Tate: Secretive spring keeps Beckman's team in shadows

"Where's the beef?"

The funny lady asked a legitimate question in an old Wendy's commercial.

The modern version, for Illini Nation, is: "Where's the buzz?"

Normally, at this time of year, spring football is the talk of the town. Lively discussions were customary at watering holes, on talk radio and in the forums.

Three factors have tossed football into the background: (1) It's a basketball school, and the firing-hiring business leading to John Groce has sucked out all the oxygen; (2) new football coach Tim Beckman has maintained tight security while installing new schemes at closed practices; and (3) Illinois has replaced Missouri as the Show Me state.

Somewhat fouling Beckman's quest for secrecy, the BTN will televise Saturday's 2 p.m. game directly to eager Western Michigan coaches (on tape delay) — the Broncos open here Sept. 1 — so this showing pretty much negates the advantages of shutting out the local media.

Why, then, permit television? Responded Beckman: "Nobody asked me."

TV, as always, rules. As a result, Beckman will counter Western Michigan's scouting efforts in a variety of ways.

"We won't showcase everything," he said. "We just had a 55-play scrimmage for special teams, so we won't show any of our special teams Saturday. There'll be no kickoffs or punt returns. In terms of our offensive and defensive schemes, we'll only show about 50 percent. We don't have our blitz tracks in."

You've heard of a vanilla sundae. This will be vanilla Saturday. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase won't run a great deal and, when he does, neither he nor any of the QBs will be tackled. And Beckman will speed it along with a running clock in the second half so he and the staff can start tending to the 100-plus junior prospects who'll be in attendance.

Anyone home?

Ahh, attendance. This has everyone guessing ... and worrying.

Illinois heads into a home schedule in which all seven games — Western Michigan, Charleston Southern, Louisiana Tech, Penn State, Indiana, Minnesota and Purdue — could reasonably fall into the win column, although three of them didn't last season. And yet it lacks the kind of high-rivalry attractions that might pack the place. The Illini drew 45,000 or fewer for Arkansas State, South Dakota State and Western Michigan last season, and they don't appear capable of topping 55,000 unless Michigan or Ohio State is involved.

Beckman inherits a Jekyll-and-Hyde team that started 6-0 and trailed off to 0-6 before defeating similarly erratic UCLA 20-14, with interim coach Vic Koenning handling the reins in San Francisco.

Beckman's concerns about squad depth are apparent, not only in his comments but with his actions.

With standout receiver Darius Millines sidelined and running back Donovonn Young engaged in only his first week of full contact, Beckman has talked of increasing the duties of senior cornerbacks Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green with receiving and ball-carrying chores, respectively. Miles Osei, a 200-pound quarterback, is rotating as a running back. Concerns at offensive tackle have raised questions whether veteran center Graham Pocic or star guard Hugh Thornton might be moved. Tight end is the deepest position, so look for Jon Davis and others to double up as slot receivers. And the defensive front four, where Beckman prefers a two-deep arrangement, is frightfully thin, particularly with pass-rushing Whitney Mercilus turning pro.

Scouting report

For all the concerns about a lack of buzz, Beckman is smart to keep Western Michigan in the dark as much as possible. As with every next game, this is the most important. In a tight series, the Illini won 30-27 in 2004, lost 23-17 in 2008 and won 23-20 in 2011. You can't take lightly a foe that has matched the Illini in points, 70-70, in a hard-fought 180 minutes. An Illini setback Sept. 1 would have the UI's Doubting Thomases drowning in negativism and send the Beckman program reeling ahead of a Sept. 8 trip to Arizona State ... and facing an opening Big Ten schedule of Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan.

Here's what we won't see Saturday but are likely to see in the fall.

The first defensive unit, built around Hawthorne, linebacker Jonathan Brown and nose guard Akeem Spence, is the team strength and desperately needs to stay intact. Starting safeties Steve Hull and Supo Sanni, absent Saturday due to injuries, should return without incident.

