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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.