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Illinois preview: Tim Beckman has fighting chance with ‘D’, reasonable schedule

A strong start seaswould mean lot Illinois coach Tim Beckman his players. | Darrell Hoemann~AP

A strong start to the season would mean a lot to Illinois coach Tim Beckman and his players. | Darrell Hoemann~AP

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2012 ILLINOIS SCHEDULE

Sept. 1 vs. Western Michigan

Sept. 8 at Arizona State

Sept. 15 vs. Charleston Southern

Sept. 22 vs. Louisiana Tech

Sept. 29 vs. Penn State

Oct. 6 at Wisconsin

Oct. 13 at Michigan

Oct. 27 vs. Indiana

Nov. 3 at Ohio State

Nov. 10 vs. Minnesota

Nov. 17 vs. Purdue

Nov. 24 at Northwestern

Updated: September 30, 2012 6:10AM



CHAMPAIGN — In some ways, it looks as though coach Tim Beckman ought to buy a lottery ticket. Not that he needs one.

After an encouraging (albeit brief) 21-16 stint in three seasons at Toledo, he has moved up to Illinois, courtesy of athletic director Mike Thomas, the Mid-American Conference’s one-man job-placement service. And he’s getting paid $1.6 million a year, four times his salary at Toledo.

If the preseason hype is accurate, Beckman could coach a lot of years at Illinois without assembling this much talent on the defensive line. He even has a linebacker of note (Jonathan Brown) and at least one cornerback (Terry Hawthorne). That’s a credit to predecessor Ron Zook, who wore out his welcome, even though the Illini won back-to-back bowl games for the first time in school history.

Like most schools, Illinois has depth issues in a bunch of places. But Zook also left behind a talented, savvy quarterback in junior Nate Scheelhaase and some decent (by Illinois standards) skill-position prospects on offense.

There are three tough Big Ten road trips, and there’s a tricky nonconference schedule as a parting gift from former AD Ron Guenther. But Illinois misses No. 13 Michigan State, No. 17 Nebraska and always-thorny Iowa. And the Penn State scandal means the Illini’s so-called Leaders Division should have four have-nots for the foreseeable future.

On the other hand, we just don’t know.

‘‘I think we’re pretty good upfront [on defense], but we haven’t played a game,’’ Beckman said. ‘‘We’ll see how good we are when we play against a team that’s going to throw about 60 times a game. We have guys that are good players. But if you don’t play team
defense, it really doesn’t matter.’’

A lot will depend on how Illinois gets out of the gate. It has escaped with three-point victories the last two times its first opponent, Western Michigan, came to Champaign. Three of the Illini’s next four opponents are similarly murky. And so are their last three.

What that means is a lot will depend on the staff Beckman has assembled. And the staff features an intriguing blend of youth and coaches who have worked with Beckman, plus some independent veterans.

Co-offensive coordinator Chris Beatty, 39, who will call the plays; offensive line coach Luke Butkus, 33; and defensive coordinator Tim Banks, 40, all have pretty big responsibilities.

Then again, so does special-teams coordinator Tim Salem, 50, who’s charged with shoring up a weak Illini link. And defensive line coach Keith Gilmore, 54, the lone holdover from Zook’s staff, needs to make sure Illinois’ best unit leads the way.

Banks and co-offensive coordinator Billy Gonzales, 41, worked with Beckman at Bowling Green. Beatty and Butkus are first-timers with Beckman, as are Salem and Gilmore. Three other assistants — 34-year-old Steve Clinkscale, 28-year-old Alex Golesh and 50-year-old Mike Ward — were with Beckman at Toledo.

‘‘It’s a collective effort,’’ Banks said. ‘‘Obviously, Tim’s background is on the defensive side of the ball. He allows us to do our jobs. At the same time, we welcome his input.’’

The young staffers, particularly those in key positions, are eager to reward Beckman for the trust he has shown in them.

