Illinois football first practice

Photo by Matt Daniels

Illinois tight end Daniel Barker (No. 87) listens to instructions during Thursday’s practice near Memorial Stadium in Champaign.

CHAMPAIGN — The venue was different and so was the feel.

On Thursday morning, the Illinois football team officially opened training camp.

The offense worked on the grass practice fields near Memorial Stadium and the defense was inside the stadium on the turf.

Eventually, they will get back together.

The Illini were greeted by clear skies, with temperatures in the low 70s and no fans.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, spectators won’t be allowed to attend training camp. That’s a change from recent seasons, when fans watched outside the gates at the Campus Rec Fields near Florida and Goodwin in Urbana.

“We absolutely miss that, yes,” Illinois coach Lovie Smith said Thursday afternoon. “Of course, you like playing in front of as many fans as possible. But a lot has changed. It’s a different world, and we need to get used to it.

“Stadium’s not going to be filled to capacity this year, so for us, it’s just another step along the way of this new normal. We will adjust.”

Fans or no fans, Smith’s team was ready to go Thursday.

“The excitement for football is still there,” Smith said. “Since I’ve been here, this is our best football team we’re going to put on the field this year. Two years ago, we talked about those 15 freshmen that started. They’re seniors now.”

“It was good to get back out there and be around everyone,” redshirt senior linebacker Jake Hansen added. “It was a pretty typical first practice when it comes down to straight football. From a regulation standpoint, it was definitely a little bit different, but we’re trying to keep it as close to normal as possible.”

How did it feel for the players to run back on the field?

“It was fantastic,” offensive tackle Alex Palczewski said. “Obviously, there are certain rules we have to follow. I want to go give the guys hugs, but I can’t.”

Masks were present everywhere. And the players had shields on their helmets.

Social distancing was practiced in the non-padded workout.

“We don’t have all the answers right now, but each day, we’ll learn a bit more,” Smith said. “We want to play football this year. We realize it’s bigger than just football what we’re dealing with.”

Interview time

Smith wore reading glasses during his Thursday Zoom call with about 20 reporters.

“I know we’re all kind of dealing with some of the same things that we’ve been dealing with since March,” Smith said. “Our life has changed since then.”

No spring practices took place at Illinois. In recent weeks, the team was allowed to have informal workouts: lifting weights, running and having walk-throughs.

Smith’s team — coming off a 6-7 season and its first bowl appearance in five years — faces the biggest possible test in its opener: Ohio State.

The Buckeyes will start the season ranked in the Top 5 and might be No. 1.

Before the Sept. 3 kickoff, there is plenty of work to do.

“Coaching 101, that first game, don’t look to the second game,” Smith said. “We start Big Ten play, and we get a chance to play the No. 1 team in the country. We know a lot of guys by name. That’s a great opportunity for a program like ours that is trying to get there.

“We’ve knocked off some big people here in Memorial Stadium. We’re looking forward to another opportunity against a great team.”

The Illinois players are happy with the way the schedule broke. They were supposed to open at home against FCS school Illinois State. Instead, it is Big Ten favorite Ohio State.

“That’s a big game for a lot of our seniors that played Ohio State (in 2017, a 52-14 loss against the Buckeyes),” Hansen said. “They gave us all we could handle.”

“We still have a bad taste in our mouths from that year,” Palczewski added. “We’re just excited. That’s the best way to start off the season, not ease into it, but just dive straight into the pool. We’re super excited to go play them.”

Worst-kept secret

In 2019, Dele Harding led the Big Ten and was second in the nation in tackles playing middle (MIKE) linebacker. In 2020, the spot goes to Hansen.

“Jake’s one the best linebackers in football,” Smith said.

“I knew for a while,” Hansen said. “Being the MIKE linebacker means a little more. You’re making all the calls, making all the checks. Everyone is relying on you the whole time. It’s a big step.”Moving Hansen to MIKE was natural, Smith said.

“You can make adjustments with him,” Smith said. “He knows the defense. He is like a coach on the football field.

“I’m really excited about the leadership he will provide. On a personal note, I just love the guy. What he stands for. What you get from him daily. I know what he is doing on and off the field. It’s just been a blessing to coach a guy like that.”

Milo Eifler will be the starting WILL linebacker and Khalan Tolson is at SAM.

Hansen missed the final four games of the 2019 season because of a back injury. He is fully healed and has been for months.

The nation’s leader in forced fumbles last season, he is on the Butkus Award watchlist for 2020 after being a semifinalist last season.