CHAMPAIGN — More than once this spring Illini head football coach Tim Beckman has reminded us that college football has no waiver wire.
In other words, he can’t solve Illinois’ depth problems by reeling in other team’s rejects.
There are only two ways to tackle the depth issue. One is through long-range recruiting, which doesn’t help much now. The other is by doing a better job coaching and preparing the players Illinois does have and by getting them onto the field more quickly.
But this week Beckman let it known he’s open to a third option.
He said he is going to give two players currently on defense a chance to excel on offense as well. That includes honorable mention all-Big Ten cornerback Terry Hawthorne, who this week is getting repetitions at wide receiver. And it also includes Jack Ramsey, also a defensive back, as an offensive performer.
“We’ll be able to do a few things here or there,” said Beckman, who has already said the team needs more bodies at wide receiver, running back, offensive line and at safety. “To be honest we’re going to let Terry Hawthorne work at wide receiver for the next two or three practices. We’re going to give him the opportunity and also look at Jack Ramsey on the offensive side of the ball.
“We’re trying to create playmakers.”
Hawthorne was enough of a playmaker at East St. Louis to have arrived at Illinois as a Parade All-American. He scored 28 touchdowns and recorded 1,009 yards as a senior pass-catcher and kick returner.
But a late injury in his senior year made it difficult for him to catch the ball and then-head coach Ron Zook suggested he might get on the field more quickly if he converted to the defensive secondary.
Hawthorne made the move to defense and has done well there. In the 20-14 victory over UCLA in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl on New Year’s Eve, Hawthorne picked off a pass and scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 39-yard return.
But his explosiveness should translate to offense, too, and with last season’s receiving star A.J. Jenkins moving to the NFL, it appears he will be given a chance to battle with Darius Millines, Ryan Lankford and Spencer Harris for front-line receiving work.
That doesn’t mean he’d give up his day job on defense. “We’ll call him ‘Slash’ and let him play a little cornerback and wide receiver,” said Beckman, referring to the nickname given to former Pittsburgh Steelers’ multiple position threat Kordell Stewart.
Ramsey also arrived on campus with an offensive nametag. He had been an option quarterback at Chicago Simeon High School, redshirted and did not play as a freshman in 2008, then played in all 12 games as a wide receiver in 2009.
His role began to expand in 2010 when he appeared in all 13 games as a defensive back, wide receiver and kick returner.
He could give Illinois depth at cornerback or safety, but given the lack of quality depth at receiver, the slippery Ramsey makes sense there, too. “We’re trying to create play-makers,” Beckman said.
It could be exciting to see Hawthorne show his stuff again on offense. But he’s so important on defense and his pro future would seem to be there, given the NFL’s need for big cornerbacks. So the challenge will be to not overuse him.
Ramsey always struck me as an elusive guy who could make plays as a slot receiver. And he’s always seemed out of place as a defensive back.
Sometimes this is an upside of a head coaching change. New coaches view players in a new way. Sometimes it’s the new coach who is willing to take a chance, and playing Hawthorne on both sides of the ball is a roll of the dice.
Illinois has a long history of moving players from one side of the ball to the other, sometimes with surprising success.
Few quarterbacks arrived in Champaign with more fanfare than Christian Morton from the St. Louis area. But coach Ron Turner quickly decided Morton could not throw with accuracy, so he moved him to cornerback and he ended up bouncing around in the NFL for six seasons.
Kelvin Hayden arrived at Illinois as a wide receiver and he was a good one. In the annual August scrimmage at Rantoul High School, Turner nearly had a heart attack when a defensive back submarined Hayden with an aggressive tackle that nearly shattered his knee. That defensive back? Christian Morton.
Hayden ended up converting to defensive back and while playing for the Indianapolis Colts he picked off a pass and returned it for a touchdown against the Chicago Bears in the Super Bowl.
NOTES: Beckman will hold a team draft at 6 p.m., Tuesday to pick teams for the annual “Blue & Orange” spring game. That game will be played at 2 p.m., April 14 at Memorial Stadium.
“The spring game is going to be very basic, an opportunity for us to get better at blocking and tackling, the fundamentals,” Beckman said. “I still believe teams win championships because they are fundamentally sound.”