Spring practices trying to replicate game week for Illini football

Even though there are more than five months until the opening game, the Illinois football team is already preparing like it’s game week.

Spring practice opened Wednesday and there is a method to the madness on the dates, times and even location of the 15 allotted practices before the Illini’s intrasquad scrimmage on April 12.

Saturday practice is at noon, right around what will be game time in the fall.

Spring break is a “bye” week.

Practices at Sacred Heart Griffin in Springfield and Gately Stadium in Chicago are “away games.”

“We try to utilize our practice time and simulate it like it’s a game,” head coach Tim Beckman said. “We’ve got Friday nights to simulate night practices. We’ve got Saturdays at noon, which is when we play usually our football games. For our trips, you’ve got to get focused, get your stuff ready and be ready to play.”

Beckman said he scheduled the practices for Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays to allow to opportunity to meet with players in between practices and go over what can be improved before the next practice.

“These Thursday meetings are huge for us,” Beckman said. “I’m not the kind of guy that will go Monday and Tuesday because then you lose the ability to teach.”

With only 15 available days in the spring, every day is critical to the development of a still-young football team.

“I love it. You’ve got to get the young guys reps, but you also have to get the old guys reps,” Beckman said. “It’s good to see some of the guys out there with us, like a Mason Monheim, though, he’s not as young as he used to be.”

Even for a two-year starter in Monheim, the spring is the best time to progress his skills. The game has now become about picking up nuances on the field rather than memorizing a playbook. Taking a tighter angle on a “blitz track” to blow up a play is an example of that.

I just grabbed him after I saw that, and I said, ‘Mason, you’re getting it. You’re starting to really feel the thing instead of just going out and playing,’” Beckman said.  

Not everyone on the roster has the experience that Monheim does. The Illini have six early enrollees on the roster as well, meaning six high school seniors who graduated early to enroll at the University a semester early and become eligible for these spring practices. These players have a head start on their classmates by integrating themselves into the culture and earning recognition from the coaches. The Illini saw early enrollees Darius Mosely and Austin Schmidt step in and produce last season as true freshmen.

“As a father, I’m doing it with my son,” Beckman said of his son, Tyler, who is a high school sophomore. “We’re going make sure to prepare so that if he has that opportunity, he can.”

Stephen can be reached at sbourbo2@dailyillini.com and @steve_bourbon.