Q&A: Illinois coach Tim Beckman

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
5:00
PM CT
CHICAGO -- Illinois hopes Deion Sanders was right when he famously stated, "If you look good, you feel good. If you feel good, you play good."

The Illini unveiled their new look this week, part of a rebrand with Nike for all the school's athletic teams. I'm a fan of the white uniforms with white helmets and the sleek shield on the collar. Athletic director Mike Thomas said the new threads give Illini teams the consistent look they had lacked. Football coach Tim Beckman wants more consistency on the field this fall after back-to-back losing seasons.

The Illini finished spring practice on Saturday, and I caught up with Beckman on Thursday at Niketown to recap the session.

[+] EnlargeTim Beckman
Keith Gillett/Icon SMITim Beckman likes the experience his Illinois team will have in 2014.
What were your main objectives for the spring, and did you achieve them?

Tim Beckman: We always have three goals. First, we wanted to become more physical up front, and we were much more physically and mentally tougher this spring than we've been. We wanted a competitive edge. You've got to compete against yourself, against your fellow players. And then position-wise, we knew we had to strengthen up on the defensive front. We knew defensively, we had growing up to do. We know why: We had a bunch of freshmen playing for us, sophomores playing for us. Offensively, we had to find wide receivers to step in. We moved in the right direction. We still have some guys who have been in our program, who were there before I came, who still haven't played. The time has come.

Who is growing up for you on defense?

TB: T.J. Neal. He has probably the best linebacker spring that we had. He's gotten bigger, stronger. Even Mason [Monheim], when he was starting for us [as a freshman], he was benching around 315 pounds. He's around 375-380, so his whole body's changed. Austin Teitsma is where he needs to be. He's playing better. We needed to work on our pass rush and D.J. Smoot, he has a great motor. DeJazz Woods has grown up. They should never have had to play, should have been redshirted. Now they're juniors and sophomores and they look like different guys.

Did you get what you needed out of the wide receivers?

TB: The junior-college players have come in and helped. Martize Barr just turned a year older. Geronimo Allison had a great spring. Justin Hardee had a good spring. Mikey Dudek surprised us all. If you had to pencil in a starter right now, Mikey Dudek would be in there.

When you reviewed the quarterback play, what stood out?

TB: Each guy has a very good talent. Wes [Lunt] has got very, very good arm strength. And arm strength to me isn't about throwing a 60-yard bomb, it's about getting that comeback or putting that seam route 18-25 yards right on that seam. He has a very, very good arm. Aaron Bailey has very, very good feet. He can run, he can make people miss, he's an athlete. Reilly [O'Toole] has played more and he's got experience, and he's kind of between them. His arm's a little better than Aaron's, but his feet are better than Wes'. All of them are outstanding competitors, and they get along.

When would you like to decide on the starter?

TB: I've talked to [offensive coordinator Bill Cubit] about it. I don't think there's a time frame that we've got to do it right now, but as we go through the summer and they get a feel for where they're going to be, we talk to them honestly. I would say when two-a-days get humming, we've got to get where this guy's going to be doing most of it.

What are the team's strengths at this point?

TB: We've got a lot of guys who have played. Were they ready to play back then? No, but they did. If you do it by position, we've got an offensive front that is experienced, and they're very, very good leaders. To be in a Big Ten game, you better win up front. Defensively, we're making definite strides with guys like Teko Powell, Jarrod Clements, Joe Fotu. We expect some big things when Jihad Ward gets here. The players are getting some maturity.

What areas still must be improved?

TB: We can't let negativity absorb our program. We've got to be positive, we've got to believe. At times, there's too much questioning. We need to believe it can be done. Last season, we didn't start well a lot of times, but we gave ourselves opportunities to come back and win. We've can't start that way. We've got to go out there and know we can play with people in the Big Ten.

Wide receivers definitely got to step up. The offensive line depth is important. On defense, the young defensive backs have to come through for us and the front. But I feel better about it because they are getting bigger, they are getting stronger. They're not 18-year-olds. They're 20-year-olds now. And they play like it.

