New coaches bringing old-school football to Illini

John Supinie

New coaches have new ways of doing things. The Illinois football team is learning that in the second week of spring drills.

Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino has a rule that especially the receivers heard over and over. When the play is done, hand the ball to an official. That's hand the ball to him, not flip it, throw it or spin it on the ground to celebrate a big play.

"Our group of receivers will make sure they do what they're told,'' Petrino said. "You talk about it every time you watch tape. The other day, we had a couple of them who didn't had the ball to the officials after the play was done. I think that's important. You want to make sure you hand it, not throw it or spin it.

"Every once in a while, they'll get overzealous in a game. Something will happen. You have to make them run and make sure they don't do it again.''

It's a bit of old-school football brought to a program loaded with what coach Ron Zook likes to call ballers. But those ballers were on the Big Ten's most penalized team last season. Illinois averaged 61.2 yards in penalties last season, one year after ranking 10th with 51 penalty yards per game. 

The Illini also made plenty of mistakes, ranking ninth in the conference in turnover margin at minus-6 in 2008 and eighth with a minus-four in 2009.

So discipline -- doing what you're told -- is a main teaching point this spring for a program marred with an 8-16 record combined over the past two seasons after the run in 2007 to the Rose Bowl. That means anything from celebrating plays to working on fundamentals to completing assignments.

Most importantly for anyone hoping to get on the field, that's following orders from Petrino and defensive coordinator Vic Koenning.

"If you have discipline, then you don't hurt yourself,'' Petrino said. "As long as you have discipline, do what you're told, play to the whistle and don't kill yourself with penalties, then you give yourself a chance to win. We hurt ourselves (in a scrimmage) by not doing our assignments right. That's a huge part of discipline.

"As big a thing of discipline as there is, when you get tired, do what you're coached to do. That's really discipline. That's why sometimes you put them through stuff, make them work and work and work, make them do things they're supposed to do when they're tired.''

That also works on defense, where Koenning also halted celebrations after each big play -- a staple the last couple of seasons in the spring. The fiery Koenning already wore out one ballcap by swatting his own leg with it during a scrimmage Saturday. He's chased down players who didn't complete an assignment. After three consecutive days of practice, Koenning was out of gas.

"We are somewhat of a gap-controlled defense,'' Koenning said. "We have to have regimentation and discipline to be where we're supposed to be . The timing is important, not as much as on offense, but we have to do certain things with certain timing. We have to do it exactly right or it's not effective.''

Senior defensive end Clay Nurse can see a difference.

"The coaches don't short-change us,'' Nurse said. "They make sure we go 100 miles per hour every single time. If you don't, you have to run after practice.''

Illinois intercepted five passes last season, tied with Tulane, Florida Atlantic and Nevada-Las Vegas for lowest in the nation. Illinois is already busy grabbing interceptions this spring, although that might be a sign of problems on the offense.

"We're trying to coach the fundamentals really well, trying to do the right thing,'' Koenning said. "We're trying to teach guys where the ball is supposed to be, get the ball at its highest point, strip balls, teach guys where to put their face, doing things fundamentally that should create that.

"It remains to be seen if we do it in games.''

If the Illini follow orders, they might have a better chance.

John Supinie can be reached at