Freshmen Contribute Immediately for Young Illini
Oct. 27, 2013
By Lexi Shurilla, fightingillini.com staff writer
It's a dream come true for those players who are able to continue on in football after they graduate from high school. Head coach Tim Beckman has said many times how young his team is. So far this season, 10 true-freshmen and 11 redshirt-freshmen have taken the field for the Fighting Illini. The youngsters are learning quickly and stepping up on the field.
"It's been a lot of fun," freshman quarterback Aaron Bailey said. "I love it, from school to football and just being on your own with the college experience. You hear so many people say that there's nothing like college and they're right. I'm just enjoying myself down here."
After a highly anticipated decision, the four-star recruit from Bolingbrook, Ill., decided to remain in his home state to continue his play in Champaign and is running many of the same plays now - read options and quarterback draws - that he did in high school. As a junior, Bailey led Bolingbrook to the 2011 Illinois Class 8A state championship, rushing for just under 2,000 yards in 2011 to earn all-state honors.
"We prayed about it as a family," Bailey said. "Being a Christian family we didn't want to do anything without God. So we prayed about it and it just worked out in our favor. Illinois was the best school for me."
Many in-state recruits have high hopes of playing for the flagship school in Illinois.
"It's the school I always wanted to go to," freshman cornerback Jaylen Dunlap said. "Being from Illinois, I always wanted to play for my state, and represent my state and put my state on my back."
Dunlap grabbed 10 interceptions during his varsity high school career and earned first-team all-area and first-team all-conference honors as a senior after helping lead Crete-Monee to the Class 6A state championship with a 14-0 record in 2012.
"I've known Coach Beckman, and all of the coaches that were at Toledo originally, for a long time," Schmidt said. "That kind of started the whole thing and sparked my interest [in Illinois], and then I came on a visit here and really liked everything about the school, the campus and the stadium."
Schmidt arrived on campus last January, so he was able to get situated and complete some of his classes a semester early, before football started.
The amount of time that goes into being a student-athlete on the football team is huge and is much more than in high school where it is mostly practice and games on Friday night.
"Everything is going how I planned it to be," Dunlap said. "I came in and played early and that's what I wanted. It's what I worked for and I always wanted to play as early as I could. Classes are going well. The tutors and academic counselors make it easier. They teach you how to juggle your time and make time for everything. The counselors are really great at helping me with that. Without them I don't know where I'd be."
"You're either in a meeting, watching film, on the practice field or in the weight room," Schmidt said of his football obligations. "Throughout the day, if I'm not in class, I'm probably in the stadium."
"I have many [mentors], but Nate's the main one," Bailey said of senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. "Nathan has been helping me out a lot, on and off the field. He's just been telling me little tips. I remember the first day asking him for help to find a class, stuff like that. And he helps me out in the film room when we watch film together."
Watching film the way a college team does is much different than in high school, where many teams may not watch film together at all. Summer practices and Camp Rantoul also helped the freshmen get comfortable with the routine and new family.
"Earnest Thomas played a big part in me learning the game before camp started," Dunlap said. "When we came down for summer training, he was there day-in and day-out in the film room, so he helped me a lot with that. He taught me how to watch film as a college player."
After all the preparation in the summer helped relieve the initial jitters, it was time to put on the Illini uniform for the first time in front of the home crowd at Memorial Stadium.
"It was really exciting, more exciting than nervousness," Schmidt said. "Playing in front of a crowd that big is just crazy. And playing with competition up to your level is definitely different. It makes it a lot more interesting and a lot more fun."
"It was amazing," Bailey said. "It was an amazing atmosphere. It was totally different watching it from last year, being a recruit and watching a game with my dad and now finally being out here. I had to really soak it in. But when the first hit came, that's when reality hit."
Different is an understatement when being hit with the reality of their next four years on the field. Because the team is so young, many of the freshmen have already had the chance to get in on the action this season, but the differences in their competition is noticeable from the last time they played in a game.
"It's like an all-star game basically," Dunlap said. "Everyone is on scholarship that's on the field, so it's more intense. Everybody is trying to go to the NFL, so you might be going up against a person that's a first round draft pick in the future. In high school, you're playing someone who might not play football after their senior year. It's a big difference."
"I would say just the speed of the game," Bailey said. "It's the same game, just on a bigger stage. There are a lot of things you can't do, that you could do in high school and you'll learn that as you get better and more comfortable."
So yes, it's still football. But it's on a whole new level.
"Either way it's fun, but in high school, I don't want to say it wasn't as serious, but it was definitely more of a game instead of a job," Schmidt said. "Game-wise it's so much more fun here playing in front of the crowd. The competition really steps up which makes it a lot more intense. Especially when you win or you're doing well, it makes it that much more rewarding. Here we always have to be prepared for the next team."
Bailey's future at Illinois still has people wondering what he'll be able to accomplish with such natural talent. The same goes for many of the freshmen on the Illinois roster. But for now being able to play in their first year in Orange and Blue is enough.
"It's a blessing," Bailey said. "It's always been my goal to play as a true freshman, so when I got the opportunity I just tried to grasp it. Honestly, I just go out and play. I don't listen to a lot of hype or anything, I just go out there and play my game and do what I have to do to win the game for the team. I don't worry about what people say, good or bad. I appreciate it, but I just go out there and play the game."