Big Ten's lunch links

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
11:00
AM CT
Make up your mind, Mother Nature.
  • Connor Cook now has the freedom to audible at the line of scrimmage for Michigan State, another sign of confidence in the quarterback heading into his second season as the starter.
  • If the problem for Michigan last season was a lack of chemistry, Brady Hoke has a feeling that won't be a problem this fall he leaves spring.
  • Penn State showed off a Wildcat package in its spring game, but James Franklin won't reveal how much he'll use it -- or whether it's got a unique nickname.
  • Iowa offensive line coach Brian Ferentz isn't usually one for hyperbole, so he means it when he calls Brandon Scherff the best player at his position in the country.
  • The Ohio State defense is leaving spring practice with a much better feeling than it did when it left the field after the Discover Orange Bowl.
  • After a long, difficult road, Rutgers offensive lineman Bryan Leoni is pushing for a starting role and a happy ending for his journey.
  • The Purdue offense has undergone a transformation this spring, and the roster has also added some talent to run the system.
  • The union seeking to represent Northwestern football players offered its response to the school's appeal, calling the university's case a "castle built on sand."
  • No matter how big the league gets, the Big Ten is keeping its name.
  • The rebrand of Illinois athletics appears to be a hit, writes Loren Tate.

Starting O-line on ND camp agenda

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
8:00
AM CT
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Few would blame Matt Hegarty had he hung his head entering this spring. The redshirt junior has had a roller-coaster ride at Notre Dame, from seeing the perfect regular season of 2012 cut short due to a series of mini-strokes to being thrust into role of starting center for the Fighting Irish's final two games last season.

That the former guard was a more than capable fill-in in the middle is a testament to his versatility. That he stayed there with the first team for most of this spring is a testament to his attitude.

Nick Martin started at center in 2013 and will again in 2014 despite spending this spring recovering from an MCL tear suffered in his left knee during a Nov. 23 win over BYU. This might have indirectly hampered Hegarty, seasoned and talented enough to possibly start elsewhere on the line but relegated to mostly snapping duties.

Still, his performance in March and April are enough to warrant a chance to compete in fall camp for the top left guard spot, which was a revolving door of sorts among Steve Elmer, Conor Hanratty and, when necessary, Hegarty.

"It was good being able to have a little bit of momentum kind of coming in playing there a little bit at the end of the year," Hegarty said of starting last season, "and then it's always great to get a lot of reps in the spring like this. I couldn't ask for anything more there, but it's been great as far as trying to develop my blocking."

Redshirt freshman Mike McGlinchey saw plenty of time with the first team at right tackle this spring, and Hanratty -- owner of three career starts -- filled in at right guard after Christian Lombard went down in March with a dislocated right wrist that kept him out of the rest of spring drills. Elmer, who started four games last season as a freshman, saw plenty of time at left guard, though he might project better as a tackle.

It may essentially come down to whether coach Brian Kelly thinks both his offensive line and the precocious McGlinchey could benefit more with the 6-foot-7.5 behemoth as an immediate starter, as it seems Elmer is flexible enough to be a player where needed, having seen action in 2013 at every spot but left tackle and center.

"(Hegarty's) had a really good spring. We want to give him a chance to compete at left guard," Kelly said. "So if that's the case, are we better with him at left guard and Elmer at right tackle, or better with McGlinchey at right tackle and Elmer at guard? So if you want to boil it down, it's who's the left guard with Elmer at right tackle, or Elmer at left guard and McGlinchey at right tackle? So that's going to kind of sort itself out in preseason camp."

Illinois 're-brands' with new uniforms

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
1:30
PM CT
These days in college sports, how you look seems almost as important as how you play.

Illinois has undergone a "re-branding" effort with Nike that resulted in uniform changes for several of its sports teams, including football. The official unveiling of the new uniforms is scheduled for Wednesday night, but some photos of the new gear can be found here.

Marty Kaufmann, Illinois' assistant athletic director, told the News-Gazette that Nike spent 18 months working on the re-branding, which included talking to Illini coaches, players and staff.

"They spent time in the archives and talked to archivists on campus," Kaufmann told the paper. "They really tried to get an understanding of the history and tradition, as well as kind of what we're hoping to achieve and what the future Illini may want as well."

