New Illini position coaches making their mark


Photo courtesy of Trevor Diedrich

Illinois safeties coach and passing game coordinator Gill Byrd helps direct football practice. Byrd joins tight ends coach Cory Patterson and defensive line coach Austin Clark as one of the team’s newest coaching additions.

By Gavin Good, Staff writer

Gill Byrd knows how the game of football should be played: with a heart and mind filled with desire and passion.

As the new Illinois safeties coach and passing game coordinator, Byrd hopes to change both the culture and the on-field results of a program that has struggled to compete at a high level for years.

The San Francisco native, like many of his fellow coaches on staff, has a wealth of NFL experience. He’s fresh out of the league, having worked as the Buffalo Bills’ defensive backs coach in 2017 and on head coach Lovie Smith’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers staff in 2014 and 2015.

He also had a 10-year NFL career with the San Diego (now Los Angeles) Chargers, retiring in 1993 as the franchise’s all-time interception leader (42). Before that, he walked on at San Jose State, eventually earning a starting role and later getting drafted No. 22 overall by the Chargers in 1983.

In his most recent position, Byrd is wasting no time sharing his experience with the players. He wants the young men to understand what it takes to succeed at both the collegiate and professional levels.

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    One of his first takeaways from working with his unit has been a notable desire to win. For Byrd, however, there is a distinct difference between wanting to win and having the will to win.

    “The want to get better is, ‘I want to win, I want to do well, I desire to do that,’’’ Byrd said. “The will to do that means that ‘I’m going to take the extra mile, I’m going to give 15 more minutes at night and look at my tape.’ The will to win is ‘I’m going to come and see my coaches, and we’re going to talk ball.’”

    Though winning is the goal, Byrd views his job in the program as more than that. He wants to help shape his players into men with strong characters.

    “A child does what he wants to do when he wants to do it,” Byrd said. “A man does what he has to do, even though he doesn’t necessarily want to do it. That’s the difference between want and will.”

    He believes talent can only take players so far, before other factors like drive and knowledge of the game distinguish between the good and the great.

    Byrd observed this during his tenure in the NFL, as many players who were naturally less talented than others went on to more successful careers. These players would focus on the fundamental and technical aspects better than others, being aware of their own strengths and weaknesses.

    Though he takes his job seriously, Byrd admits he’s known for his sarcasm.

    “If I say, ‘Man, you run there, you lookin’ like a little bitty baby out there when you jam, or when you turn and run, you look like you’re waddling and not running,’” Byrd said. “I tell them, ‘Something said is something meant. Coach Byrd is saying now, I better turn and run.’ For me, it’s been a joy to watch them understand that I think football should be a game played with passion.”

    Patterson preaches effort above all

    While Byrd’s mantra revolves around the will to win, new tight ends coach Cory Patterson’s approach focuses on drawing the maximum amount of effort from his players.

    Arriving from Trinity Catholic High School in St. Louis, Patterson is settling into the program and implementing his message after building a powerhouse program and developing Illini quarterback commit Isaiah Williams,.

    “It’s all about effort; it’s about working hard for the guy next to you,” Patterson said. “I think right now, that’s where we’re starting to install in my room. I’m hoping that those things will carry over.”

    With last year’s starter Louis Dorsey not practicing with the team this spring, Patterson is seeing other guys from within the unit stand out. Patterson said he has been impressed with redshirt-juniors Austin Roberts and Caleb Reams, who have played smaller roles previously in their Illini careers, but could see an expanded role under Patterson’s tutelage and new offensive coordinator Rod Smith’s more progressive schemes.

    “Right now, Austin Roberts is showing a lot,” Patterson said. “I’m enjoying coaching (him); he’s playing his tail off. Caleb Reams is doing a good job (too), but Austin is one of those guys that’s standing out to me right now.”

    Austin Clark settles in as defensive line coach

    After Lovie Smith spoke of new arrival Austin Clark shocking him with “his enthusiasm and detail,” Clark has been getting acclimated to his new role with the defensive line. Moving across the country from USC may have been a big shift geographically, but Clark said his adjustment to the Illinois program has been seamless.

    His message to the guys: Last year is over. The 2-10 record from 2017 is in the past. The Illini are 0-0 now and have the chance to make big strides in the fall.

    The line is returning a lot of younger players who saw significant time last season, including Bobby Roundtree and Isaiah Gay, each of whom played in all 12 games at defensive end. Gay, like Dorsey, is not practicing with Illinois this spring.

    Clark wants his guys to focus solely on getting better in the present and turning things around on the field come fall.

    “It’s a new year, a new season, a new coach for (the defensive line), and everybody has a clean slate,” Clark said. “We’re not really concerned with what happened before, but really focused on improving each day in practice.”


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