The spread attack will have similarities to Ron Zook's scheme, with Scheelhaase carrying a heavy load in the running game, and potential workhorse Young sharing carries with Josh Ferguson, a spring standout. Davis is expected to join returning wideouts as the go-to receivers. Michael Heitz (6-foot-5, 295) has impressed the new staff with his progress at tackle after sharing time with Simon Cvijanovic last season. The play of these two Saturday will be carefully evaluated to see whether any line shifts are needed.

It should not be overlooked that, for all the difficulties leading to Zook's ouster, this is an Illini program owning consecutive bowl wins, one of which came against one of the hottest names in the upcoming NFL draft, Robert Griffin III of Baylor. This Illini team appears to have just enough quality talent to go around, if Beckman can hold them together and uncover a few surprises like Mercilus and A.J. Jenkins along the way. If that happens, the buzz will return.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.

Categories (3):Illini Sports, Football, Sports

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peterborich wrote on April 13, 2012 at 1:04 am

Waaaaaaaaah....the great Loren Tate Isn't allowed into Spring football practice, so he takes pot shots at Coach Beckman.......how dare Coach treat the Great Tate this way... "Doesn't he know who I am?" ..... and really Loren, a loss to Western Michigan On September 1st would send the Beckman program "reeling?" Like beating a diminished Arizona State team the following week would be impossible?  And even if the season opened with two losses, a 2-2 record going into Big Ten play would be disastrous?   Such a drama queen you be........ 

uofiisu wrote on April 13, 2012 at 11:04 am

I think you might need to work on your reading comprehension.

urbanaman wrote on April 13, 2012 at 9:04 pm

Anyone else pick up on the irony of the first line of Methuselah's column? It's the first question I ask myself every time I read him...

Smackey wrote on April 13, 2012 at 9:04 am

now if I were the coach for any school playing Illinois and if my thought would be to watch only the spring game to figure out the Illini then I would not being doing my job well.  there are stacks of "film" on Beckman from his previous gig.  I'd watch that too.  And for the new Illini assistants i'd find film on their games as well.  i'd watch last years illini film to get reads on how Illini players worked in specific situations.  and i would wonder why time was spent in the newspaper on this notion.

PDOG wrote on April 13, 2012 at 11:04 am

You Tate bashers crack me up. He can't write anything without being attacked. You must lead a very crappy life that in order to make you feel better you have to bash on an opinion columnist every time he puts a column out. Borich needs to get a life and find something constructive to do. These are just columns about sports things and he surely has a certain number to do with certain days they are printed and sometimes there are more exciting things to write about than others. Get over it guys. The reason he wrote about this was because it is a change from the past when practices were open, and thus there was a lot more information out there about Illini football during the spring. This is Beckman's first year, so it is new here and thus something to write about.

Smackey wrote on April 17, 2012 at 9:04 am

Loren is a great writer and full of knowledge about many things. i am not a Tate hater at all.  but this notion of keeping things private in a football setting is nothin' new at all.  myself, can take the notion back 35 years to my time in High School football at Urbana during the 1970's.  Smitty was quite aware of people watching practices.  if he didn't know you then you were asked to leave the area.  for the pre-season scrimmage the coaching staff would tell the team that our next opponenet would scout that exhibition and the play calling would be basic.  the idea that coach beckman will change offensive and defensive thinking from one job to the other - i do not accept.  we know about illinois without going to any practice - right now - the "O" and "D" approach for the upcoming year.  "you are who you are" as a coach.  so maybe a slow day topic wise.  ok.  but as an outsider - regular guy - here are subjects that would be more interesting to me:

future of the Illini sports network - 

is revenue sharing in the Big 10 elevating league play or levelizing league play - a la the NFL

what's wrong with football ticket sales ... new $99 season package indicates need to sell more seats

what happened at basketball games with the student surrounding the floor during the 3 n 1 .. they don't now.