CHAMPAIGN — The bullet pass left the right hand of Illini quarterback Cam Thomas Tuesday and was thrown slightly behind a receiver. Rod Smith cringed when the ball bounced off the receiver’s hands and fluttered to the Memorial Stadium turf.
In Smith’s mind, there was no excuse for an incomplete pass on the first day of spring football practice. Because none of the passes were against a defense, a 100 percent completion percentage on short slant passes was not too much to ask.
As Illinois’ new offensive coordinator, Rod Smith is asking for more from an offense that has mostly sputtered and coughed in Lovie Smith’s first two years on the job.
“We should never miss a throw against air,” Rod Smith said, alluding to the absence of defensive backs. “There should never be a ball on the ground and we had way too many balls on the ground today.
“That’s not just Cam. That’s quarterbacks and wideouts and we have to get better with that.”
Wednesday is the second anniversary of the hiring of Lovie Smith. The record on the field is an inglorious 5-19. But the roster turnover has been significant and this past off-season the coaching staff turnover became noteworthy, too.
Lovie Smith believes both developments position his program for greater on-field success.
Fifteen players left following last season, although one of them, receiver Sam Mays, has since returned. Three coaches also departed, giving Lovie Smith a new offensive coordinator (Rod Smith), defensive line coach (Austin Clark), tight ends coach (Cory Patterson) and safeties coach (Gil Byrd). An NCAA rules change allowed coaches to hire one additional assistant coach this season.
Lovie Smith hobbled from station to station Tuesday, slowed slightly by a walking boot due to what he called a muscle injury. His gray winter beard is still in full bloom and he’s watching both players and those coaches who are stepping into new roles.
One absentee Tuesday was defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson, who has added the title assistant head coach. He stayed home with the flu.
The interaction between Rod Smith and Thomas is something of heightened interest because Thomas is the only scholarship QB in camp and because the new coordinator is making important judgments about whether Thomas could lead his fast-paced offense in the fall or whether another candidate could win the job.
Based on what Rod Smith said Tuesday, the immediate challenge for Thomas is learning new terminology and proving he can make decisions on the fly.
This offense won’t wait for slow or sloppy decision making.
“The hard part is the terminology,” Smith said. “It’s like speaking Chinese if you’re American. He’s trying to learn everything and it’s brand new. And it’s the speed of the game. When you tempo things up you have to be able to think on your feet. You don’t have time to process stuff for 25 seconds in the huddle. We can’t have any untimed ACT guys.”
On Tuesday, Thomas suffered from some mechanical and fundamental mistakes that led to some incompletions. But he also impressed Rod Smith at times, too.
“I thought he did a decent job for day one,” the new coordinator said. “There are some things we have to get cleaned up but he’s working at it and he’s very studious. He wants to learn and he’s talented.
“He’s an athletic kid who can throw the football. He has the ability to extend plays. He can make any throw. He has a strong enough arm, but he has to continue to work on his accuracy.”
Thomas said Rod Smith made an impression on him early.
“He bought me food already so that’s a plus,” said Thomas, a sophomore-to-be who started twice and played in four games last season. “He got us bowling alley pizza and it was great.”
Thomas agreed learning new terminology is a challenge. And so is being in a quarterback room that no longer includes Jeff George Jr. and Chayce Crouch, who are no longer in the program.
This summer Thomas will be joined by three incoming freshmen and could be joined by another if a graduate transfer arrives. But until then, it’s Thomas along with walkons Cam Miller and Charlie Reinkemeyer.
“It’s definitely different because going into the off season I expected to have Jeff and Chayce in there to help me and tell me what I’m doing wrong,” Thomas said.
But it also means more one-on-one time between the quarterback and the new offensive coordinator. Their ability to communicate will be critical.
“He gets a lot more love from Coach Smith,” Rod Smith said. “Sometimes that’s not a good thing.”
NOTES: Two players were lining up at new positions Tuesday.
Justice Williams, who was a 6-3, 220-pound linebacker, is now a wide receiver. And Kendall Smith, who was a freshman receiver last season, is now working at safety.
… Lovie Smith declined to shed any new light on why early enrollee freshman defensive lineman Verdis Brown will not practice this spring. He’s one of the program’s most highly decorated recruits.
“He’ll be around and he’s a full-time student, but you won’t see him (practice) until the other freshmen get here (this summer). ”