Cubit demands and expects our offensive line to do and perform each and every day has really given a step up with our offensive line’s progression.”
Returning starter Simon Cvijanovic knows doubts will exist about the effectiveness of a unit that gave up the most sacks (39) of any Big Ten school last season.
“That’s the life of an offensive lineman,” he said. “You just take it on the chin and keep going to work every day.”
Bryan Banks had a short drive to Memorial Stadium on Friday night.
The former Centennial quarterback, who is third all time in Twin City history for passing yards, worked the spring game as a field judge.
The 28-year-old, who became engaged to Kayla Lampe last October and is planning a September wedding, lives in Champaign. He works at Busey Bank in Champaign, in fact.
“They told us to get there by 6:30,” Banks said with a laugh before the game. “So I’m planning on leaving by 6:15.”
Banks has officiated the past five football seasons. Three of those seasons saw him working high school games — two seasons in Chicago and its surrounding suburbs and one season in the Champaign area after he moved back to town in 2010. The last two seasons he has officiated at the Division III level, including an assignment in a national semifinal game last fall.
Banks said he worked one of Illinois’ practices earlier this spring, but getting the chance to do so under the lights at Memorial Stadium is a moment he plans on cherishing.
“I wouldn’t necessarily call this a tryout, per se, but someone in the Big Ten office must have thought I’d be ready for this, even though it’s just a spring game,” Banks said. “It will just be cool to be on the field. Not a lot of people get the opportunity to do that. It will definitely be a lot different from my typical experience of just sitting in the stands.”
Banks said it’s still up in the air what games he might work and at what level next season.
“Typically our assignments don‘t come out until later in the spring,” he said. “Our crew, though, should still be together.”