As Adam Rittenberg reports, all expected players and personnel reported for the Illinois camp kickoff. The first fall workout in the Big Ten conference went off without a hitch this afternoon. Much has been made about Ron Zook and his talented 2006 recruiting class -- seniors flattered by the early success of an upset of a No. 1 team and a Rose Bowl bid, only to be hardened by last year's collapse.
Now, it's back to basics, as Zook campaigns to knead and shape his star power into a unified front. Teamwork -- a feature so rarely seen in last year's squad -- needs to take center stage for the Illini to live up to their potential. Maybe that's why Zook is courting transparency. All 18 camp practices are open to the public.
While early news is limited (save Wednesday's tweet on Zook's Twitter page that the player's have a "great attitude," and these short post-practice interviews) there are a few things to keep an eye on:
First, the coaching changes on the offensive side of the ball. As Illinitalk reports:
The biggest change on Zook's staff is the loss of Mike Locksley as offensive coordinator...The new offensive coordinator is Mike Schultz, who comes to the Illini from the TCU Horned Frogs. Schultz has a solid resume, and in 2008 he helped the Frogs set single-season school records for points scored (420) and touchdowns (54). His offense led the nation in time of possession (35:05) and were 13th nationally in team rushing (215.7 yards per game) despite not having a player among the top-100 individually. Let's hope Juice, Benn and company adjust well to Schultz.
Other adjustments on the offensive side of the ball include moving Kurt Beathard from outside receivers to QB coach. And Joe Gilbert joins the Zooker as Offensive Line coach. He was most recently in Houston. Gilbert replaces Eric Wolford, who left the Illini for the same position with Steve Spurrier's South Carolina Gamecocks.
Clearly, the Illini offense has suffered some serious coaching attrition. Although my memories of the orange in 2008 are sullied by visions of Juice Williams throwing INTs at midfield, the 2008 offense was actually decent, when you consider its total output: 19th nationally. The brains behind the operation will be missed -- if only for the familiarity that comes from suiting up for the same guy.
Second, the play of the defense -- a unit that ranked 54th nationally in 2008. Defensive End Doug Pilcher, a Hendricks Award candidate, hopes to shore up a unit that averaged 197.4 yards a game in the air in 2008.
We'll keep you up to date as things develop in the coming weeks.
Watch the Fighting Illini:
Aug. 29 - Illinois Football Preview (10:00 PM ET, Big Ten Network)