Beckman gets cooled off
RANTOUL — Tim Beckman had to dry off a bit after Tuesday’s lone practice at Camp Rantoul.
The Illinois coach, a few players and some staff members were target practice for some of the Illini in a dunk tank set up inside the media tent.
“It was a little cold,” Beckman said. “I don’t know if any ice was in there, but it was a little bit colder than I thought it would be.”
Beckman actually hit the water twice. The first time, he didn’t fully submerge after an apparent malfunction. The second time, after a few throws by DeJazz Woods missed the mark, Woods connected, dropping Beckman squarely into the water.
“We got done lifting weights (earlier Tuesday), so we brought them out here, and they had fun doing it,” Beckman said. “It’s just team bonding. This camp is about team bonding and about getting as a football team and getting closer as a family. I think this is part of it.”
Illinois wide receivers coach Mike Bellamy was the last victim of the dunk tank.
“First of all, I wasn’t scared, but it’s an opportunity to bring the guys together,” Bellamy said. “All of us were vulnerable to being chosen. It’s one of those things of who wants to embarrass who.”
Phillips, Finney sit
About halfway through Tuesday’s practice, junior college transfer Carroll Phillips walked around on the sideline with his helmet off. Beckman said he believes the linebacker, who is working with the second-string defense right now, might have suffered a concussion after running down on a kickoff during special teams work. STAR Eric Finney didn’t practice either, on Tuesday, with an undisclosed injury he suffered Monday night during a brief skirmish that ensued during the Illinois scrimmage.
Taylor Barton knows he didn’t have the 2013 season he wanted. The redshirt sophomore started the first five games at free safety before his playing time diminished to very few snaps.
“The main thing is no repeat mistakes,” said Barton, who could possibly start again at free safety, with returning starter Zane Petty moving to strong safety. “As long as I just keep improving each week and getting better, I think I’ll be happy with that. I was getting used to playing at this level and playing at this speed. The experience will help.”
If Barton doesn’t adjust, Illinois could move Caleb Day into his role. Day saw most of his action during his true freshman season last fall at cornerback, but the Illinois coaches projected him in a safety role when they landed the four-star recruit as part of the 2013 recruiting class. He is getting more reps at safety now after spending the first week of practice mainly at cornerback.
“He has got to be the most athletic kid on the team in everything we do,” Petty said. “He has posted videos of him(self) dunking over guys on the team. Once he learns the plays, he’ll be fine. He was at safety a little bit when he first got here, but it was a lot of thinking for him as a true freshman.”
Defensive coordinator Tim Banks echoes Petty’s sentiments about Day’s athleticism.
“He has corner hips, but safety size,” Banks said. “He runs like a deer and can jump. He’s going to make us more athletic back there by far and maybe give us an ability to do more man concepts.”
Shane Wynn of Indiana knows a good returner when he sees one.
The speedy and elusive Wynn boasts one kickoff return for a touchdown and one punt return for a touchdown going into the 2014 season.
Just like V’Angelo Bentley from Illinois. The two former high school teammates at Cleveland’s Glenville High School are among a handful of elusive kick returners back in the Big Ten this season.
“I have tremendous respect for that kid,” Wynn said of Bentley. “The smile on my face couldn’t have been bigger, man. Seeing someone who you helped grow up and grow into a man and be successful like that, that’s something your heart can’t stop smiling about. I talk to him before every game. We’re always checking on each other to see how it’s going.”
Special teams play, particularly in the return game, is a strong point for Illinois. That wasn’t exactly heard often under Ron Zook.
Bentley is a key reason why that has changed. His average of 21.4 yards on kickoff returns last year was the best by an Illini since Arrelious Benn (26.5) in 2009, and his average of 15.8 yards on punt returns was tops for an Illini since Christian Morton (24.4) in 2000.
Bentley and Beckman talked repeatedly in 2013 about how having a second return man — a role Miles Osei filled — helped in that aspect. Expect Illinois to have another player line up beside Bentley this season as well.
“It’s just getting a feel for the next guy in,” Bentley said. “Me and Miles had a great trust. It’s just about spending time with that guy, knowing that I can trust him, and he can trust me if the ball gets kicked to his side.”
Beckman said wide receivers Mike Dudek and Martize Barr, along with cornerback Darius Mosely, are the likely trio working to replace Osei in the return game.
“I guess it’s not a secret anymore,” Beckman said with a laugh. “It did us a remarkable job of catching the football during the year, and we ended up returning the ball extremely well. It’s another set of eyes back there to pick up any leakage that was missed from the front.”
Illinois is slated to have two more practices today in Rantoul, with the first session getting underway at 9 a.m. before the second practice starts at 4:15 p.m. The Illini will then hold one practice on Thursday in Rantoul at 4:15 p.m.
The week ends with Illinois practicing twice (9 a.m. and 4:15 p.m.) on Friday in Rantoul before the team heads back to Champaign for a closed scrimmage at 7 p.m. on Saturday.