'This is ... our induction'

'This is ... our induction'

CHAMPAIGN — Playing Penn State on Friday night was just the start of a busy weekend of Illinois athletics. The Illini Hall of Fame will add its second class with a 2 p.m. induction today at State Farm Center, where 21 new members are officially enshrined and receive their awards.

Today's ceremony is after the Hall of Fame recipients were recognized at an event in June in Chicago.

"This is truly our induction," Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman said. "We stole the idea from the College Football Hall of Fame. They do a gala event — a black tie dinner — in New York City in the winter in December and then they come back and do their actual induction in Georgia later in the spring. We thought it was a great way to celebrate the tradition that we have with the Illini both in Chicago and here in Champaign."

The Friday night football game also led to more football at Memorial Stadium today. Four high school football games — Centennial against Peoria Notre Dame, Unity against Olympia, Urbana against Bloomington and St. Thomas More against Rantoul — will start at 10 a.m. and run the entire day.

"We're actually really excited about the swap that we made with a number of the local high schools," Whitman said. "We recognize that playing college football on Friday night poses a potential conflict for them, so we thought it would be a great way to extend a hand and give them a pretty memorable experience letting them run out on the turf at Memorial (Stadium)."

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Whitman had even more on his plate than Illinois-Penn State football and the Hall of Fame weekend. Several Illinois teams had recruits on campus, and Whitman made himself available to the Illini coaches.

"(Friday) afternoon I met with a group of men's gymnastics recruits," he said. "Before the game, (I met) with some swimming recruits. We've got some basketball recruits in town. We've got some football recruits in town. It's something that I enjoy doing, and I certainly make myself available to talk to prospective student-athletes as they're here on campus."

Whitman is also realistic about what he can add to those visits.

"When I talk with them, they don't really care that much about the athletic director," he said. "They may not even know exactly what I do. What I think resonates with them is the fact I was a student-athlete here (and) that I have a law degree from here. I think I'm able to speak on a very personal level about why this place is special, why it's different and why their opportunity to come here could be as profound in their life as it has been in mine."

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Friday night's game against Penn State was a fairly good draw for Illini fans at Memorial Stadium. Percentage wise, Ubben Basketball Complex was still fuller earlier in the day.

Illinois basketball fans lined up four and five deep along the balcony level at Ubben to watch top-50 recruits E.J. Liddell, Terrence Shannon Jr. and Oscar Tshiebwe go through individual workouts and scrimmage with the current Illini during their official visits.

The crowd — perhaps 350 strong as fans continued to stream in — was arguably bigger than even the group that showed up a year ago this time during Ayo Dosumnu's visit.

Chants of "I-L-L, I-N-I" and plenty of "We want E.J." and "Stay home E.J.," rained down at Ubben. Shannon and Tshiebwe had their own specific chants, too.

A couple of people in the crowd stood out. Illinois freshman kicker Caleb Griffin stopped by briefly before Friday night's game, and former Fisher standout Nick Griffith was in attendance to watch his brother, recent Illinois walk-on Zach Griffith, during the scrimmage.

Another visiting recruit also made her way over from the other half of Ubben. Five-star guard Brea Beal, on campus for an official visit with Nancy Fahey's Illini women's basketball team, got a front-row seat for the men's team's scrimmage after spending time with the women's team.

Illinois basketball coach Brad Underwood is still angling for his first commitment in the 2019 class. Liddell, Shannon and Tshiebwe are clear priorities, and all three are likely nearing the end of their respective recruiting processes. Illinois was Liddell's last visit, while Tshiebwe still has visits scheduled with perceived favorites West Virginia and Kentucky.

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Rod Smith just laughed when asked about what Northwestern coach (and former linebacker) Pat Fitzgerald said about teams that utilize a run-pass-option offense.

Fitzgerald, perhaps only half-jokingly, called RPOs the "purest form of communism" and expressed some displeasure in officials missing ineligible linemen downfield when potential run plays are optioned into passes.

"I understand what he's saying," Smith said after he was done laughing. "The rule is what it is. We're just taking advantage of the rule. Everybody is now. I wouldn't want to be a defensive coach today because the rules are slanted to the offense. That's the reality."

Smith learned about RPOs from Mike Springston, who he served as the coordinator at West Virginia Tech in 2000. Smith said Springston brought that offense with him when he was hired as the coordinator at Eastern Kentucky, and Smith said he first started using it at Michigan under Rich Rodriguez at the same time in 2008.

"I hadn't seen anybody do it at (the FBS level)," Smith said. "We were kind of one of the first ones to do it, and we just kind of dibbled and dabbled at Michigan. As we left Michigan, we kept doing it more and more each and every year and now you see everybody does it."

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Illinois has had more success in the run portion of RPO so far this season behind Mike Epstein and Reggie Corbin. Improvement from the Illini offensive line, Smith said, has helped spur the run game, which had 245 yards on Friday night.

"We've been able to run the ball a little bit with some efficiency," Smith said. "We still need to be better. There's a whole other level we need to get to. It all starts up front. If our guys play with good pad level and good technique and do what they're supposed to do — what they're asked to do — it puts it on the tailback. Now the tailback's track and his footwork and everything has to be proper as well. It's a coordinated and synched effort between the two."

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The Illini offensive line is still young despite the experience the mostly sophomore group picked up last season. Smith is counting on more growth from that young group alongside redshirt senior guard Nick Allegretti.

"Those guys know a little bit more than most young guys because they were forced to play so earlier and they got their head cracked," Smith said. "I think those experiences are starting to pay off a little bit for our guys, and they'll continue to pay off even more so moving forward as they get better and more acclimated to what we're doing and as they continue to get stronger in the weight room.

"We're still pups. We're still young. There's still another level we're going to get to from an offensive line standpoint."Illinois has played mostly the same five offensive linemen this season, although both Jake Cerny and Jake Stover got on the field against South Florida. That continuity has helped.

"It helps when you keep the same group of guys," Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. "They have gotten a lot of time together, playing together. And I think it helps the confidence, too. Of course when you talk about those explosive plays, they know where it starts, and they know how big of a part they have had in it."

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Kendrick Green is the least experienced of Illinois' five offensive linemen. The redshirt freshman made the switch from defensive line during the summer and said he was still going through some struggles a couple weeks ago.

"Now I feel like I'm really getting comfortable and trying to hone in," Green said.

Green is taking his cues from offensive line coach Luke Butkus about how he's played so far this season.

"Some games are better than others for almost everybody," Green said. "(Butkus) doesn't hold back at all. He's on us hard, but we don't take it personal. He's got the best intentions. I think we call appreciate coach Butkus a lot."

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