After a transtiion last football season with new coordinators, the Illini know the coaches. The coaches know the players, and there's much more momentum.
A plan devised by former athletic director Ron Guenther, Illinois overhauled its football coaching staff by hiring two coordinators and seven assistants overall under head coach Ron Zook. The experiment hatched in December of 2009 worked, if a 7-6 record last season and the program's first bowl victory in 11 years was a good enough rebound to catch your attention. Year 2 in the arrangement started with much more momentum, hope and confidence. Just ask sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, even though he knows Illinois has never won bowl games in back-to-back seasons. "The politically correct answer is to be cautious and weary that no Illinois team has done it,'' Scheelhaase said. "We're confident that we can go back to a bowl. We don't want to go to any bowl. We want to go for a big bowl. We have a chance to be one of the best teams in the country.'' The return of offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, defensive coordinator Vic Koenning and all but one assistant coach created some continuity as the Illini head into their second Camp Rantoul while working with these systems and schemes. "It's so much better,'' Petrino said. "You understand what they can do. They understand what we expect. They can get through a whole practice. When we first got here, they'd die halfway through it.'' The Illini offense came to life in the second half of the season, averaging 42.1 points over the final seven games, capped by the 38-14 win over favored Baylor in the Texas Bowl in Houston. During that span, Scheelhaase passed for 1,044 yards with 13 touchdowns and one interception while also rushing for 578 yards and three TDs. He completed his first 13 passing attempts against Baylor. "In my mind, coach Petrino is the best offensive coordinator in the country, not just from a strategy standpoint but he's willing to do whatever it takes to get our team better,'' Scheelhaase said. "It's been amazing working with him.'' The Illini jumped from 91st to 38th nationally in total defense, 96th to 48th in scoring defense, 76th to 32nd in rushing defense and 83rd to 22nd in turnover margin. Any improvement will come by building more depth, but the Illini also benefit from a second season in Koenning's scheme that's flexible enough to go from a 4-3 front to a 3-4. "It's a little easier this year,'' Koenning said. "Guys understand some of the terminology. It's not like we're starting from scratch. We should be able to build (on last year) and do a little more earlier, not make as many mistakes.'' But Koenning already used a parable of a man digging a hole in the sand at the beach. If the digging stops, the tide allows the sand to fill the hole. "We made more mistakes on the third day than the first day,'' he said. "The third day, they're tired and thinking what they're doing later that night. That gave me a chance to drive home the point about focus. "If you stop digging, mediocrity fills in the hole. Mediocrity is the sand. We've got to understand we can't stop digging until their careers are over.'' NOTES: Barring a change in plans, offensive lineman Andrew Carter will retire after a benign tumor was removed from his brain during the offseason. Carter had trouble with balance and lost the hearing in his left ear. He will remain on scholarship and part of the program, Zook said. . . The Illini will practice in pads for the first time on Tuesday. . . Erie (Pa.) McDowell running back Greg Garmon made an unofficial visit to Camp Rantoul Monday. Garmon has roughly 20 scholarship offers, including one from Illinois. He was also visiting Notre Dame and Iowa on the recruiting swing. . .