Jobs available at Illinois football spring practices

By Jay Lee

The Illinois football team is a week into its spring practices, and the search for key contributors for the fall season is already underway.

“That’s the fun part of coaching, when you get a chance to watch these guys and make them take it to another level,” head coach Ron Zook said.

Several starting jobs will be up for grabs this spring, including spots at running back and linebacker. The Illini return all four of their running backs from last season. Going with a running back by committee, Daniel Dufrene, Jason Ford, Mikel LeShoure and Troy Pollard combined for 1120 rushing yards on 239 carries last year.

“That’s what we’re looking for this spring, to see who will step up,” Zook said.

The graduation of linebackers Brit Miller and Rodney Pittman leaves sophomore Martez Wilson as the lone returning starter. Ian Thomas, Justin Staples, Russell Ellington, Nate Palmer, Dustin Jefferson, Aaron Gress and Nate Bussey will all vie for playing time, none of whom received significant playing time at the position last season.

Zook said the spring season will be instrumental for players to gain valuable experience.

“We’ve got some experienced guys, and we’ve got some inexperienced guys. You can’t buy experience,” Zook said. “We’ve got some young guys that look like they have their feet stuck in the sand. Remember Rejus (Benn) the first spring? He couldn’t catch a cold.”

Nixon-Youman cleared to play

A new face is vying for playing time in the defensive backfield because Patrick Nixon-Youman received academic clearance to join his teammates in practice. A key recruit in the 2008 recruiting class, Nixon-Youman spent his fall semester in his home state of Florida getting his grades in order.

“It’s exciting to be back, it was rough not being out there,” Nixon-Youman said. “It was what it was, but now it’s in my past, and now I’m just excited to be back out there.”

Nixon-Youman will be a welcome addition in the defensive backfield, as the team lost standout cornerback Vontae Davis to the NFL Draft. After having neck surgery, the status of starting strong safety Donsay Hardeman for the regular season is still undetermined. Safeties Bo Flowers and Garrett Edwards have received reps with the first team.

Travon Bellamy, who started 11 games at free safety last season, has now switched to cornerback.

“As a group, we’re all ready to compete,” Nixon-Youman said. “All we got to do is keep going hard and doing what the coaches tell us to do, and everything else will fall in place.”

Schultz settling in at Illinois

For Mike Schultz, the new offensive coordinator, the similarities between the offenses of Illinois and his former school TCU has allowed for an easy transition.

Getting used to winter in Illinois? Not so much.

“My first day on the job, it was back in January when it was the day when it was 11 degrees below zero, and the wind chill was minus 36,” the Texas native said. “I understand we get four seasons here. In Texas we got two: hot and warm, and then back to hot again.”

After his third practice with the team, Schultz has already been impressed with the team’s enthusiasm.

“The energy level is led by the head coach, and the energy level of the head coach is through the roof,” Schultz said of Zook. “That energy permeates from the coach to the assistant coaches to the players. I don’t think that energy ever comes down.”

Zook goes “tweet, tweet”—linebreak—

Before the NCAA changed its rules about coaches texting recruits, Zook tried to find a waterproof cell phone so he could text while in the shower. Now, the recruiting guru has switched to the Internet, giving everyone access to his day-to-day thoughts via Twitter.

“I had never heard of Twitter, I didn’t even know how to spell it,” Zook said.

Fans and recruits can log on to read Zook’s thoughts on everything from how practices are going to the status of players. Before Tuesday’s practice, Zook posted, “We will get our first real contact today at practice. Looking forward to a physical one.”

“I’m obviously on it for one reason,” Zook said of the benefits of Twitter on recruiting. “It gives people an opportunity to follow what the program is doing.”