RANTOUL — Mike Bellamy still has the itch.
To run routes. On a football field.
You can’t necessarily blame the former Illinois wide receiver standout, who was a second-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in 1990.
But then the 47-year-old father of three — and one of Jeff George’s favorite targets at Illinois — starts to think.
“I’m smart enough to know I can’t do it,” Bellamy said with a smile.
If Ryan Lankford, Spencer Harris, Miles Osei, Martize Barr or any other wide receiver Bellamy works with this fall still has the desire to run routes in 25 years, then Bellamy knows he has done his job.
And what a job he has. The first-year wide receivers coach is trying to transform a unit that didn’t necessarily strike fear into opposing secondaries last year.
Illinois ranked last in the Big Ten last season in passing yards. Some of the problems rest on inconsistent quarterback play. Some on the wide receivers.
“(They) should have something to prove, not only to the conference, but to yourself and to your teammates,” Bellamy said. “That’s how we’re going into it.”
He has veterans to work with in Lankford, Harris, Osei and Steve Hull, among others, and junior college transfer Barr comes into fall camp a bit quicker after shedding some weight since the spring.
“We’ve got seniors that know the offense,” Bellamy said. “We’ve got seniors that have played in the Big Ten, so right now I feel good about their production possibilities.”
Bellamy is getting used to Camp Rantoul. He was at practices last year, but in the role of assistant director of player personnel and relations, a job former Illinois linebacker Matt Sinclair now holds after Bellamy was promoted to wide receivers coach in February.
Actually getting out and coaching is an aspect the Chicago native is looking forward to.
“Last week when we started and you smell that cut grass, you know it’s the real deal,” he said. “We went through a week and got all the cobwebs out. Now it’s time to focus and get down to business.”
Not only working with the wide receivers, Illinois coach Tim Beckman is putting Bellamy to use in coaching Josh Ferguson, V’Angelo Bentley, Lankford and Osei on kickoff returns. Bellamy’s 170 kickoff return yards against Indiana during a 1989 game is still the single-game school record.
“Our whole thing is understanding the return concept,” Bellamy said. “It’s not like in high school where you’re just catching the ball and going. You’ve got guys that are coming down trying to hurt you, and they’ve got a plan on how to hurt you. It’s not all about how fast you are, but the perspective of how fast you are and how hard you have to hit the hole at the right time.”
And he’s liking what he’s experienced so far coaching out on the field at Rantoul.
“I feel comfortable, like this is what I was meant to do,” Bellamy said. “I want to help them create their journey and their stories, so in 15 years, we’re talking about their journey and not mine.”