CHAMPAIGN — More than touchdowns, tackles or turnovers, Illini football coaches have talked this spring about needing to improve in one specific area.
“Our goal is to become a mentally tougher football team,” head coach Tim Beckman said this week.
The feeling during last season’s 2-10 debut for head coach Tim Beckman was that Illinois played well in stretches, but often didn’t sustain those periods. The feeling was that Illinois made costly mistakes late, some of which may have been due to fatigue.
The feeling was that many of Illinois’ costly breakdowns could be traced to lapses of concentration or a failure to understand what a specific assignment required.
So as Beckman monitors tonight’s 8 o’clock annual Orange & Blue spring game at Memorial Stadium, he’ll be looking to see how his team executes during those key moments of the game.
Already he has identified areas that are being stressed this spring.
“We have to play four quarters of football and mentally push and strain for your teammates,” Beckman said. “I’ve seen that happening.
“We’ve added some sparring drills, where you learn to spar with other players. It’s something I learned while talking with a friend who is now the defensive coordinator with one of the NFL teams.
“We’ve put time on the clock and you have to run as many plays as you can in that time frame. We try to average three plays per minute. So in a six-minute period, you run 18 plays, no substitutions, offensively and defensively. We’re trying to learn how to play when we’re tired and still not make costly mistakes.”
Beckman has also spiced up spring drills by making them more physical, although quarterbacks are not being exposed to full contact.
On Tuesday, the seniors were divided into two groups and they held a player draft to make up the rosters for tonight’s game. Because of depth issues, there is a pool of eight players who could be used by both squads.
Incumbent starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase will direct the Blue team offense and be joined in the backfield by running back Donovonn Young. Josh Ferguson is also on the blue roster, although he has been injured and is questionable for tonight’s game.
Scheelhaase’s receivers are Ryan Lankford, Spencer Harris, Fritz Rock, Leslie Poole and Peter Bonahoom.
Directing the Orange team offense is quarterback Reilly O’Toole. His main running back is Dami Ayoola. The Orange wide receivers are junior college transfer Martize Barr, converted quarterback Miles Osei, Justin Hardee, Kameron Fry and Tim Lukas.
A normal clock will be used for the first three quarters before a running clock is used in the fourth quarter.
Several key players will be withheld due to injuries. They include linebackers Jonathan Brown, Henry Dickinson and Ralph Cooper, defensive backs Zane Petty and Charleston freshman Dillan Cazley and tight ends Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse.
Two key players are being withheld as they serve suspensions.
Wide receiver Darius Millines, can rejoin the team if he meets certain criteria. But Beckman refused to discuss Millines’ status when asked about it this week.
And Darrius Caldwell, who projects as a starting defensive end, is sitting out to concentrate on academics.
Admission is free. So is parking in the lots around Memorial Stadium and the Assembly Hall. The game will be televised by the Big Ten Network.