Cerny seeing increased time with first team

By Gavin Good, Staff writer

The Illinois football program bears little resemblance to what it was at the of time redshirt-sophomore Jake Cerny’s commitment.

Tim Beckman was the head of the program, but soon after Cerny’s commitment, he was fired. A stint with interim head coach Bill Cubit didn’t last long, and Lovie Smith came in to take over.

Since then, the Illini have gone 5-19, and are winners of only one Big Ten Conference game in a two-year span. Cerny redshirted Smith’s first year and played twice last year, debuting against South Florida and playing as an eligible tight end against Nebraska.

Other than those two appearances, his stat sheet is blank. But if things continue as they have during spring ball, that won’t be the case for long.

The Traverse City, Michigan native has seen a lot of first team reps throughout spring practice, and could have a much more significant role in the offense this season.

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“That’s the goal: to get on the field and play, so I’m really enjoying myself,” Cerny said. “I’m taking none of it for granted. (First team reps) are motivation, I’ve worked hard to get to this point, but the end is nowhere in sight.”

Adjusting new offensive coordinator Rod Smith’s more upbeat, physically demanding scheme has not been easy, but Cerny thinks it will be a valuable asset to the team moving forward.

“The biggest thing was cardio,” Cerny said. “We go twelve plays in a row. You’re gassed after them. It’s just the mental toughness, the physical toughness to keep going and run back to the ball. (The coaches) say that our break time is when we run back to the ball and get down in our stance.”

Along with learning the new offense, Cerny is working on improving his pass protection, specifically, how he protects the quarterback in passing sets, as well as drive blocking from a two-point stance.

“Especially as a left tackle, you’re the blind side with Cam (Thomas) as a right-handed quarterback,” Cerny said. “Being a strong pass-setter and being able to protect his back when it is most important is the thing I’ve been focusing on the most. Drive blocking out of the two-point stance is something that is definitely not natural to do, so that takes a lot of practice as well.”

“We need everybody”

Offensive line coach, Luke Butkus, remembers an era of Illinois football that was much different. He was a part of the 2001 Big Ten Championship team, when Memorial Stadium was filled regularly and conference wins were not few and far between.

Butkus believes that for the program to get back to its former prominence, Illinois needs to improve on the field this season and continue outreach moves like the post-spring practice autograph sessions that make the team accessible for those in the community.

“We need everybody. I grew up in the south suburbs of Chicago and I’ve been coming around this program and this stadium my entire life,” Butkus said. “I sound like my dad, ‘the old glory days’, right? But I remember growing up and coming to tailgates and being around this environment– how electric it was.”

Butkus won’t forget that 2001 team, and he wants to see that same success for his current players.

“Thanksgiving Day my senior year was one of the greatest days of my life, we won a Big Ten Championship,” Butkus said. “We’ve been up and down, up and down, to try and get that back. To understand that Josh Whitman knows how that feels when this place is good, it’s going to be rocking.”

Thomas learning to read defenses and execute new offensive schemes

Cam Thomas, sophomore quarterback, is more confident in his ability to read defenses and make decisions now than when he was a true freshman last season.

He has worked a lot with new offensive coordinator, Rod Smith, on different facets of his game, and he feels he is developing into a more confident, capable player.

“Having that one-on-one time with Coach Rod is probably the biggest contributor to me being able to read defenses and being so productive now, so I appreciate that,” Thomas said.

Another aspect of the game Thomas has focused on is the physical portion. Weighing about 190 pounds as a freshman last season, Thomas had to slide around many defenders. Though he looks to maintain his speed, he is also working on getting stronger so he can become a more physically imposing quarterback.

He weighs 195 now, and Thomas says there’s some more work to do in that area.

“My biggest step this offseason will be getting bigger,” Thomas said. “Hopefully when the season comes around, I’ll be close to 200, 205 pounds.”


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