Around the time he became confident once again in his right knee, Aaron Bailey received some mail from Illinois.
It wasn’t recruiting letters fawning over the Bolingbrook quarterback.
That time has passed.
Workouts for Tim Beckman’s prized recruit in the Class of 2013 found themselves in the family mailbox. A workout Bailey began in February when he felt comfortable enough to go 100 percent after spraining his MCL in late September.
The injury caused him to miss the Raiders’ final four regular season games and their first-round 8A playoff victory. He came back in time for Bolingbrook’s second-round game against Naperville Neuqua Valley and 2014 Illinois commit Mike Dudek, but Dudek’s Wildcats won 44-33.
Bailey rushed for 225 yards on 28 carries, including three touchdowns, and throwing for 76 yards and another touchdown.
“My knee’s good now,” Bailey said. “I’m able to squat, run and push off of it. We just kept praying and trusting in God. I kept doing rehab and working it out. I haven’t looked back.”
Bailey has spent much of the past three months prepping for the start of his Illinois career. A superb baseball player, he spent the spring away from the diamond to hone in on football.
His workouts have consisted of weightroom work every other day and running drills on days he’s not lifting. Aside from those workouts, Bailey is throwing up to three times a week.
Bailey said he is scheduled to depart Bolingbrook and make the 140-mile drive to the UI on June 9.
“I can’t wait,” Bailey said. “I hear a lot of my friends that are coming back from college and they’re telling me what it’s like. I’m excited just of the fact of getting used to college life and being on my own.”
The communications major, who checks in at 6-feet-2 and 215 pounds, knows who his two college roommates are. If he needs to work on his handoffs, he can turn to Peoria Richwoods tailback Kendrick Foster and Plainfield Central defensive tackle Bryce Douglas, who was utilized last fall in spurts as a goal-line back for the Wildcats.
“Bryce is a big dude,” Bailey said with a laugh about the son of former Illinois men’s basketball standout Bruce Douglas.
The three Class of 2013 signees are tight already.
“We’re all very close, so that’s a plus right there,” Bailey said. “They’re my boys, and it should be a fun time.”
Bailey said he talks to quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and offensive coordinator Bill Cubit weekly. He said it was bittersweet to see coaches like Billy Gonzales, Chris Beatty and Luke Butkus, coaches who played an integral part in recruiting Bailey, depart.
“You’ve got to do things like that to help the team out sometimes,” Bailey said. “At the same time, you get a chance to meet new coaches. (Coach Cubit) knows the game so well. He’s a great coach, and he’s coached a lot of great quarterbacks. I plan on being one of those.”
Bailey said no plans have materialized yet about using a possible red-shirt during the 2013 season.
“They’ve just said I have a chance to compete, and that I have the tools needed to fight for a starting position,” Bailey said. “I just want to get down there and get a chance to work with the system. It’s kind of what I look at as a multiple offense with the quarterback under center and out of the shotgun.”
Beckman said ideally he would like to redshirt all incoming freshmen. That isn’t always the case.
“One of my big philosophies is you put your best out there regardless if they’re a senior, junior, sophomore or freshman,” Beckman said. “Whoever’s most consistent are the guys that we’ll play.”
Bailey committed to Illinois nearly 10 months before Signing Day in early February. He witnessed the season Illinois went through last fall. Despite the 2-10 record, Bailey said he did not second-guess his decision to stick with the Illini. Even if it was a hot topic in the hallways at Bolingbrook.
“I was getting questions every day at school by my friends,” Bailey said. “It was tough seeing them lose, but I never wavered.”
Bailey won throughout his career at Bolingbrook, with the Raiders compiling a 35-11 record in his four years, highlighted by an 8A state championship in 2011.
“That’s one thing that goes with Aaron Bailey’s background,” Beckman said. “It says winner.”
Bailey rushed for 149 yards and two touchdowns along with throwing for 140 yards in that particular game at Memorial Stadium, numbers he hopes he gets a chance to replicate more than once at Illinois.
“I’m ready to turn the program around,” Bailey said. “I know a lot of people don’t believe it will happen until they see it. With the class that’s already there and the class that’s coming in, I don’t see why we shouldn’t be able to do that.”
Mark your calendars
A tentative schedule, subject to change, is out for how Illinois football will handle August. The Illini will make their 12th straight trip to the former Chanute Air Force Base for Camp Rantoul, which is scheduled Aug. 12-20. Players, if they’re not already on campus, are expected to report to Champaign-Urbana on Aug. 2 before a weeklong practice Aug. 4-10 in Champaign.
Media day and fan appreciation day is Aug. 11 at Memorial Stadium, with players busing up to Rantoul afterward.
And Beckman is bringing back the annual scrimmage at Rantoul High School. The Illini will practice at 7 p.m. at Bill Walsh Field the first day of camp Aug. 12. Last year Illinois did not take part in a scrimmage at the high school facility off U.S. 136.
“It’ll be like ‘Monday Night Football,’ ” Beckman said.
Illinois will have another scrimmage during Camp Rantoul, but it will take place Aug. 17 at Memorial Stadium. The Illini will return to Rantoul for the final three days of camp after their second scrimmage.
