NCF Nation: Jim Bridge

The early morning tire-flipping and wheelbarrow races are winding down in West Lafayette. After a spirited winter program, Purdue is set to return to the practice field March 19 for its first workout under new head coach Darrell Hazell. There are plenty of question marks on the roster, none bigger than quarterback, where several players (Austin Appleby, Rob Henry, Bilal Marshall, Danny Etling) will compete this spring. Purdue also is looking to replace key starters at defensive tackle, cornerback, running back and wide receiver. Hazell recently completed his coaching staff -- for the second time -- with the hiring of offensive line coach Jim Bridge.

The new Boiler boss checked in with ESPN.com earlier this week.

What have been some of the big themes of your offseason, and what would you like to see when the guys get out there in practice?

[+] EnlargeDarrell Hazell
Jim O'Connor/USA TODAY SportsNew Purdue coach Darrell Hazell has emphasized being a smart football team, ball security and toughness early on.
Darrell Hazell: We have three goals I want to really concentrate on. One is I want to make sure we become a smart football team, understand the whys and the reasons we're doing things. That's critically important for us, so I want to convey that we need to study the game and understand where all of our help is coming from. The second thing is we've got to make sure they understand the importance of ball security. We'll preach that day in and day out. We've got to get across the point of playing phenomenal special teams. And the last thing, I'm looking for a team that's going to be very tough and battle no matter what the situation is, and win those close games.

How has the toughness element been so far? It seems like it was a big part of the winter program.

DH: I thought the first couple days, their eyes were wide open. But I think they're starting to settle in a little bit and understand what we're demanding out of them and why it is so tough on them right now. Because they're going to be in a lot of close football games, and you can't allow that to ever leave you.

I know you guys are wearing the "5%" T-shirts in workouts. What's the story behind those?

DH: That was the goal and the emphasis for the 6 a.m. workouts. Five percent better in the last rep, five percent better than the last day, five percent tougher. My coaches are willing to demand five more percent than what they were giving the previous rep. It's all about improvement, and that's probably the biggest point to try and get across. If we're getting five percent better on each rep, on each day, we're going to continually get better.

What are the big keys for the players to understand what you want to do schematically this spring?

DH: There's definitely a learning curve. You're talking about different languages, and you're talking about different schemes. It's going to take them a couple, three weeks to really understand exactly. A lot of times, they'll know where to line up, but what is your actual assignment when you line up there? Those things are sometimes taken for granted, but those things are very important.

Offensively, what are some of the things you and Coach [John] Shoop want to stress this spring, especially with the quarterback?

DH: We're trying to figure out who our guy is going to be. A couple criteria, one obviously is you've got to take care of the football. Two, are you confident enough to stand in there and make those hard throws in those tough situations, and three, can you get us into the right play? Don't have us run a bad football play. Can you get us into the right situations that helps the team get a couple yards?

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Very little went right for Illinois under first-year coach Tim Beckman last year. After a 2-10 season, the Illini are ready to turn the page and look forward to 2013 when they hit the practice field Tuesday.

I recently caught up with Beckman to ask about the pressing issues his team faces this spring. Here is that Q&A:

[+] EnlargeTim Beckman
Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY SportsDespite a 2-10 record this past season and a slew of changes on his staff, Illinois' Tim Beckman is full of optimism heading into spring workouts.
You turned over half your staff from last year, with some voluntary departures and some not. What has that been like and how much transition are you going through right now?

Tim Beckman: Well, it's kind of crazy, because I saw a stat the other day where there's only, like, 22 staffs that haven't changed in college football, so it's been the norm. But I think with the professionalism that coaches have and the guys I've been able to hire into this new family, they're outstanding people. They're professionals, they've been coordinators, they've been head coaches, they've been in great programs. The transition has been good. I've been able to hire two Illini, which is huge, with [receivers coach Mike] Bellamy and [defensive line coach Greg] Colby.

So I think it's been a great transition. Our players have been really excited. With Mike Bellamy, he's been involved with this program for a year. So the kids were pumped when he was hired on staff, because they know him. And now he brings that Illinois flavor to the staff. All the other coaches, we've been working with each other. Jim Bridge was telling me the other day there are four or five other guys that he's been with at other places. So that's one of the unique things, because it's like a fraternity. These guys have worked with one another.

How much will the offense change with new coordinator Bill Cubit?

TB: Well, it's Bill's offense. It's what Bill was hired for. And that's how it's always been, really, with the coordinators. But I think the uniqueness that Bill has, in coaching against him, is that he's been able to adapt his offense based on personnel. He's had Jordan White, a great, great football player. He's had great wide receivers, and he's been able to move them around and adapt his offense to the guys that need to be getting the football.

After a year like last year, what do you do to keep the players' confidence up?