In the photos that have come out, the basketball uniform redesign is more striking than the football version. But the football gear looks sleek and modern, and those orange helmets are pretty sweet. Expect some more combinations and designs as well.

None of this will help the Illini play better on the field, but new uniforms seem to always get the attention of recruits. And a program that hasn't had much success or national relevance of late can use any buzz it can possibly generate.

ESPN 300: Top Big Ten targets 

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
11:45
AM CT
video
The top-ranked prospects tend to wait out the process, so there are still some huge names at the top of Big Ten recruiting boards. The top targets will be fought over by most teams within the conference, which will make for some interesting recruiting battles.

Here is a look at the top five targets within the Big Ten in the 2015 ESPN 300.

DE Jashon Cornell
6-4, 270 pounds
ESPN 300 rank: No. 16



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Big Ten's lunch links

April, 15, 2014
Apr 15
12:00
PM CT
Heading to Hawkeye Country later today. Any recommendations?

Spring game recap: Illinois

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14
10:00
AM CT
We're continuing our recaps of the plethora of spring games over the weekend, and now we turn our attention to the Illinois Fighting Illini.

The Blue team dominated the Orange squad 38-7 before about 5,100 fans at Memorial Stadium in Champaign. You can find coverage of the game here, here, here and here.

Star of the game: Quarterback Reilly O'Toole went 12-of-17 for 126 yards and two touchdowns.

How it went down: Think Wes Lunt is preordained to be the new Illinois starting quarterback? Maybe not so fast, if the spring game is any indication.

Lunt struggled through the scrimmage, as his first pass attempt was tipped and nearly intercepted and his second pass was picked off by Zeph Grimes. Lunt, an Oklahoma State transfer, finished just 6-of-16 for 99 yards.

“For Wes, it was kind of an off-and-on [day],” head coach Tim Beckman said. “I thought that he probably didn’t have as good a game as I’ve seen Wes have in the practices.”

Meanwhile, the senior O'Toole played very well and had the game's only two touchdown passes.

"I'm really happy for him," offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said. "He's managing the game. He knows where everybody's at. I like what I saw."

The Illini aren't going to base their decision on one spring exhibition, but maybe O'Toole has more of a chance than we thought. With both quarterbacks on the Blue team, it was no wonder that side won in a rout.

In what was a little bit of a surprise, former walk-on Peter Bonahoom led all receivers with seven catches for 95 yards. He showed why he earned a scholarship this spring. Justin Hardee also played well, with five receptions for 81 yards and a 25-yard score. Josh Ferguson led all rushers with 61 yards on 11 carries.

Beckman really needs the defense to improve for this season to be a success. On the plus side, the defense held both sides under 100 yards rushing, and V'Angelo Bentley returned an interception 89 yards. But the jury remains out.

The Illini also announced their spring MVPs: Ferguson for the offense and Earnest Thomas III for the defense.

Spring 'game' recap: Northwestern

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14
9:45
AM CT
We've been recapping all the spring game action in the Big Ten from over the weekend, and we're going to keep the Northwestern entry short and sweet.

Not because we have anything against the Wildcats. It's just that they didn't have an actual spring game. Because of injuries, head coach Pat Fitzgerald held a regular practice for his 15th session of the spring on Saturday.

Or at least it was supposed to be a regular practice, until storm clouds forced the team to rush indoors halfway through the drills.

"With the storm coming in,” Fitzgerald said, “we had to adjust quickly, which was a good challenge for the guys. And I thought the guys came back and finished practice well.”

You can find some coverage of the day's practice here and here. Because it wasn't a spring game, there is no star of the game or stats to report.

A big issue remains the defensive line, which had four key contributors out this spring.

"That is a major work in progress," Fitzgerald said. "I like what the guys did this spring, but there's no way, shape or form that we're ready to make any analysis there. I'd say the same thing at running back with the guys being out. Then we've got to get some things solidified in the kicking game."

There might not be another Big Ten team that will have to get more done early in fall camp than the injury-riddled Wildcats.

