Champaign will never be confused with Phoenix or Miami. But the east-central Illinois city is one of the hottest spots in college football for 2014, according to the thermometer attached to head coach Tim Beckman’s seat.
It’s bowl game or bust for the third-year coach, who’s only won one of 16 Big Ten games. His first two seasons at Illinois brought speculation about his future as the losses piled up. The Fighting – or Fightless – Illini are 6-18 since Beckman arrived after finishing in the top half of the Big Ten and going to bowl games in 2010 and 2011.
In the face of stinging criticism, Beckman has remained firm. He’s been an FBS coach for 16 seasons and has experienced a winning record in 10 of them. But the downward trend at Illinois presents an uphill challenge the equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest.
“I’ve been so blessed with winning,” Beckman recently told the News-Gazette. “[Losing has been] real hard, not just for me, but my family. When your family is tied so much into the program, it affects everybody. My family loves being around football. What’s different about me, and I don’t mean this in a cocky way, is I’ve been around this profession my whole life. I was at practices when I was a baby. When [my youngest son] Alex was born, we had a game the next week. He was there when he was five days old.”
Beckman admitted his transition from Toledo to Illinois could have been better organized. There was constant travel and recruiting and little of actually scanning the Illini roster and becoming familiar with the team he would inherit.
Then when the games started a talent gap was obvious – and maybe inferior coaching. The losing consumed Beckman. He constantly breaks down film, sometimes immediately after games.
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“I didn’t do a good enough job the first year. Bottom line,” Beckman said. “It’s not the kids’ fault. It was my fault.”
Illinois might win more than two games this season, but .500 and a bowl game is a stretch. Let’s just say the Illini were not blessed by the schedule makers. They must travel to Ohio State, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Northwestern. The Ohio State and Nebraska games are at night, and the non-conference schedule presents a difficult trip to Husky Stadium in Seattle.
A quarterback derby will continue in fall camp, but fixing a porous defense comes the Illini’s top priority. They allowed over 35 points per game last season and had nine turnovers in four road games. Defensive line is where the problems began, as teams found it easier to run through Illinois’ defense than go through a revolving door.
Capable players occupy the tackle positions, but defensive end gives off little optimism. A handful of players are vying for the spots, with Dawuane Smoot emerging as a disruptive force.
The top defender from 2013 – linebacker Jonathan Brown – is gone. Illinois is excited about the player that replaces him, though, T.J. Neal. He had 38 tackles last season as a redshirt freshman, providing a sunny picture at linebacker for years to come. There’s also confidence in the secondary, especially after V’Angelo Bentley 89-yard interception return for a touchdown in the spring game.
“We’re very excited about T.J.,” defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. “I know he didn’t play as much as he wanted to play last year, but that didn’t deter him. He picked up where he left off as far as the preparation. He really had a productive spring.”
But questions linger after the Blue team beat the Orange 38-7. Is it just another sign that the defense is in shambles? Might the offense be one of the best in the Big Ten?
It starts at quarterback, where Illinois has as much depth as any team in the conference. Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt was viewed as the sure-fire starters before spring, but it didn’t end that way. Veteran Reilly O’Toole started the spring game and finished 12-of-17 passing for 126 yards and two touchdowns.
“All quarterbacks have got things that they do well,” Beckman said. “We’re going to let everybody have that chance to be the starting quarterback at the University of Illinois.”
Sophomore Aaron Bailey is a playmaking athlete at quarterback who can piece together broken plays. He created mismatches and headaches for the defense throughout the spring. Enough that Beckman and offensive coordinator Bill Cubit might want him on the field a handful of plays even if he isn’t the starter.
Lunt was a prized transfer after a solid year at Oklahoma State. He carried that over to the Illini, where much of spring practice served as an introduction to the future. That is until he struggled in the spring game, which opened the door for O’Toole. Still, Lunt is the favorite to start the opener against Youngstown State.
“Sometimes guys might take a little longer to come along than some other guys, but there’s no rush,” Cubit said. “I think just watching the decision-making process, the accuracy, the offense with the checks and blitzes, I think the experienced guys show a little bit more experience. But at the same time, we’re trying to give everybody a shot. Some guys take a little bit longer than others. You see it, but it’s not that big of a deal right now. You’ve got to be fair.”
“I didn’t do a good enough job the first year. Bottom line. It’s not the kids’ fault. It was my fault.”– Tim Beckman
As tight ends become more valuable, Illinois can be thankful it has two good ones – Matt LaCosse and Jon Davis. The duo could see plenty of passes coming their way with only Justin Hardee returning at wide receiver. True freshman Mikey Dudek could be relied on from the get-go and former walk-on Peter Bonahoom recorded nine catches in the spring game, netting him a scholarship.
“We’ve got to find some guys outside of Justin Hardee, Pete Bonahoom, Dionte Taylor. Somebody’s got to fill in the position,” Cubit said. “We have two guys coming in that we think of really highly in the fall, so we’ll find some guys. But I don’t think we’ve really had the chemistry yet.”
But where the backfield becomes dangerous is pairing Lunt – or O’Toole or Bailey – with tailback Josh Ferguson. He’s one of the Big Ten’s best and proved it last season. Ferguson can help set up the pass, but his hope is that Illinois doesn’t fall behind in games, making them one-dimensional.
And, oh yeah, the offensive line must block someone. The Illini averaged fewer than three yards per carry in the spring game.