CHAMPAIGN — It's been a while since the Illinois football team has had the numbers to play a real spring football game.
Finally, the Illini are two-deep at every position and the team will host an open-to-the-public spring football game beginning at 2:45 p.m. on Saturday at Memorial Stadium. It's the first time the team has called it a spring football game since 2015, but there have been lively scrimmages in spring practices that have had a game-like feel.
On Saturday though, they will keep score and break the players into two teams — Team Butkus and Team Grange — for four 12-minute quarters. The offense will be in blue and the defense in orange. Quarterbacks will wear white. The first team offense and defense won't tackle each other, but the second teams will participate in full tackling. Illini head coach Lovie Smith said all healthy players will likely play. Spring games are always the plan for Smith, but he mentioned that it hasn't been in the cards the last few years because of depth, weather or other circumstances.
“The years when we didn’t, we didn’t have the numbers," Smith said of the hiatus. "We just couldn’t. You’ve got to be at least two deep on offense and defense to be able to have a spring game. We’re still working on our depth quite a bit.
“Our program is in a different place, absolutely. Players are maturing, absolutely, which is allowing them to maybe not have as many injuries on our team. These are steps we need to take."
There won't be any kickoffs or kick returns, no rushing the punter or returned punts, and no rushing the kicker on field goals or point-after attempts. Admission to the game is free and doors open to Memorial Stadium at 1 p.m. with practice beginning at 2 p.m. before the game.
The game is a chance to see the first teams scrimmage against each other after an encouraging spring for the much-maligned defense. Smith, the coaching staff and fans will get a look at the entire roster, not just the players who have seen significant playing time in recent seasons.
"It’s going to be pretty hard for me to be disappointed in what happens," Smith said. "There are going to be some things we’re going to be like and things we won’t like. That’s spring practice, as much as anything. In an ideal world, we want to see the best of as many people as we possibly can. When you go offense and defense, every play somebody ain’t going to look good. We understand that."
Offensive coordinator Rod Smith said he's looking for consistency. It will be a chance to get a look at all three scholarship quarterbacks — M.J. Rivers II, Matt Robinson and Coran Taylor — in live, game action. Spring ball, as expected, has been a mixed bag for the offense. Some days it hums along, but recently the defense has taken a step forward.
“I want us to have some execution," Rod Smith said. "I thought we had some pretty good execution early on this spring. The defense has played pretty well the last couple practices. I think it’s gone back and forth a little bit, which is good. I think we’ve got to be able to execute a little better than we have the last couple days — more consistently. There are times we’ve put it together for a couple drives, then all of a sudden we sputter. To me, we’ve got to be able to be consistent each and every drive, especially with our ones."
Lovie Smith is aware of what the defensive numbers have been during his tenure in Champaign. He knows that a step forward there is crucial for the team to have success on the field. No one is hiding from what the defense did on the field last season; it's partly fuel to improve.
The spring game is a good platform to display what the Illini think is an improved defense.
"I just know defensively, we’ve played better defense here lately," Lovie Smith said. "We anticipate that throughout the year. In order for us to get where we want to get as a program we’ve got to play better defense. That’s what’s been happening. Hopefully we’ll see all that tomorrow."