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The first full week of spring practices is nearly wrapped up for Bret Bielema’s first Illini football team. Here are five tidbits beat writer Colin Likas has picked up after Thursday’s second workout concluded at Memorial Stadium:

ALWAYS ON THE MEND

College football fans want to hear how athletes are performing on the field. Only natural. And Bret Bielema talks about that plenty. But something else the first-year Illini coach has voiced concern for is the recovery process. “It’s absolutely essential that these guys learn recovery,” Bielema said. “It’s not recovery for tomorrow’s practice. It’s recovery for four weeks from now, when we need to be at our best for the final week of spring ball.” In that vein, the Illinois football Twitter account shared a video Wednesday in which St. Thomas More alumna Jade Brinkoetter, Illini football’s director of nutrition, works with defensive linemen Isaiah Gay and Owen Carney Jr. on making a quesadilla. “How you recover, how you take care of your body, the things you put in your belly ... are going to have a huge effect on your body,” Bielema said, “and its ability to perform on game days.”

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

Starting center Doug Kramer has seen several coaches come and go during his ongoing time at Illinois, which began in 2016. Both at the top of the hierarchy and at different position groups. That makes the Hinsdale Central product, as well as the other sixth-year seniors, one of the first players to approach when requesting a comparison of Bielema and former Illinois coach Lovie Smith. “There’s definitely differences. Obviously Coach Smith and Coach Bielema have completely different personalities,” Kramer said. “Since Coach B has gotten here, he’s put a massive emphasis on communication — building relationships between the guys, building that trust. And a lot of that happened in that eight weeks (before spring ball), and it’ll continue to grow throughout the spring.”

FILLING A VOID

Donny Navarro III was one of 12 Illini to catch at least one pass during the 2020 season, with the Naperville native hauling in eight passes for 88 yards during his junior campaign. Both totals ranked fifth on the team, but they position him third among 2021 returnees. Josh Imatorbhebhe (No. 1 in both categories) departed for the NFL draft, while Casey Washington (No. 4 in both categories) transferred to Wake Forest. Also gone from the pass-catching game is tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe, who transferred to Kansas State. Even with these changes to the receiver room, Navarro isn’t approaching this year’s spring schedule any differently than those of the past. “Work hard, prepare, compete every day — that’s been my mantra for however long I’ve been playing football,” Navarro said. “I consider myself more of a leader on this team ... so (I’m) embracing that.”

HIGH PRAISE

Defensive coordinator Ryan Walters now has served as a coach at seven different colleges throughout his career. As such, the former Missouri defensive coordinator acknowledged he’s been part of staff transitions in the past. How does what’s happening at Illinois rank among them? “It’s like, how fast can you get those seniors to buy in to what the program’s trying to preach or accomplish? To these players’ credit, it was almost immediate,” he said. Walters gave significant credit to strength and conditioning coach Tank Wright for making the process a smooth one, since Wright spent ample time working with the Illini leading up to spring ball. “Tank is a bona fide star in this profession,” Walters said. “I’ve been thoroughly impressed with what he’s done.”

LET’S HAVE SOME FUN

Tony Petersen was Bielema’s first hire at Illinois, with the offensive coordinator joining Bielema’s staff on Dec. 28, 2020. It’s not surprising, then, that Petersen and his family closed on a local house before some of the other Illini staffers. That afforded him an opportunity he relishes. “I’ve had a bunch of the (coaches) over to my house for some cookouts,” Petersen said. “I can’t tell you what an unbelievable job (Bielema) did as far as filling this staff.” In non-pandemic times, Petersen hopes to do the same with Illinois’ players. “In a normal situation, I would have the quarterbacks to my house ... and my wife would make them a big old dinner,” Petersen said. “And then at least once a year, (I) have the whole offense out to my house and do the same thing. It’s just the way things are right now, we can’t really do that.”

Colin Likas covers Illinois football and high school sports at The News-Gazette. He can be reached at clikas@news-gazette.com, or on Twitter at @clikasNG.

College/Prep Sports Reporter

Colin Likas covers Illinois football and high school sports at The News-Gazette. His email is clikas@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@clikasNG).

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