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TGS 2012 COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW...ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI
by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor


Ron Zook’s Illinois teams were never as bad as in his first two seasons at Champaign, when they went 4-19 straight-up, or as bad as in the final 6 regular-season games last season (all losses). Unfortunately, they were never really as good as the 9-4 Rose Bowl side of 2007 or as good as last year’s 6-0 start when they climbed into the top twenty. In Zook’s seven seasons at the helm, the Illini were streaky and mediocre. Ultimately his 35-51 mark with the team reflected his true coaching ability and led to a changing of the guard.

Enter Tim Beckman, previously in charge of the Toledo Rockets and defensive coordinator at Oklahoma State, among other stops. Beckman’s Toledo teams scored 33 ppg in his three seasons with the Rockets, but they also allowed 33 ppg in that span. Is Illinois looking at another stretch of mediocrity? A sparse crowd at the spring game and extremely slow ticket sales would indicate the Illini faithful are anticipating just that.

Beckman is known for a high-powered offense, but it’s going to be a real test of his coaching ability if he’s able to turn the Orange & Blue attack around in the short term. Junior QB Nathan Scheelhaase is still hanging onto the starting job, but the competition is open and 6-4 soph Reilly O’Toole will be pushing for playing time, especially if the team struggles during the soft early schedule. Scheelhaase has shown flashes of brilliance in his two seasons, but he makes more plays with his feet (led Illini with 624 YR in 2011) than with his arm (7th in the Big Ten in passing efficiency last season).

Scheelhaase (right) is saying all the right things about the coaching change, "Everyone in the locker room has jumped on the bandwagon in believing what Coach Beck is telling us each day. That's good. That's what you need when you have a transition like we've had. You need everyone to buy in. And everyone has," said Scheelhasse in speaking of Beckman, but a change to O’Toole might come sooner rather than later, especially considering the coach didn’t recruit a quarterback in this year’s incoming class.

The offense has some disturbing holes almost everywhere else. Beckman will have to replace the Big Ten’s best receiver, A.J. Jenkins (90 catches, 1276 yards, 14.2 ypc last season; went to San Francisco as the 30th pick in the draft), as well as a pair of four-year starters on the offensive line, including all-Big Ten selection Jeff Allen. He also has no clear lead back. Soph RB Donovan Young is the leading returning ground-gainer among running backs, with 451 YR and 5.2 ypc in ‘11, but he missed three weeks during spring with a foot injury, allowing redshirt frosh Josh Ferguson to showcase his talents with 130 yards in the spring game. To summarize, Beckman is looking must replace an elite playmaking wideout, and a couple of “A” list offensive lineman as well as find a top-flight RB for a team that ranked 91st in scoring and passing a year ago, throwing for just 130 ypg in the last five games. A tall order.

Things are in a similar state on the defensive side of the ball. The Illini have a major hole to fill on the defensive line with the departure of DE Whitney Mercilus, who led the nation in sacks in 2011 and was taken with the 26th pick by the Houston Texans. Sr. DE Michael Buchanan (left, vs. Michigan last November) will be the prime candidate to replace Mercilus, and the fact Buchanan was a second-team all-conference pick himself and had 7½ sacks is an indication he has some room left before he hits his ceiling. Junior nose tackle Akeem Spence (69 tackles) must combine with 2nd-team all-Big Ten linebacker Jonathan Brown (team-best 108 tackles and had 6 sacks and 13½ tackles for loss of his own) to step up their games in order to solidify the front seven. Besides Mercilus up front, new defensive coordinator Tim Banks, who joined the staff after guiding Cincinnati’s defense the last two seasons, must replace major contributors in LB Ian Thomas and CB Tavon Wilson, who ranked 2nd and 3rd on the team in stops, combining for 166 tackles. If sr. FS Supo Sanni is healthy (missed some spring action with an Achilles injury), and sr. CB Terry Hawthorne stays healthy, the secondary should come along quickly (especially if any of the six DB recruits can contribute right away).

Summary: Although he has a few of the pieces in place, it’s plain Beckman is committed to building from the ground up. He passed on taking over immediately when his hiring was announced in early December and coaching his new team in the Fight Hunger Bowl against UCLA. Instead he used the time to hit the recruiting trail. Beckman maintained inroads to Florida recruiting opened in the last several seasons by Zook and augmented that with a strong presence in Ohio, where he mined for talent the last three seasons while at Toledo. All of his 19 signees are incoming freshmen...no quick-fix jucos. He realizes that the Illinois special teams have been a major problem, so he gave a scholarship to PK Ryan Frain, who will take the kicks as a true frosh, and also invited in a walk-on long snapper who will likely have a job immediately. Nice attention to detail. Beckman is instilling a higher level of discipline than that which existed under Zook, who was known as a “player’s coach” and was too often more of a pal than leader and administrator to his players. Beckman established “Illini Time” requiring players to show up 10 minutes early to any meeting or practice in order to be on time. Come correct or be punished is the new message, and consider the numerous disciplinary and legal incidents in Champaign during the Zook era, it’s a much-needed change in policy.

That being said, the program at Illinois is unlikely to rise to the elite heights of college football. The Illini have won outright Big Ten titles just three times in the last 60 seasons, so to expect a major change is unreasonable. However, if Beckman can stabilize the team’s performances and eliminate the wild disparities in performance and roller-coaster streaks, the program can start attending a better class of bowl games more consistently. But until Beckman’s new schemes are assimilated and his recruiting grassroots have a chance to take hold, look for the Illini in another Fight Hunger or Texas Bowl in 2012.


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