UI football camp: 'The end is far away'

UI football camp: 'The end is far away'

URBANA — Lovie Smith never had to coach against Gill Byrd the player. Byrd's 10-year NFL run ended before Smith became a pro assistant in 1996.

But their paths eventually crossed in the NFL, with Byrd working with Smith for the Rams, Bears and Bucs.

When Smith had the chance to bring Byrd to Illinois, he jumped at it.

"Gill is as good a man as I've been around, on and off the football field," Smith said. "He's passionate about what he does. Developing men, he's outstanding with that. It helps when your name is up in the San Diego Chargers stadium."

Byrd is in his first season as Illinois' secondary coach and passing game coordinator.

How is it going on the field so far?

"Everything is going OK," Byrd said. "It's not good yet because there's not a consistency to it. We're learning and growing on a daily basis. What excites me is we're not making the same mistakes today that we made yesterday. We're going to make different ones. That's OK. Now, we're cutting down our margin of error. Every team is going to make mistakes. Our goal is to make less mistakes than our opponent, then our chance for winning increases."

Ultimately, Byrd is looking for sustained excellence.

"There's a difference," he said, "between just 'I'm OK consistently' versus 'I'm excellent consistently.'"

Byrd is working with a combination of veteran and younger players. Stanley Green is a two-year starter and Bennett Williams started seven games as a freshman.

"It really helps out a lot because the older guys can take the younger guys under their wings and help them out," Byrd said. "We do have, in my eyes, a group that's willing to help.

"I've been to places where a younger guy comes in and there's competion and you know he wants your job and the veterans don't say anything to the younger guys to help them. To a be a truly excellent team, you've got to be a great teammate and you've got to help the younger guys. The guys here are doing that."

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Byrd came to Illinois after spending the 2017 season with the Buffalo Bills. It is the first time he has worked as a college assistant. No big deal.

"Football is football," Byrd said. "I'm enjoying every minute of it. I'm enjoying the young men. I'm enjoying the challenge of developing them from adolescence to adulthood. I love mentoring young men."

The players are sponges. Mostly.

"Sometimes, they are rebellious sponges," Byrd said. "Sometimes, they're sponges that don't want to get wet. I tell them that they need to."

One of those sponges is freshman Delano Ware.

"He is progressing nicely," Byrd said. "Delano is special. He is a throwback. He has an old soul. He is serious about everything he does. He is a joy to coach. He wants to take in everything. He wants to do it right now. When you're young, the one word that's hard for you is patience. You don't have it as a young athlete."

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Byrd works closely with cornerbacks coach Donnie Abraham. Both were Pro Bowlers and had a combined 80 NFL interceptions.

"We're on point with everything we do," Byrd said. "We communicate and we want our guys to communicate. We meet as a group together once a day."

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Illinois coach Lovie Smith said the players enjoy the early-morning workouts. The only session not scheduled to take place before noon this week is Saturday, which will be at 8 p.m.

"They love the schedule and they should," Smith said.

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The Illinois opener against Kent State is more than three weeks away. No need to pick a starting quarterback now among AJ Bush, Cam Thomas, Matt Robinson, Coran Taylor and M.J. Rivers II.

"We have so many more practices to go," Smith said. "We evaluate what they do quarterback-wise. Every throw, every decision that they're supposed to make, we're grading them on it.

"We're letting everybody get reps, good and bad."

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The Illinois special teams include competition at all spots.

One position that appears to be controversy-free is punter. Australian Blake Hayes averaged 42 yards as the starter in 2017 and is booming the ball in early workouts.

"He continues to do his thing," Smith said. "Blake's a pro. What a difference a year makes. He was pumped up for our first scrimmage in the stadium last year at this time. Now, he's one of the guys and excited about his second year."

Safe to say Smith will be going back to Australia looking for future punters.

"We and quite a few other schools have figured that out," Smith said. "It's a good starting spot."

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Offensive lineman Nick Allegretti is in his final training camp. The fifth-year seniors knows the different stages.

"Six practices in right now, this is where it starts to get really hard," Allegretti said, "To wake up so early, meetings are starting to weigh on people. That's where myself, Austin Roberts, Mike Dudek, guys who played a lot of football here really have to step up, keep the positivity. These young guys, they don't know how to do it.

"The end is far away. You've got to take it day by day."

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While Illinois continues its search for a starting quarterback, receivers coach Andrew Hayes-Stoker looks for playmakers at his position.

"I like them," Hayes-Stoker said. "They're competitive. You've got guys who got new life in them. Sam Mays, he's got a new life. Mikey, he's healthier than he's been since I've been here. Rick (Smalling) is coming back for his second year.

"Then, you've got new guys who are in the mix. Carlos Sandy has done some good things. Edwin Carter made a few plays (Thursday) and in the past."

Camp confidential

Day 6 is in the books for Illinois football training camp. Beat writer Bob Asmussen breaks it down:

WHAT HAPPENED THURSDAY

On another perfect morning weather-wise, freshman quarterback Matt Robinson continued to impress. The Californian with the strong arm and good mobility appears to be in contention for early playing time.

WHAT TO EXPECT TODAY

It's Media Day, which means lots of interviews and even more pictures at Memorial Stadium. It all starts with Lovie Smith's press conference, then individual sessions. It is the one time before the season when the freshmen are available to meet the press. After today, they won't be allowed to talk to reporters until they participate in a game.

Scheduling matters

Here’s when the eight remaining Illinois football training camp practices take place, with all of them at the Campus Rec Fields except for Saturday and Aug. 18. Those practices will be at Memorial Stadium:

DATE    TIME

Today    9-11 a.m.

Saturday    Closed

Monday    9-11 a.m.

Tuesday    9-11 a.m.

Wednesday    3-5 p.m.

Aug. 16    9-11 a.m.

Aug. 17    9-11 a.m.

Aug. 18    3-5 p.m.

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