With first-year coach, Illinois looms as team of mystery
By Herb Gould email@example.com August 15, 2012 9:52PM
Updated: September 17, 2012 1:09PM
It’s a new era in Illinois football. So it only makes sense that it should start with a new wrinkle.
After a transparent opening week, first-year coach Tim Beckman has closed practice to fans and media for the second week of training camp. It’s an apparent effort to let his team bond and work out without distractions — and maybe come up with some stuff that will knock the socks off of first opponent Western Michigan.
While other college teams shut out the outside world during training camp, they tend to be teams that sell 80,000 tickets a game, not teams that have 10,000 empty seats in a 60,000-seat stadium.
On the other hand, if a little secret sleuthing in August makes the Illini more watchable in September and October, that’s a good tradeoff.
Of course, Illinois football tends to have multiple personalities, anyway. It’s the only program in the nation that has gone to two BCS bowls and had two 10-loss seasons in the last dozen years.
So what kind of personality is Illinois going to have this year?
It’ll be an energetic group, if Beckman’s motor is any indication. The new coach has hit the ground running. He’s hired an intriguing staff that has lured some interesting recruits, including, controversially, one lineman transferring in from Penn State (Ryan Nowicki) and another from Nebraska (Ryan Klachko).
Beckman gave some insight into where he got his intensity with a story about bumping into his old Bowling Green boss, Urban Meyer, at a restaurant in Chicago last month. Meyer needled Beckman about the time Beckman’s father, Dave, a coach and front-office football exec, attended practice.
“A little guy gets closer and closer,’’ Beckman said, “and Urban finally said, ‘Who in the hell is that?’ My dad was in the picture, almost getting run over by a player. That’s what coaching football is all about.’’
If young assistants such as offensive line coach Luke Butkus and the co-offensive coordinators, Billy Gonzales and Chris Beatty, can get into the picture and put some things together around steady quarterback Nate Scheelhaase, Illinois could over achieve.
Because if there are questions on offense, the defense has some really good building blocks.
Defensive end Michael Buchanan, a projected NFL first-rounder, heads up a front four who all have a good chance to play on Sundays. Tackles Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster, and end Justin Staples, who’s being pushed by Tim Kynard, all could have productive years.
Add in linebacker Jonathan Brown and cornerback Terry Hawthorne, who also are solid pro prospects, and Illinois could have a solid defense.
The offense is another matter. Beyond Scheelhaase, there’s some potential. But the offense is filled with questions, as are the special teams.
Another mystery is the schedule. Trips to Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State look ominous. But the other nine games could go to the team that wants it more.
Beckman speaks often of fundamentals and repetition. That’s one big building block for an emerging team with a new set of coaches. Another is building trust and confidence, and Scheelhaase credits Beckman with doing a good job on that front.
“We’re settling in,’’ the junior QB said. “We’ve gotten pretty used to him, figured out what he’s all about.’’
In that regard, the players seem to be ahead of the fans and media. At this point, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.