RANTOUL — Scribbling notes on a practice plan, Tim Salem asked what time it was after a recent Camp Rantoul practice.
The Illinois running backs coach and special teams coordinator is in full camp mode.
Football all the time. Film to watch. Meetings to conduct.
Coaching, coaching and more coaching. With a few meals mixed in, where most of the talk also revolves around football.
“We’re in such of a routine that I could be in New York City, and I don’t think I’d even know,” Salem said. “I couldn’t tell you the price of gas. I couldn’t tell you what’s happening in the world. I don’t have my phone. I don’t know what’s happening outside of Rantoul.”
It’s a near collective coaching effort when it comes to the special teams. At Friday morning’s practice, Tim Beckman worked with returners catching the ball, receivers coach Mike Bellamy helped the returners find their running lanes and inside linebackers coach Mike Ward showed the blockers where they need to go.
Tight ends coach Alex Golesh deals with the specialists — kickers, punters and long snappers — and outside linebackers coach Al Seamonson also pitches in on special teams.
“It’s a group effort within everybody,” Salem said. “We’ve got phases of special teams. We’re installing now, and we’re not only preparing ourselves for the season, but we’re finding out what players can do what, so we can put the right pieces to the puzzle together.”
Making sure Illinois has better results in both the kick return and punt return is an emphasis. Illinois finished 118th last year in punt returns and 107th in kickoff returns.
The Illini fared a bit better in punt return defense (28th) and kick return defense (88th) last year, but it’s an aspect that needs improving.
Don’t be shocked if some starters on offense and defense contribute on special teams.
“Nowadays you have to,” Salem said. “The rule is if you’re starting on offense or defense, besides linemen, we want to try and use you in at least one special teams. With depth nowadays, you can’t count on all your (backups) to be playing them. If you’ve got a guy back there that can be one of the guys running down on kickoff and make a big play, then guess what? You put him down there. But you’ve also got to be smart where they can’t do all the phases and be wore out during the game.”
Having three experienced running backs in Donovonn Young, Josh Ferguson and Dami Ayoola provides some solace for Salem in trying to improve the Big Ten’s second-worst rushing attack last year.
“They’re having what I would think is a solid camp,” Salem said. “They’ve all gotten stronger, which is good to see that the strength gains are paying off on the football field. It’s helping in things like pass protection and inside running abilities because they’re thicker and stronger.”