TB: We went back to a lot of competition, back to a lot of leadership building. We addressed the situation that occurred. I met, as I always do, with each one of the players for 10 minutes. That takes a good week. We did that in December. I asked them what their goals were, because we split up the season into four quarters -- winter workouts, spring practice, summer workouts and then the most important quarter, the season. And I had them set goals for themselves to attain each quarter. So they just wrote out their goals out for spring ball. And I also do the same thing for the team. "What do you want this team to be able to say they can do after each quarter?"

Our motto is win whatever is needed, and win the day. Whatever is needed today for us to become a better and closer football team.

What are your primary concerns for this spring?

TB: The scenario here is depth. There hasn't been depth. And when you get a young man injured, it hits you drastically because you just don't have that depth. We were able to get 10 young men here in January, five junior college players and five high school players. Junior college wise, there hasn't been a whole bunch here before. There might have been one or two. But we needed to add age to our football team, and that's what the junior college players help us do.

You've only seen the junior college guys in winter workouts so far, but what is your early impression of those guys?

TB: The first thing that I look at always is how have they been accountability wise. Because it's new. They get in here, and, bam, they're thrown into the fire right away. I'm proud, because they've all been very accountable. We haven't been late for things. Being in school and being a football player hasn't got their minds out of whack or anything like that. They've shown football wise that they can compete, but they've also shown that they're doing a very good job of being accountable on and off the football field.

How do you see the quarterback competition, where you've got a veteran starter in Nathan Scheelhaase but also a guy in Reilly O'Toole who's played a lot and a big-time recruit (Aaron Bailey) coming in?

TB: As in any position, there's competition. Nathan will go in as the guy, being the starter. Somebody's got to beat him out. But Nathan's won a lot of football games here. We had a tough year, no question, but that's not going to be on Nathan's shoulders. He was getting sacked too many times. All those things you can't have your quarterback doing, getting hit. We've got to get better at protecting our quarterback, and we've got to be able to get the ball out quicker and do those types of things so our quarterback can be successful.

[+] EnlargeSteve Hull
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsSteve Hull will be trading in delivering hits for making catches on offense this spring.
You talked often last year about the lack of depth at the offensive skill positions. How has that come along?

TB: It's getting better. Those young men we played with last year have moved up in age. We've taken Steve Hull and moved him to offense, so that adds age and depth to that position. Wide receivers and DBs are the big concern here. And we've been able to add freshmen and junior college players to those positions.

Why did you move Hull to receiver?

TB: He's had some issues with injury. We felt that Steve, for his fifth year, would be better suited to play on the offensive side of the ball to take out maybe some of the direct collisions he was getting as a safety. And he's been great with it. He loves it, and he's emerged as being one of the big vocal leaders on the team.

The offensive line really struggled last year, and you lost two senior starters in Graham Pocic and Hugh Thornton. How does that position group look going into spring?

TB: Losing the two senior starters, they were dinged up a little bit during the season, so we had to move some players around. But we also had three, really four, players that got a lot of playing time last year. So they should be a year better. I like the philosophy that coach Bridge brings in here as our offensive line coach and what coach Cubit does with the running game. Our offensive line has done a great job these last three months -- and [strength coaches] Aaron Hillman and Dave Andrews get a lot of credit for it -- of getting stronger, getting bigger and doing those things you need to do to be a Big Ten offensive lineman.

You played a lot of freshmen on defense last year, like Monheim and Mike Svetina. Do you expect them to be much farther along this spring because of that experience?

TB: No question. They're not going to be freshmen that are 18 years old out there starting in the Big Ten. They're going to have a year's experience. We played Teko Powell on the defensive line last year so he could gather experience. V'Angelo Bentley played a bunch last year as a true freshman, so he got a bunch of experience. Now these players that were just brought in in January, plus the redshirt freshmen, are going to have to step up and be involved in the front and in the back end. You had a guy like a Jake Howe, who was playing very good and then broke his hand and was out for the year. You have Austin Teitsma, who got quite a few reps last year. Darius Caldwell. Houston Bates, who got hurt last year. Jonathan Brown. We've got to get those guys back and healthy.

You mentioned concerns about depth in the secondary. What young players do you expect to step up there?

TB: I think Eaton Spence has done a good job for us. V'Angelo Bentley has done a good job. The two freshmen we brought in have done a good job in winter workouts. I haven't seen them on the football field, but they've been doing their change of direction stuff very well. A young man named Taylor Barton, a true freshman, has done a good job. Eric Finney, who came in from junior college, LaKeith Walls, B.J. Bello, Jevaris Little -- these are names who have worked extremely hard this season. They're not names a bunch of people know because they've not played yet, other than Spence and Bentley. But these guys have definitely improved.