‘‘We’re going to outwork people, turn over stones and find a way to win with hard work,’’ Butkus said. ‘‘We might be young, but we have some smart guys on this staff.’’

Beckman also put his trust in young offensive coordinator Matt Campbell, 32, who replaced him at Toledo.

‘‘I don’t think age has anything to do with it,’’ Beckman said. ‘‘The guy that was my coordinator last year is the youngest Division I head coach in the country. It’s what they know and how hard they work. And these guys do a phenomenal job.’’

It looks as though Beckman has given himself a good chance to have a good start at Illinois. Time — and the way the football bounces — will tell.

FIVE KEYS TO THE SEASON

1. DEFENSE CAN’T REST

Depth is still an issue. But if Illinois has as many future pros as advertised on defense, those players need to ease the heat on an uncertain offense. Defensive end Michael Buchanan, defensive tackle Akeem Spence, linebacker Jonathan Brown, cornerback Terry Hawthorne and friends, start your engines.

2. WIN YOUR WINNERS

With as many evenly matched teams as Illinois will see, consistency will be critical. Eight foes have similar talent bases going into the season. The team that shows the will and execution to win should prevail in those games.

3. FIND A WAY OFFENSIVELY

Quarterback Nate Scheelhaase is a great place to start, but some skill-position youngsters and a retooling line look uncertain. It’s no wonder coach Tim Beckman is guarding an element of surprise in training camp to give the offense an opportunity to get out of the gate well.

4. GET SPECIAL-TEAMS ACT TOGETHER

Beckman is making the special teams, which were abysmal last season, a point of emphasis for good reason. The Illini can’t afford to dig themselves field-position holes in the kicking game. Replacing dependable placekicker Derek Dimke is a concern.

5. WEATHER THE MIDSEASON STORM

After an opening five games that will set some parameters, Illinois travels to No. 12 Wisconsin, No. 8 Michigan and No. 18 Ohio State during a four-game stretch at midseason. The Illini don’t have to win, but they need to survive and be ready for their final three games.

FIVE KEY PLAYERS

NATE SCHEELHAASE

The heat will be on the junior quarterback, a three-year starter, to hold together an offense filled with question marks after sputtering in the second half of last season. A dual threat, Scheelhaase has the ability to get the most out of a rebuilding offense.

MICHAEL BUCHANAN

The senior defensive end, fourth in the Big Ten in sacks (7.5) and ninth in tackles for loss (13.5) last season, is poised for another big season. That’s particularly true because fellow defensive lineman Akeem Spence also is poised for a big season.

DONOVONN YOUNG

Somebody has to run between the tackles. If this 6-foot, 220-pound sophomore has a big season, Illinois might have one, too. If he struggles, that will add to the pressure on an offense that doesn’t have a lot of places to lean.

JONATHAN BROWN

As good as the Illini look upfront, they’ve got issues at linebacker and safety. That’s why they’re depending on Brown, the only Illinois player on analyst Phil Steele’s preseason All-Big Ten first team, to be a field general and a playmaker.

GRAHAM POCIC

A third-year starter, the senior offensive lineman is moving from center to guard. He’ll need to be the glue guy on an offensive line that will be a work in progress.

THE FIVE BIG ONES

Vs. PENN STATE | Illinois needs to handle the scandal-ridden Nittany Lions in its Big Ten opener to make an early statement before its rugged road trips.

At ARIZONA STATE | Under first-year coach Todd Graham (from Pittsburgh), the Sun Devils have similar talent — and similar hopes — to Illinois. It will be a big step for one of these teams.

At NORTHWESTERN | Coach Tim Beckman has been emphasizing this state rivalry with not-so-gentle barbs. It’s time to back them up.

Vs. LOUISIANA TECH | Illinois needs to watch out for the dangerous Bulldogs, who are favored to win the Western Athletic Conference.

Vs. PURDUE | A home stumble here or against Minnesota won’t do much for athletic director Mike Thomas’ goal of being competitive in the Big Ten.



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