Champaign's David Mercer covers Illinois for The Associated Press. His story previewing Tim Beckman's second team moved Friday.
CHAMPAIGN — No one can blame Illinois players and coaches for wanting to get back to football as soon as possible.
Everyone around Memorial Stadium is ready to start with a clean slate after a mostly miserable 2-10 season. Practice starts Monday.
“I’m very anxious to see the progress that this football team has made since the first of December,” said Tim Beckman, the second-year head coach whose name is already on various lists of coaches on the hot seat.
His first year at Illinois was, in a word, rough. And it wasn’t just the record.
Beckman was embarrassed to be caught by television cameras using smokeless tobacco on the sideline during a game — a violation of NCAA rules — and was also knocked to the turf when he got in the way of an official, drawing a penalty.
His team — thin at many positions to begin with — endured injuries and confusion. Some defensive players complained early on that the Illini had gotten away from the blitzes and pressure that made the team’s defense a strength in previous years; in some cases, defenders didn’t know what plays coaches were calling.
Bottom line, Beckman says, a lot needed to change.
“After the Northwestern football game, we came together as a football team. We talked about strides that we needed to make as a family, that we needed to make as a football team, that we needed to make on and off the football field,” he told reporters at Big Ten media day.
On the field, there will be immediate change.
Former Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit was hired to bring his quick-release passing offense to town after Illinois scored a Big Ten-worst 16.7 points a game last season. That means fifth-year senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase — who Beckman says is the starter — will be learning his fourth offense under his fourth different coordinator since he came to Illinois.
Scheelhaase says that’s no big deal.
“When you’ve been around the game as much as I have, there’s really nothing that’s going to be all the way new,” he said. “Xs and Os don’t change that much. You learn how to learn things.”
Statistically, the defense wasn’t much better than the offense — 11th in the 12-team conference after surrendering 32.1 points a game. Coordinator Tim Banks remains in charge.
Illinois lost three of its most talented defensive players — linemen Akeem Spence and Michael Buchanan and defensive back Terry Hawthorne. But the Illini will get their top linebacker, Jonathan Brown, back after he missed much of last season to injury. And sophomore linebacker Mason Monheim, who was a revelation when Brown went down with a team-best 86 tackles, has a year of experience now, too.
Improvement for Illinois will mean overcoming some obstacles.
One, the team could still thin and will definitely be young. Beckman will have more than 30 new players on the roster when practice starts, five of them junior college transfers and the rest freshmen.
“It’s very important for us to bring age to the program,” Beckman said. “That’s why we signed five (from junior colleges). We will have to continually do that, in my opinion, for the next two to possibly three years.”
The schedule will do the Illini no favors. After the Aug. 31 opener against Southern Illinois, opponents include Cincinnati and Washington before a Big Ten schedule that includes Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State.
Right now, all that’s just more talk to Illinois players like defensive lineman Tim Kynard. And he says he’d rather start playing.
“I kind of want to get camp over with and get right to the season,” he said.