Final Word: Wolford glad to be back

Final Word: Wolford glad to be back

CHAMPAIGN — Eric Wolford last coached a game at Memorial Stadium six years ago. The former offensive line assistant to Ron Zook is thrilled to be back.

“I have a lot of fond memories of this place,” Wolford said.

Wolford brought his Youngstown State Penguins to Champaign-Urbana on Friday afternoon. By bus. With a stop in Richmond, Ind., to break up the long drive.

As he walked off the bus and into the stadium, Wolford flashed back to the 2007-08 seasons.

“We came in and first year went to the Rose Bowl,” Wolford said. “It was a great group of guys, a good staff. The players really jelled. We really had the skill players around us; we just needed to get the O-line to play at a high level.”

And they did, beating Wisconsin, Penn State and Ohio State to earn the Rose Bowl berth.

“We made a great run that year and had some great wins in this stadium,” Wolford said.

“It’s a great place. I love being here.”

Of course, Wolford won’t have Rashard Mendenhall playing for him Saturday. But the Penguins have plenty of talent.

“I’ve got some guys who are pretty good,” Wolford said. “I’ve got a pretty deep running back field back there. This is probably the deepest group of running backs I’ve had anywhere I’ve ever been.”

Wolford always wanted to be a head coach. His time at Illinois helped him realize that dream. As did stops at South Carolina, Arizona and others.

“I’m very fortunate,” Wolford said. “Youngstown State is a great place, a place you can win.”

Wolford wasn’t the only familiar face on the field Friday. Former Illinois assistant coach Tom Sims is on Wolford’s staff.

The Penguins had a short walkthrough Friday before returning to team headquarters at Champaign’s Hawthorn Suites.

“I like to give these guys a little free time” Wolford said. “I don’t try to consume all their time; let them get away a little bit and recharge.”

During Wolford’s time at Illinois, his wife, Melinda, was a consistent presence at Illinois practices. She made the trip for Saturday’s game.

The Wolfords have two children, Stone and Marlee. Stone has a rare genetic condition. The Wolfords have started a foundation called No Stone Unturned to help support a therapy center in Manhattan, Kan.

“Stone has motivated my wife and I and a lot of other people to reach out and help people,” Wolford said.

Former Illini Jason Davis, Sam Carson and Kam Buckner stopped to see the team late Friday afternoon. They also accompanied the team to dinner, with Davis giving a pep talk.

The Illini will wear white helmets, orange jerseys and white pants during Saturday’s game.

Youngstown State will be in all white.

Illinois captains for Saturday’s game are offensive lineman Ted Karras, quarterback Reilly O’Toole, defensive lineman Austin Teitsma and linebacker Mason Monheim.

The Illini boarded several buses Friday evening after a walkthrough at Memorial Stadium. The team ate its customary dinner at the Champaign Country Club then made the trek to Urbana and team headquarters at the Holiday Inn. The team has stayed at the Hawthorn Suites in Champaign in Beckman’s first two seasons, with the opposing team setting up camp at the Holiday Inn. But the chance to have bigger meeting rooms was the main reason for the switch, according to Beckman.

“The Hawthorn was great to us,” Beckman said. “I love the location of the Hawthorn, and I’d love to continue the relationship with them probably during two-a-days.”

The players — who watched the movie “Need for Speed” on Friday night — seem fine with the move.

“I definitely think it’s an upgrade,” Josh Ferguson said. “The Holiday Inn is pretty nice. The meeting rooms are larger, so that’ll be good.”

And they’re good with staying the night away from campus.

“It’s awesome,” Ferguson said. “Honestly, I don’t know what I’d do without it. Having that day away from everything and just with the football team prior to the game is great.”

Beckman went from Friday’s team activities to Urbana High School, where his son, Alex, played for the Tigers.

With the first full slate of NFL games a week away, several former Illini in the league are expected to make a stop Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Houston Texans linebacker Whitney Mercilus, along with three Indianapolis Colts — cornerback Vontae Davis, offensive lineman Hugh Thornton and wide receiver Ryan Lankford — are slated to attend Saturday’s game. Former NFL players and ex-Illini Brit Miller and Steve Hull also are expected at the game.

Danan Hughes saw plenty of the Illini during his playing days at Iowa, in football and baseball.

“It was a little bit of a bitter rivalry with them,” Hughes said. “There were some good games.”

A star receiver for the Hawkeyes, Hughes is working Saturday’s game as BTN analyst. Chris Denari handles the play-by-play.

“I think Coach Beckman has really done a nice job,” Hughes said. “The most impressive thing I’ve seen from him is how a defensive-minded coach can lead an offense to turn around like he did. More times than not, you see head coaches who just focus on their side of the ball. Give him a lot of credit for being able to surround himself with good, offensive-minded people. I think they are definitely on the uptick.”

The first two home games for Illinois are at 11 a.m. Not exactly ideal times to get recruits in. Especially out-of-state recruits.  

“It’s not great,” Illinois recruiting coordinator Alex Golesh said. “Most guys are playing Friday night, so they’ve got film Saturday morning. We’ll have some kids get in, but as far as a big presentation before, that’ll be hard. It’s going to be hard to get kids in from outside a two-hour radius. That first night game is always huge.”

Beckman is all for night games. With recruiting near the top of his list for reasons why.

“Because of the speed of recruiting nowadays, a lot of the juniors and sophomores have already been here,” Beckman said. “Of course, a later game makes it easier for someone to drive in and to be involved here on campus. I am a proponent of night games, and the more we can do that, it helps in recruiting and with the atmosphere.”

Illinois won’t have a bevy of big-time recruits on hand for Saturday’s game. Class of 2015 commits like Jacksonville offensive lineman Gabe Megginson and Warren tight end Caleb Reams are slated to attend. Notable Class of 2016 in-state targets like O’Fallon running back Kentrail Moran and Oswego quarterback Steven Frank, who both have Illinois offers, also are expected on hand.

Bill Cubit has had nine months to ponder the first play call he makes for Illinois on Saturday. The Illinois offensive coordinator started off last season with a 52-yard completion from Nathan Scheelhaase to Lankford on a play-action pass. No word on if he’ll go deep again Saturday on the first play, but Ferguson said the offense is fully prepared. For anything.

“We didn’t know what was going to happen in last year’s opener,” Ferguson said. “Being in the offense for a second year, you start to learn the concepts and why he’s doing what he’s doing against a particular defense that week. We know where we’re headed. We have an identity now as an offense, and I’m excited.”

Monheim knows he can sneak a glance at some point during warmups Saturday and see a large contingent of family.

Monheim has one of the larger support sections among the Illini players, with nearly 40 friends and family attending each game. Most make the drive from northern Ohio, more than six hours from Champaign.   

All decked out in No. 43 jerseys that the linebacker wears.

“To look up there in the stands and see them there is a blessing,” Monheim said. “Usually see my mom and dad, and my girlfriend, during the Illini Walk. We say a quick little group prayer together, and then I go on my way.”

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