Beckman is a fan of Camp Rantoul.
“I love it,” he said. “The people up there are great. It reminds me of when I was a kid and I’d go with my dad where I’d stay with him for the camps of the Cleveland Browns. It’s just football.”
Beckman and his staff will spend much of June working the camp scene.
Illinois will hold four one-day showcase camps across the state in the first week of June along with two team 7-on-7 passing camps in mid-June at Memorial Stadium and three on-campus showcase camps aimed at high school football players.
Illinois will hold two one-day showcase camps June 1 in the Chicago area, first making a 10 a.m. stop at Lincoln-Way East High before hosting a camp at 7 p.m. at Gately Stadium. Another 10 a.m. showcase camp will take place June 2 at Barrington High before Beckman and his staff head south to O’Fallon High for a 7 p.m. camp June 8.
“I think that’s the biggest thing we’re doing that you don’t see everybody do,” Beckman said about going to different high schools. “If you talk to the 2014 players now, all the guys have been here to a game or a camp here on campus. It’s another opportunity to bring a player, to get to know them and for them to get to know you. We talk about building a family, and we legitimately believe that.”
Berry stays connected
If you see Marcus Berry at an area golf course this summer partaking in his favorite non-football-related hobby, chances are he’s spending some down time from his job.
“I love golf. I think I’m addicted,” said Berry, the new director of player personnel for the Illini who arrived in mid-February after spending four seasons at North Carolina. “I’m hoping I get a chance to play some this summer. I had a great perk at North Carolina. From Memorial Day all the way until the end of July, there was free golf with a cart and you could bring one guest at the campus course. That was an awesome perk.”
He hasn’t found his favorite course in the area, just yet. What he has found is an increased number of contacts added into his iPhone as he plays an integral role in the recruiting process.
“I’m connected to it,” Berry said with a laugh about his phone. “If you saw how many contacts I have, it would overwhelm you. It blew me away the last time I really looked.”
It did again last week, when the affable Berry scrolled quickly through the phone with his right thumb. Total count at the time produced 2,043 contacts. The list has likely grown since then. It has to.
Beckman hired the Cleveland native to fill the void created when Paul Nichols left this offseason to become the head coach at Davidson.
“You’re in charge of all the recruiting efforts, so you’re orchestrating and getting information on the top guys in each particular class, compiling information, transcripts, test scores and all of that,” Berry said. “Basically I control the on-campus recruiting. When a kid gets on campus, it’s my job to make sure he has a great experience.”
Berry can’t evaluate high school players during games or practices. He can’t visit homes. He can’t physically go to schools and talk to teachers. NCAA rules won’t let him.
“That’s the thing the NCAA has to change,” Berry said. “You can’t just send the position coaches and the head coach as the only ones to go out, especially during the season, because they’re trying to win games. If they don’t win games, then they’re not going to be there. The NCAA needs to designate a specific number of guys that are outside of coaching that can go and watch the high school games, go to practices, go interview teachers, janitors. You make less mistakes.”
Berry, who has two NFL internships on his resume focusing on player personnel, one with the Green Bay Packers in 2003 and another with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2007, is also the pro liaison for Illinois. When NFL scouts want to come to campus to watch practice, they coordinate their efforts through Berry.
“NFL guys used to always tell me, ‘How do you do your job and you can’t go to the school?’ ” Berry said. “It’s tough. It’s really tough. The rule was supposed to change in August, and they suspended the ruling. Hopefully it goes into effect next year, but being able to evaluate and go see guys would be awesome, and that would help the coaches out having a guy like me to do that.”
Berry has known Beckman for more than a decade. When Berry coached at Friendly (Md.) High School, where he won three state titles in 11 seasons, three of his players in one class signed with Bowling Green, whose defensive coordinator was Beckman.
“One thing he said he always remembered is those guys were exactly what I told them they were, good or bad,” Berry said. “He thought that was really good, so he knew I understood the job. He came after me pretty strong because of our relationship, and they gave me a lot more money. I gave North Carolina an opportunity to match, and they didn’t, so I’m here.”
Beckman said the experience Berry has had at North Carolina and his dealings with NFL scouts made him stand out.
“He is very well-respected by some big-name NFL and college coaches,” Beckman said. “He brings that air of knowledge about that position.”
Berry said he received a raise of $40,000 from his time at North Carolina.
“When you get that, my wife would have shot me if I said no,” Berry joked. “Some of my mentors told me flat out, ‘Marcus, do it the right way and give North Carolina the opportunity to match.’ ”
The Tar Heels didn’t and now the 1990 West Virginia graduate finds himself in Champaign. Looking for golf courses to play. When, of course, he’s not busy working the phones.
“The biggest thing in recruiting now is getting information and knowing about the elite players as early as possible,” Berry said. “If you can get the kid on campus when they’re in ninth and 10th grade and they’re elite, you’ve got a better chance of developing a relationship. We’ve got to ... get them emotionally tied, especially the guys in Illinois, to this school, as early as we can.”