Zaire's emergence a good step for ND

April, 12, 2014
Apr 12
10:02
PM CT
video
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Brian Kelly moved swiftly up to the post-game podium, joking with the assembled media members that everyone better hurry up so they could get back to watching the Masters. Kelly played the famed course at Augusta National last month as part of a foursome with Tom Brady, Josh McDaniels and Notre Dame alumnus Jimmy Dunne, who put the group together.

Saturday's Blue-Gold spring game -- otherwise known as "Natural Grass: The Finale" -- could not have been farther away from the Peach State. But it probably served a somewhat therapeutic purpose for the Fighting Irish head coach for the first time since he arrived here in 2010.

[+] EnlargeMalik Zaire
AP Photo/Joe RaymondMalik Zaire showed poise and big-play ability in Saturday's spring game, showing that there's more than one capable Notre Dame quarterback.
Yes, there were questions about the quarterback play, because there always are at Notre Dame. No, Kelly said he has no plans on naming a starter sometime before camp. And while anyone but Everett Golson being named the main man would qualify among the biggest shocks of Kelly's tenure, Kelly can rest easy knowing that he likely has a capable and confident second arm to turn to in the event he needs one. And, let's face it, he has almost always needed one.

Golson looked uneven at times but is slowly easing his way back into the offense. Malik Zaire, meanwhile, backed up all of his bold spring talk and made all of the big plays in the "Blue" team's (offense) 63-58 win over the "Gold" team (defense).

The redshirt freshman completed 18 of 27 passes for 292 yards and two scores. Golson completed 13 of 23 passes for 160 yards. Both players seem more than capable of running the offense Kelly would like, which explains why he made it clear afterward that he prefers just one man atop the depth chart.

"We should be as coaches and myself, personally, I should be able to figure this thing out, and we should be able to get our players in a position where we can have a starting quarterback," Kelly said.

"So I've been doing it long enough that I would hope that I can figure it out come time to play Rice."

Kelly had said earlier in the week that he threw everything at the quarterbacks this spring -- in part to see what they could handle, in part to accelerate the growth of a young defense under a new coordinator.

The learning curve, though, will be quicker for the offense this season, with the low-scoring games of recent years likely becoming as ancient as the natural grass his stadium is leaving behind. And that's a byproduct of more dynamic play under center.

"We have to be more proficient offensively," Kelly said. "We have to put points on the board that we have not been able to consistently do against the best teams in the country. So that's certainly been the focus, and it will have to be this fall again playing the kind of schedule we do. We can't go down to Florida State and hope to win 10 to 7. We're going to have to put some points on board."

Much of that will depend on Golson's acclimation with a new supporting cast. He is 15 pounds heavier, more mature after returning from suspension and, presumably, a smarter signal caller after spending the fall with George Whitfield Jr.

Having someone with the talent and attitude of Zaire behind him should only make him better -- which, indirectly, is exactly what the lefty wants to hear.

"My mindset doesn't change at all: Whether I'm declared the starter or whether I'm the backup or whatever the situation is," Zaire said. "Because in my mind, I'm always looking just to get better every day and whatever it takes for this team to win a lot of games, I'm willing to do that. So I'm always working as if nobody's giving me a chance. I think that's what's really my backing in it.

"I feel like not enough people are giving me that chance and that opportunity, that's my personal belief. So as long as I keep believing that and working my butt off and try to be the best I can be for this team, then that's all I can ask for."

That might be all the Irish can ask for after 15 spring practices, as they are better off at the game's most important position moving forward.

"It's competition," Golson said. "There's no animosity toward him, but there's definitely competition, and I'm open to it and ready for it."

Notre Dame mailblog

April, 11, 2014
Apr 11
6:30
PM CT
One more time before the spring game ...

Derrick from Warsaw, Ill., writes: Matt, first off, thanks for doing such a great job covering the Irish! I always look forward to reading everything you write! My question is, with all the great options the Irish have at running back heading into the season, how do you see everything going at the running back position? Will one guy get the lion's share of the carries? Do they go with the hot hand? Or will each guy get a fairly equal share of touches? Thanks! And keep up the great work!

