Illini football opens 2021 season with first practice

Sports

CHAMPAIGN (WCIA) — A new era of Illinois football officially started Monday, with the opening fall training camp practice for first year Illini head coach Bret Bielema. Illinois worked out inside Memorial Stadium in helmets, the full pads come out on Saturday.

“Heck this is New Year’s Day for us right, like I always preach to our players and coaches, this is the start of a new year,” Bielema said.

“You love it man, guys were flying around, guys were competing and it’s always great,” Illinois senior cornerback Tony Adams said.

Bielema brings a new energy and outlook to the team after Lovie Smith was fired in December, following a 17-39 record over five seasons. The Illini went 2-6 during last year’s COVID-19 shortened season but bring back 21 super-seniors including quarterback Brandon Peters and linebacker Jake Hansen. Both guys say they’re excited about trying to bring Illinois back to relevancy in Year 1 with Bielema.

“We have a lot of guys that have been through a lot, and we have a lot of guys that have been through a lot together, and we’re all looking to go out with one final haymaker at this Big Ten season,” Hansen said. “So we’re really excited.”

Fall practices have largely been open to the public for years, dating back to when Ron Turner took the workouts in August to Rantoul. Lovie Smith brought the practices back to Champaign but still kept them open and free to the public. That ended last season with the pandemic, now Bielema has completely closed them to fans. It’s not all that unusual, most college teams don’t allow spectators, but in doing so, Bielema has kept his schemes and plans secret. Even the Illini players didn’t reveal much information when asked about how the initial practice went.

“I mean I guess we’ll just have to see, I’m not going to spill the beans,” Peters said with a grin.

“I don’t want to say too much because we have Nebraska coming up, but it’s going to be fun,” Adams added.

“It allows us to do things, I would love to have you guys sit out there and watch every snap, but the great thing is we are an unknown to the world of college football, especially our opponent,” said Bielema. “I think the ability to control that messaging is really good.”

Illini fans got a small taste of Bielema’s team at their spring game back in April, it’s the first time since 2019 the Illini have been through a full spring training ahead of fall camp. They’re building off that foundation and say they are ready to surprise the Big Ten.

“To come our and show that we were out here, you can really able to see the improvement, and we’re picking up where we left off, so we’re excited about that.” Illinois junior receiver Donny Navarro added.

Other notable news and notes from Monday include two position changes. Former 4-star recruit Verdis Brown is switching from offensive line back to defensive line. That’s where he started his college career but moved to the other side of the ball during spring practice in 2019. The Chicago native started all eight games at right guard last season.

Shammond Cooper is also moving spots, going from inside to outside linebacker. The third year redshirt freshman played in four games last year, recording three tackles and 0.5 TFL, before going down with a season ending injury.

Several players were on the field but not dressed Monday including Casey Washington. The receiver transferred to Wake Forrest earlier this year but is now back with the Illini. Bielema said he’s still working through protocols to get back in uniform and practicing.

As far as vaccines, Bielema says there are between 12 and 20 players who still need the shot. At Big Ten Media Days last month in Indianapolis, Bielema anticipated all players would be vaccinated before training camp. Now that date is pushed back, with Bielema adding he expects everyone to be vaccinated two weeks prior to gameday on Aug. 28.

“There’s a number and I’m aware of it but it’s fluid. Literally since last week there’s guys getting checked off everyday so it’s within the cusp,” Bielema said. “Even though it’s not the same level as where it was a year ago, I think COVID awareness and things that are going on right now, obviously we’re outside, we can be unmasked, but when we’re inside in meetings we’re all masked, so just dealing with the rules and we’ll play by it.”

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