CHAMPAIGN — After a week in which the Illini football team practiced in seclusion and away from the prying eyes of the media, it was good to see the orange and blue back on the field again Monday.
Wait! Make that orange and blue and green and purple and red.
Those were the rainbow of jersey colors Illinois featured Monday, now 12 days before the season opener against Western Michigan.
Offense and defense are divided into blue jerseys and white jerseys. Red is reserved for the quarterbacks. Hands off anyone in red.
Players wearing green are nursing some kind of injury and were considered “partial participants” Monday. And those dressed in purple were being withheld from drills.
During the 30 minutes we were allowed to watch, I counted 16 players in purple or green. That included defensive end Michael Buchanan, safety Suppo Sanni (his left lower leg in a heavy wrap) and starting offensive lineman Hugh Thornton.
Head coach Tim Beckman, who has already said he won’t address injuries, did say that some of these — including Thornton and Buchanan — are not the kind of injuries that should keep them out very long.
But on Monday, the absence of Thornton meant an added shuffling of the offensive line.
The most obvious switch came when senior Graham Pocic, who had been lining up at left guard, stepped in at right tackle. That flipped Michael Heitz to the left tackle spot that Thornton had been occupying. Alex Hill lined up at left guard and redshirt freshman Ted Karras started at right guard. Jake Feldmeyer was still the starting center.
“Today Pocic was playing tackle because of some situations, but we’re going to play our best five (on the offensive line),” Beckman said. “Luckily, our schemes are simplified so that players can play different positions, but we’d rather have Graham playing at center or guard.”
Beckman said there’s an upside to the shuffling on the offensive line. For one thing, he says he wants to play seven or eight offensive lineman during a game, so getting backups ready is important. And he likes knowing that Pocic can play virtually every position on the line. Or that Heitz can swing from left tackle to right tackle. Or that Thornton can play tackle or guard.
But very, very soon he’d like to have healthy linemen in place because once again Monday, Beckman said of the Illini running game, “it’s still the question mark we have.”
Coordinating it all is first-year offensive line coach Luke Butkus and at the University of Illinois, there’s something soothing about having a Butkus back on the football field.
This may not be the king of the Butkus clan, all-world, Hall of Famer, Dick Butkus — simply the greatest Illini of all time — but it’s his nephew and there a recognizable enthusiasm and passion that gets passed down from one Butkus to the next.
Luke Butkus was a very fine football player in his own right, the starting center on Illinois’ 2001 Big Ten Conference championship team. And when Beckman brought him to Illinois from the Seattle Seahawks (where he’d been a quality control assistant working with the offensive line), he arrived with an intensity only a Butkus can bring.
From the moment training camp opened in Rantoul on Aug. 6, Luke Butkus has been fun to watch, hands-on, voice loud and crisp, demanding, encouraging, developing.
He knows he’s a young coach and he doesn’t pretend to be one of the experienced mentors he says he’s been lucky to learn from.
“I’ve been very fortunate to work with some great coaches,” he said, listing some of the most respected offensive line coaches in the game.
“I don’t claim to be Joe Moore (formerly of Notre Dame) or Harry Hiestand (Illinois, the Chicago Bears and now Notre Dame) or Tom Cable (Atlanta Falcons, Oakland Raiders, Seattle Seahawks) or Alex Gibbs (Denver Broncos, Seattle Seahawks) but I’ve stolen from every one of them. I’m a combination of each of them.”
Butkus doesn’t hide his youth and inexperience and agrees this is a young staff with many coaches tackling new responsibilities. “We’re not afraid to work,” he said. “We’re going to outwork people and turn over the stones and find a way to win with hard work. We might be young, but we have some smart guys on this staff.”
Butkus said the current Illini lineman have been introduced to a coach who may have more passion for the University of Illinois than anyone they’ve ever met.
“They might have it harder because this place means the world to me,” he said. “I bring some fire. I remember 2001. We took care of each other. We were accountable to each other. We need to do that again, change the culture to where everyone is accountable to their job.”
Luke Butkus is still young enough to drop into a three-point stance, put on his scary game face and demonstrate the proper technique. And when he growls, players listen.
Now, he needs to get a couple players out of those green and purple jerseys and settle on a line rotation for the opener on Sept. 1.
Much of what happens between now and then will take place behind closed doors. We may not know for sure who lines up on Butkus’ offensive line until sometime after the 11 a.m. kickoff.
It would be good, though, if they take the field with their coach’s fiery spirit.