Matt Fortuna: Thanks for the kind words, Derrick. I think everyone will get a fair share early. Cam McDaniel is obviously the veteran of the group and will probably "start" the season with the first unit, but I don't see it being a traditional 1-2-3 pecking order. I said it last year (and was wrong) and will say it again now: I do think the bulk of the workload will go to Greg Bryant if he's playing near the top of his game. After all of his talk this spring about being "hungry and humbled," I think the light will click on for him in 2014.


Brian Henighan from Medina, Ohio, writes: During the practices leading up to the Pinstripe Bowl, we heard a lot about how Torii Hunter was looking very good. There was some good hype around this kid before and after his injury. Spring practices are now nearly over and I haven't heard his name mentioned one time. How is he doing/progressing? It's just strange for his name to completely disappear lately.

Matt Fortuna: Brian, I was actually wondering the same thing recently, as he rebounded from his leg injury last year to win offensive scout team player of the year: Here's what offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock said when I asked him Monday: "He is absolutely physically very gifted, and right in the mix with all those young guys as far as what we feel like he can do potentially down the road. Like a lot of young guys, the more he sees things, the more he does things, the better he's going to be. He's not where we need him to be yet, but you can see so many positive things that are going to happen there moving forward. We're just trying to speed up the process as fast as we can."


[+] EnlargeTommy Rees
Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY SportsTommy Rees' legacy at Notre Dame will likely grow with time.
Jeremy from Bethlehem, Ga., writes: Hey Matt, great job on the blog! I was curious on your take of Tommy Rees' legacy. He has been on the losing side of some games that they should have won, like Stanford. But he has won some big games in his career, such as against No. 14 Utah in 2010, being the closer in 2012 to go on to the BCS championship game, and against Michigan State this past year.

Matt Fortuna: Jeremy, like most things, I think it will only grow with time. Sure, a lot of the turnovers are what stick out in most fans' minds right now, but you have to look at the bigger picture. Notre Dame had flat-out awful quarterback luck in three of Rees' four seasons there. And yet, the Irish were lucky beyond relief to have a guy like Rees who not only knew, but embraced his role, stepping in unfazed every step of the way. And in the one year they had good quarterback luck, in 2012? That 12-0 regular season doesn't happen without Rees being the great teammate he was, relieving the guy who took his job and leading the Irish to some crucial wins. Speaking of which, that locker room absolutely loved him, which speaks louder to anything the rest of us could say.


Thomas Witty from Northbrook, Ill., writes: Hey Matt! I've been looking at the offensive line for this year and it seems like there is a lot of talent overall. I've seen on various sites that they have Ronnie Stanley and Mike McGlinchey playing tackle, but do you think Steve Elmer could get a chance, too? Also, I was excited last year when they got Hunter Bivin because he seemed like a great player. How do you see him factoring into the mix in the coming years/this year? Lastly, it seems that the talent of the offensive line has increased a lot. Do you think the offensive line could change from good to great in the coming years or even this year? As always, I love reading your blog!

Matt Fortuna: Thanks for the kind words, Thomas. Brian Kelly actually addressed this topic Wednesday, saying that the left guard spot could very well be affected by the right tackle spot, which would be between Elmer and McGlinchey. That could provide an opening at left guard for Matt Hegarty, who has plenty of experience across the line and has filled in at center for Nick Martin this spring. As for the depth question, we'e seen Notre Dame sign nine offensive linemen across the 2013 and 2014 recruiting classes. So while the numbers are down this spring -- especially on days such as Wednesday, when Elmer had a stomach ailment and the Irish were down to eight healthy offensive linemen -- the addition of four more come fall camp should be a big boost to this group's daily progress.

Spring game preview: Illinois

April, 11, 2014
Apr 11
11:00
AM CT
Ten league squads wrap up spring practice this weekend, and we’re taking a look at each spring game or scrimmage. Up next: the Illinois Fighting Illini.

When: 3 p.m. ET Saturday

Where: Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill.

Admission: Tickets and parking are free. Only the East side of the stadium is open, and fans should enter through Gates 17, 19 and 21.

