Heading home: Five thoughts as Camp Rantoul concludes
The Illinois football team bids farewell to Camp Rantoul tonight. Five items beat writer Matt Daniels learned from the past week in Rantoul:
1. Backup plans
It’s a foregone conclusion Tim Beckman will anoint Wes Lunt the next starting quarterback at Illinois. The Oklahoma State transfer can make all the throws offensive coordinator Bill Cubit wants and has displayed the most consistency, along with getting the most snaps with the starters, of the three QBs vying for the job.
The question then turns to who steps in if Lunt falters? Reilly O’Toole appeared to have the edge coming out of spring practice, but Aaron Bailey made a late surge the last few days of practice last week. Do you go with the mobile and more athletic Bailey, or the more experienced O’Toole, who probably has a better grasp of the Illinois offense? Stay tuned.
2. Turnover time
The lack of takeaways significantly affected the Illini last season. Forcing turnovers — whether by fumble or interception — is a critical area defenses have to deliver upon if they want a winning team.
“We talk about ball awareness on every play, and what arm is the running back carrying the football in and where we need to tackle them,” Beckman said. “We’re really rewarding opportunistic play going after interceptions. Our players understand more what’s going on.”
Earnest Thomas, Mason Monheim, Henry McGrew, Eric Finney and many more have come away with interceptions in Rantoul. Decreasing the turnover margin is a point of emphasis for the Illini after the defense was severely deficient in the area last year.
“Words can’t express how badly I want the defense to be a solid piece of the team this year,” cornerback Eaton Spence said. “I’m a defensive guy, so I love to see the ball being taken away.”
3. Real deal Neal
T.J. Neal wasn’t shy about strutting his dancing skills on the sideline last week. But the middle linebacker concedes hulking defensive tackle Teko Powell is a better dancer than him.
“Based on the defensive guys, it has to be Teko,” Neal said with a laugh. “He’s a big guy, but he can move.”
The confidence and play-making ability Neal displayed during spring ball has carried through into August. It’s why the redshirt sophomore is poised to become a focal point of the defense at the spot Mason Monheim occupied the last two years.
“I’m very comfortable,” Neal said. “I’m to the point where I know about personnel and formations from the offense and how they’re going to attack the defense. In the past, I was thinking more about my responsibilities. Now I can just play.”
4. Special teams warrants attention
The start of practice usually features special teams work. The end of practice usually emphasizes special teams play. It could hone in on field goal kicking from different points on the field and full-speed return drills. Or it could feature coaches breaking down, in great detail, specific blocking lanes players need to fill on the return game, and vice versa. Beckman involves his assistants in nearly every aspect of special teams, and Beckman himself focuses his attention on the returners.
“Our players should be even better on special teams as we continue to move the program forward,” Beckman said. “We challenge our offense and defense, and we challenge our special teams, too.”
5. Connecting with the fans
Whether it was Beckman, O’Toole and Thomas sticking around after practice to talk to Rantoul Mayor Chuck Smith, the entire Illini team shaking hands and signing autographs for youth football players with the Rantoul Falcons or Monheim helping out a young lady with her broken bike in a downpour, Illinois has embraced the fans who have come out to watch the team in Rantoul. It may not help Illinois win a few more games, but any goodwill it can establish now is a positive.
“It really makes you sit back and think that it’s a blessing to be in the position that we’re in, and that we have some type of influence over communities in Illinois,” running back Donovonn Young said. “It’s a great thing to see kids looking up to you. We have a sense of responsibility to be a role model to those kids.”