Have you started identifying leaders on this team yet?

TB: Well, we have really been pushing it. We've been meeting on it. We've been talking about it as a team and then as individual classes, and then our honor council. We've had a guest speaker come in every Monday and talk about leadership, from military people to a gold medal winner in the wheelchair marathon. So we've really built that in. I've seen players from young and old step up in winter workouts, step up and be leaders. Steve Hull has emerged as a guy who definitely does an outstanding job of leading this football team. Mason Monheim, who was a freshman, he's jumped up and taken control. Earnest Thomas. Guys that probably weren't as much leaders last year that might not be seniors have jumped up and tried to lead this football team well.

We've got 62 players who are freshmen and sophomores, so there's a big number of guys who have been here three or less years because of redshirts. So we've got to be able to all be leaders in this program, and that's what we're stressing.

Not surprisingly, the fan base was really down on last year. What can you do to create some more optimism?

TB: I opened up the Friday practices again to the community. This is the University of Illinois. It's our state, our team. We talk about it, and that's the truth. I want to get the community involved in this program. I've always wanted to do that and we're going to do it even more. We're going up to Chicago for a practice. Of course, we've got a game in Chicago at Soldier Field, which is an outstanding opportunity for Illini Nation and those things. We're moving forward.

Nobody was happy with last year. I mean no one. I haven't been involved in that type of year. So we have to move forward and we have to take this program forward. And that's what we asked this football team and this coaching staff to do.
Illinois' new wide receivers coach knows a lot about catching passes for the Orange and Blue.

Mike Bellamy earned first-team All-Big Ten honors as an Illini receiver in 1989 (he also earned second-team All-America honors as a kick returner that season), when he recorded 59 receptions for 927 yards and eight touchdowns. Bellamy went on to be a second-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in 1990.

His new task calls for him to upgrade Illinois' receiving corps, which, like the rest of the offense, struggled mightily in 2012. Head coach Tim Beckman promoted Bellamy from assistant director of player personnel and relations, a recruiting-based position, to receivers coach. Bellamy replaces Billy Gonzales, who left Illinois for a post with Mississippi State after only one season.

While Bellamy fills one vacancy, Illinois reportedly has lost another assistant as cornerbacks coach Steve Clinkscale is headed to Cincinnati. Clinkscale, one of Illinois' top recruiters, is the fifth assistant to depart Beckman's staff -- four left voluntarily, one was fired. All the staff turnover is no surprise after such a tough 2012 season and with Beckman's uncertain future in Champaign.

Bellamy will be Illinois' fourth new full-time assistant for 2013, joining offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, offensive line coach Jim Bridge and defensive line coach Greg Colby. The Big Ten Network's Howard Griffith, a former teammate of Bellamy's at Illinois, first reported Bellamy's promotion.

"I always say there are three places that I call home -- my family’s house, my mother’s house, and Memorial Stadium," Bellamy said in a statement. "As an alum, I think it's important to teach our players what it means to wear the orange and blue. This program has a proud and storied history, and I can't wait to pass the pride that I have have for Illinois Football on to our current student-athletes."

Bellamy played six seasons of pro ball, in the NFL and the World League, before starting a business with his wife in the Atlanta area. He began coaching high school football in 2008 and served as receivers and specialists coach at Clark-Atlanta University in 2011 before joining Illinois' staff. His previous role involved coordinating events for former players, campus outreach and assisting with recruiting and coaching clinics.

While he has limited coaching experience, his success as a former Illini star and his familiarity with the players should help him in his new role.
Illinois is losing one of the Big Ten's top assistants in defensive-line coach Keith Gilmore.

Rivals.com and others reported Saturday that Gilmore is leaving Illinois to join North Carolina's staff in the same capacity. He'll be reunited with North Carolina defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, with whom he worked at Illinois from 2009-2011. Gilmore was the only assistant Illini head coach Tim Beckman had retained from the previous staff -- and for good reason.

He mentored two NFL first-round draft picks in defensive tackle Corey Liuget and defensive end Whitney Mercilus. Two of his linemen, tackle Akeem Spence and end Michael Buchanan, are expected to be drafted in April. Although Illinois certainly has had its issues the past two seasons, defensive line hasn't been one of them. Gilmore is a significant loss for Beckman's staff.

It's hard to blame Gilmore for leaving as Beckman faces potentially a make-or-break season in 2013. Things are much more stable at UNC, and Gilmore's familiarity with Koenning makes him a good fit in Chapel Hill.

Illinois will have at least three new assistants in 2013 after bringing in new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit and new offensive-line coach Jim Bridge.

Defensive line has been the Big Ten's strongest position in recent years. The league has lost two respected D-line coaches this weekend after Michigan State announced Friday that it's cutting ties with Ted Gill.

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