TV: Streamed on BTN2Go.com

Weather forecast: Partly cloudy, temperatures in the 60s, winds at 10-15 mph

What to watch for: The Orange and Blue game will be played with a normal clock for the first three quarters and a running clock for the fourth, aside from the final two minutes if the game is close. Every drive following a score will begin at the offense's 27-yard line. Punts will be fair-caught, and field goals will be attempted without a rush. The seniors selected the rosters earlier this week, as quarterback Wes Lunt was the first pick (Blue), followed by running back Josh Ferguson (Orange). Seven players are listed on both rosters and could play for both squads.

Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit is in no rush to name a starting quarterback, but Lunt has looked the part this spring, especially in last week's scrimmage. Coach Tim Beckman described the spring game as another opportunity to compete, although Lunt and Reilly O'Toole both will play for the Blue squad, while dual-threat sophomore Aaron Bailey suits up for the Orange. Newcomer receivers Geronimo Allison and Mike Dudek, both of whom have stood out this spring, will play for the Orange team. Top running backs Ferguson and Donovonn Young also will play for Orange.

On defense, keep an eye on linebacker T.J. Neal, whom Beckman singled out for his play this spring. He brings versatility to the group. Defensive coordinator Tim Banks called Neal "the surprise of the spring." Leo DeJazz Woods and end Kenny Nelson are worth watching after making plays in earlier spring scrimmages.

The quarterback position always generates attention, but Illinois' biggest problems in 2013 were on the defensive side of the ball. The unit is better, coaches say, and fans can get a glimpse of the differences Saturday.

Wildcats offense aims to make waves again

April, 11, 2014
Apr 11
10:30
AM CT
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Two years ago, the Big Ten blog ranked Northwestern's wide receivers and tight ends as the league's best. The Wildcats proceeded to finish 106th and 69th in passing the next two seasons.

Whoops.

Our prediction clearly missed the mark back then, mainly because Northwestern became more of a zone-read run-driven offense led by quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark. But maybe we jumped the gun on the Wildcats.

[+] EnlargeTony Jones
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesTony Jones is part of a deep and talented group of receivers at Northwestern.
After watching Northwestern's practice Thursday, a case can be made that the receivers and tight ends, while lacking a bona fide superstar, should be among the Big Ten's best this fall. There were familiar faces like Christian Jones, Tony Jones and Dan Vitale. Speedy Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler made play after play downfield, showing that the Wildcats have another deep threat alongside Tony Jones.

Wide receiver Kyle Prater, a one-time elite recruit who has battled myriad injuries during stints at both USC and Northwestern, is finally helping and contributing. Sophomore Mike McHugh provides another presence outside, and Jayme Taylor complements Vitale at the superback (tight end/fullback) spot.

An offense that struggled to find playmakers in 2013 now might have a surplus.

"We're going to attack you with waves of people," coach Pat Fitzgerald told ESPN.com. "And we've proven over time that when we have that in place, I don't know how you stop us."

The Wildcats couldn't produce second and third waves of passing weapons in 2013. It might not have mattered with the way their offensive line was pushed around, but Christian Jones logged too many snaps without a break. So did Vitale.

The depth issues especially hurt with an up-tempo offense, Fitzgerald noted, because you want to rotate personnel more often. When Northwestern had to pass more after injuries to both Mark and Colter, it couldn't deliver.

"When guys got dinged, and that's going to happen, we didn't have the depth we needed," offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. "Now we can run the same personnel, but wave two is coming at you. We're still going to have our starters and they're going to get to play, but it's nice to bring some of those other guys along.

"Right now, the ball's getting spread around a lot more."

Northwestern's deepest position actually might be running back, especially when Mark and Stephen Buckley return to action this fall. Treyvon Green, the team's leading rusher in 2013, and Warren Long took most of the carries this spring. Several heralded freshmen arrive in the summer.

But it's becoming fairly apparent that Northwestern's offense will have more of a passing lean this fall. Quarterback Trevor Siemian, who left no doubt about his starter status this spring, boasts a strong arm and much less mobility than Colter. The offense could look a lot more like the units in 2007 and 2009, which ranked in the top 15 nationally in passing.

"We still have the option, but our next option off of a run play is maybe to throw something," McCall said. "That's the way it's always been in this system. When we had an option quarterback, you could pitch it off of that. Now they load the box and we pull the ball and we're going to throw it."

