CHAMPAIGN — The countdown clock continues to tick for the Illinois football team. The opener against Nebraska is 90 days away.
It will be here before you know it. In the blink of an eye. And the prep work is about to start.
On Tuesday, 120 players will report back to the University of Illinois campus for the start of summer preparation. On June 7, they will be joined by the class of 2021.
The new players have a orientation session when they first arrive, including physicals and weight room testing.
More new players might be joining, too. First-year coach Bret Bielema isn’t done building his roster.
“It’s a very unique time,” Bielema said on Saturday morning during an appearance on WDWS 1400-AM’s ‘Illini Pella Saturday SportsTalk.’ “We’ve got about a half a dozen scholarships that we’re still evaluating, deciding what we’ll do and how we’ll use them. If there’s good players that enter the (transfer) portal, we’ll for sure be interested in them.”
The cutoff date to add transfers is July 1. After that, they won’t be eligible in the fall.
Bielema discovered a lot about his own team during 15 spring practices.
“It was so beneficial to be around our guys,” Bielema said. “Obviously, to learn their skillsets, understand what their strengths and weaknesses are. But also a better understanding of how they learn, how they react, how they handle adversity, when you can push guys. Who is going to be the leaders to step up? Who is going to be the guys to look for answers? So many intangible things.”
Packed monthThe Illinois players will be spending plenty of time in the coming weeks with strength coach Tank Wright and his staff.
“Tank will touch them every day of the week, Monday through Friday.” Bielma said. “You have to give them two days off, so Saturday and Sunday, we can’t touch them.
“What they do in those 48 hours when they are away from us are huge.”
Besides all the football work that needs to get done, Bielema and his staff will be busy in June with recruiting.
It has been a while.
“It’s probably an unprecedented time in college football,” he said. “Because of the COVID rules, these young men haven’t been able to hit a campus in dang close to two years. It’s kind of crazy.”
Live recruiting starts Tuesday, meaning prospects can visit with the Illini in person.
“Every day, somebody could be on campus,” Bielema said.
Illinois has 10 days it can use for either camps or on-campus recruiting.
Official visits start the first week of June. Bielema said 16 will come to campus the first weekend, with between five to 10 every weekend after that.
The first four weeks of June and one week in July, Illinois is able to set aside 10 days to send the coaches on the road. They can all go to different locations or go in groups to the same spots. Whatever works best.
“There may be a day where we send them to Atlanta, Miami, Chicago,” Bielema said. “We’re going to some SEC camps where can get one or two guys down there. If they can find one or two prospects for us to recruit and evaluate, it’s a better day for us.”
If it sounds like a lot to keep track of and to organize, it is. But Bielema seems to have a good handle on the what needs to happen in the coming months. Considering the program top to bottom, including staff, players and facilities, it is the best position Illinois football has been in for a decade.
Will that translate to a winning season, something the program hasn’t achieved since 2011? Check back in late November.
In the news➜ Bielema doesn’t have an update on the status of tailback Mike Epstein, who wasn’t with the team in the spring. The Florida native, who joined the team in 2017 and has rushed for 1,169 yards and 10 touchdowns while dealing with a bevy of injuries, is still undecided on what he’ll do in 2021.
“Don’t know,” Bielema said. “We’ve had conversations with Mike from the day I got here. He’s a guy in the past who has done a lot of really good things here. We really don’t know where we stand with him right now.”
➜ Running back is one of the stronger positions on the team, with the return of Chase Brown, Reggie Love and Jakari Norwood and the addition of transfer Chase Hayden and incoming freshman Josh McCray.
“A lot of the SEC schools were recruiting him as a linebacker,” Bielema said of the 6-foot-1, 210-pound McCray. “I narrowed the playing field in a hurry by saying, ‘I don’t think you’re a linebacker. You’re a running back.’ We changed the math in a hurry. He’s more of a traditional Big Ten back I’ve used and been a part of in the past.”
➜ With Tim Knox’s move away from the football staff as the director of football operations, Bielema has an opening.
“We’ll go out and find a really good DFO,” Bielema said. “We’ve already been engaged in several conversations with people across the country, some of them within our conference, that are interested in the job because of the value that we have here.”
➜ Bielema said about half of his players have received the COVID-19 vaccination. All of the players are eligible for vaccinations.
“That brings about certain mask rules,” Bielema said. “We’re still going to be very, very proactive. Obviously, no one wants to actually get COVID.”
Getting exposed to the disease is a problem.
“More than anything, if you get the contact tracing, you’re out of the building for anywhere from 10 to 15 days,” Bielema said. “You never get that time back.”