CHAMPAIGN — The bullet pass left the right hand of University of Illinois quarterback Cam Thomas Tuesday and was thrown slightly behind a receiver. Rod Smith cringed when the ball bounced off the receiver’s hands and fluttered to the Memorial Stadium turf.
In Smith’s mind, there was no excuse for an incomplete pass Tuesday, the first day of spring football practice. Because none of the passes were against a defense, a 100 percent completion percentage on short slant passes was not too much to ask.
As Illinois’ new offensive coordinator, Rod Smith is asking for more from an offense that has mostly sputtered in Lovie Smith’s first two years.
“We should never miss a throw against air,” Rod Smith said, alluding to the absence of defensive backs. “There should never be a ball on the ground and we had way too many balls on the ground today.
“That’s not just Cam. That’s quarterbacks and wideouts and we have to get better with that.”
Wednesday is the second anniversary of the hiring of Lovie Smith. The record is an inglorious 5-19. But the roster turnover has been significant and this past offseason the coaching staff turnover became noteworthy, too.
Lovie Smith believes both developments position his program for greater on-field success.
Fifteen players left following last season although one of them, receiver Sam Mays, has since returned. Three coaches also departed, giving Lovie Smith a new offensive coordinator (Rod Smith), defensive line coach (Austin Clark), tight ends coach (Cory Patterson) and safeties coach (Gil Byrd). An NCAA rules change allowed coaches to hire one additional assistant this season.
Lovie Smith hobbled from station to station Tuesday, slowed slightly by a walking boot due to what he called a muscle injury. His gray winter beard is still in full bloom and he’s watching both players and those coaches who are stepping into new roles.
One absentee Tuesday was defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson, who has added the title of assistant head coach. He stayed home with the flu.
The interaction between Rod Smith and Thomas is something of heightened interest because Thomas is the only scholarship quarterback in camp and the new coordinator is making important judgments about whether Thomas could lead his fast-paced offense in the fall.
Based on what Rod Smith said Tuesday, the immediate challenge for Thomas is learning new terminology and proving he can make decisions on the fly.
“It’s like speaking Chinese if you’re American. He’s trying to learn everything and it’s brand new," Smith said. "And it’s the speed of the game. When you tempo things up, you have to be able to think on your feet. You don’t have time to process stuff for 25 seconds in the huddle. We can’t have any untimed ACT guys.”
Tuesday, Thomas suffered from some mechanical and fundamental mistakes that led to incompletions. But he also impressed Smith at times.
“I thought he did a decent job for day one,” the new coordinator said. “There are some things we have to get cleaned up but he’s working at it and he’s very studious. He wants to learn and he’s talented.
“He’s an athletic kid who can throw the football. He has the ability to extend plays. He can make any throw. He has a strong enough arm, but he has to continue to work on his accuracy.”
Thomas said Smith made an impression on him early.
“He bought me food already so that’s a plus,” said Thomas, a sophomore-to-be who started twice and played in four games last season. “He got us bowling alley pizza and it was great.”
Thomas agreed learning new terminology is a challenge. And so is being in a quarterback room that no longer includes Jeff George Jr. and Chayce Crouch, who are no longer in the program.
This summer Thomas will be joined by three incoming freshmen and could be joined by another if a graduate transfer arrives. But until then, it’s Thomas along with walk-ons Cam Miller and Charlie Reinkemeyer.
“It’s definitely different because going into the offseason I expected to have Jeff and Chayce in there to help me and tell me what I’m doing wrong,” Thomas said.
But it also means more one-on-one time between the quarterback and the new offensive coordinator. Their ability to communicate will be critical.
“He gets a lot more love from Coach Smith,” Rod Smith said. “Sometimes that’s not a good thing.”