McCall is quick to note that during his tenure, Northwestern has yet to make it through the season without an injury to a quarterback or a running back.

Translation: the Wildcats will need all of their options.

"We have a lot of talent across the board," Shuler said. "Speed, size, quickness. We have a lot of depth, so I'm really excited."

All hands on deck, again, for punt returns

April, 11, 2014
Apr 11
9:00
AM CT
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Yes, Brian Kelly knows you've all been frustrated with Notre Dame's punt return game. Trust him, he's been every bit as frustrated as you have, and a Fighting Irish spring that opened on a minus-1-degree day back on March 3 has not given him ample opportunity to properly evaluate the unit.

Getting outside for five recent practices has presented some clarity, but the fair-catch-only rule for Saturday's Blue-Gold game won't offer many surprises to the public.

"I’m sure we’ll drop three of them and the Internet will blow up on the punt returns," Kelly quipped.

Kelly isn't sure who the main guy will be, saying Greg Bryant, Torii Hunter Jr., Amir Carlisle and even sports information director Michael Bertsch will get a chance Saturday. (He was kidding about the last name ... we think.)

By recent standards, TJ Jones performed the duty remarkably last season, leading the charge on an Irish return unit that averaged 7.1 yards per punt return, good for 80th nationally. Of course, given the averages in Kelly's first three years at Notre Dame -- 2.2 (120th nationally in 2012), 3.7 (112th in 2011) and 5.4 (100th in 2010) -- there was plenty of room for growth.

Some lessons from Jones' time, however, could carry over, as Bryant received plenty of reps among the crowd during his first preseason camp last August.

"We have some previous experience watching him and spending time with him," Kelly said. "We’re relying on some of that, quite frankly, as to why we have some confidence. I can’t say for certain we’ve got that thing figured out."

Bryant admitted to having some difficulty last season adjusting to the hang time of punter Kyle Brindza. His mindset, meanwhile, is already up to speed.

"You've just got to be fearless," the redshirt freshman said. "Football is football. It's what we've been doing since we were little, so it's like one man won't bring me down."

Video: Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
3:30
PM CT
video
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald talks with Adam Rittenberg about the team's development this spring and what lies ahead in the offseason

Spring game preview: Northwestern

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
3:30
PM CT
We're previewing all of the Big Ten spring games, even the ones that are not quite spring games, like Northwestern's practice on Saturday ..

When: 11 a.m. ET
Where: Ryan Field
Admission: Free. Stadium gates will open at 10 a.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network (live)
Weather forecast: Partly sunny, with a high near 68. Wind 10 to 15 mph.

What to watch for: Just like last year, the Wildcats won’t hold an actual spring game. Instead, their 15th session of the spring will be just like a regular practice, except that fans will be invited to attend.

And, no, they didn’t scrap the spring game because of union demands. Pat Fitzgerald’s team is simply too banged up to field two squads and go at it in any kind of live scrimmage. Northwestern opened spring drills with 11 players sidelined because of injuries, including potential starting defensive linemen Sean McEvilly, Deonte Gibson and Ifeadi Odenigbo, cornerback Daniel Jones and star running back Venric Mark.

Because of the injuries, Fitzgerald hasn’t really been able to have scrimmages all spring and says he’ll have to hold some during two-a-days in August to get his players up to speed.

There will still be some story lines to watch Saturday, and in fact, you may learn more from a regular practice effort than you would from most vanilla, fan-friendly spring exhibitions. Fitzgerald has said this is quarterback Trevor Siemian’s team, which means the offense should be fairly reliant on the passing game and not so much the option. At receiver, transfer Miles Shuler has earned praise, and the oft-injured Kyle Prater has had a nice spring, Fitzgerald said this week. It's just about now or never for Prater.

Collin Ellis has moved to middle linebacker, and there's a pretty good competition for his old spot on the outside, with Jimmy Hall and Drew Smith battling it out.

Mostly, though, the Wildcats and their fans are happy to see a day that should be all about football after their spring was dominated by union talk. The vote still looms, but at least on Saturday, the team can just practice, even if it's not a traditional spring game.

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