Tate: Who knows what's going on with Illini? Not us.
No one can answer the most-asked question: "How will Illini football do this year?"
Face it, coach Tim Beckman doesn't know himself. This is a mystery. A polygraph test wouldn't help. And with Rantoul behind us, there'll be no more hints.
Sunday was our last view of what has now become top-secret preparation. You may need clearance to view the Red Grange statue up close. Stadium intruders will be handcuffed and blind-folded.
Beckman has an edge on Western Michigan because the Broncos don't know exactly what to expect Sept. 1, and he intends to keep it that way. Who can blame him?
If Luke Butkus reshuffles his offensive line, we'll have to wait and see. If Darius Millines has a gimpy shoulder, why tip off Western as to the UI's new go-to receiver? If the coordinators have gimmicks (like a tight end pass by former QB Eddie Viliunas) up their sleeve, mum's the word. If the rugby punt is still in vogue, why broadcast it? And in saying "we'll move Michael Buchanan around," Beckman isn't revealing where the rush-end star will line up.
Injury reports are strictly off limits. Doubly so. If somebody breaks his hand (freshman rover Ta'Jarvis Fuller will likely miss at least six weeks), Beckman doesn't intend for it to get out.
"We won't comment on injuries. We're not going to give out any information that will benefit our opponents," Beckman said Sunday before taking the team into hibernation (they're hiding, not sleeping).
What kind of head coach is he? Illinois has had all kinds. Lou Tepper concentrated almost entirely on defense. John Mackovic, Mike White and Ron Turner were virtually their own offensive coordinators. Coordinators made most of the Saturday calls for Ron Zook, particularly in the last two years.
Beckman's background is on defense but he pokes his head into offensive staff meetings and will switch his headgear to offense when the Illini have the ball. Defensively, he works directly with a rover position called "star," which is a hybrid linebacker-DB featuring Ashante Williams and, until he was hurt, Fuller. At the same time, he is deeply involved with special teams, and personally coaches a coverage position like an assistant coach.
"I try to be involved in everything," Beckman said.
"Offensively, we'll plan early calls which you'll see Sept. 1. As example, we may have four plays for third down with 7-plus yards to go, and we'll work on those so the players will be comfortable for what is coming. Defensively, we want them to know how they're likely to be attacked."
One exaggerating sideliner commented the UI hasn't returned a kickoff since Grange. We get the point. Scintillating kickoff returns and game-changing blocked punts haven't been associated with the UI. This program has a multi-year ranking at or near the bottom in special teams.
Beckman hired Tim Salem for this assignment and has the entire staff involved. But questions abound. The Illini kicking game is far from settled. Illinois has two scholarship booters battling the walk-ons, sophomore punter Justin DuVernois from Plantation, Fla., and freshman Ryan Frain of Indianapolis. Frain is showing a powerful leg at both. Meanwhile, Nick Immekus, a sophomore walk-on from Wheaton, got the jump on place kicking with an impressive spring. Those three appear to be the leaders among a half-dozen candidates.
Alex Golesh, who works with the specialists, said Sunday "I wouldn't be ready to narrow down the field goal candidates. Immekus was consistent up to Sunday when we rushed the units on and off the field — trying to simulate game conditions — and we didn't kick well.
"Frain has a big leg and he's working at both punting and place kicking. I'd prefer not to have a freshman do both, or all three if kickoffs are included."
Golesh said they're "still playing around" with the rugby kick, which receiver Ryan Lankford did on 19 occasions last season, averaging 39.4 yards on mostly against-the-wind bouncers. DuVernois averaged 38.3 on 53 punts last year but bungled attempts vs. Purdue and Wisconsin.
"Special teams is the only phase where the offensive and defensive players are on the field together," Golesh said. "We need them to take ownership. We should be sick of being last in the country. We're finding some linebacker and safety bodies for coverage ... some 220-pounders who can cover."
Every UI starter must play on at least one special team, excluding some of the linemen and quarterbacks.
— Beckman kept the UI's offensive play-calling job open to 32-year-old Matt Campbell until his Toledo aide received the head job there. Campbell began his career as a GA at Bowling Green in 2003. The current UI co-offensive coordinator, Billy Gonzales, was also at Bowling Green from 1995 to 2002, then moved with Urban Meyer to Utah and on to Florida. Gonzales stayed with Meyer through 2009 when he moved to LSU.
— Quarterbacks often reach mid-August with tired arms from all the passing drills. Not so Miles Osei, who keeps moving around at three positions while also holding placements.
— Two leftover questions from the Olympics. How many medal-winning athletes from Granada, the Dominican Republic and elsewhere trained in the United States, as opposed to chief rival China? And how much did Title IX play into the USA's 29 gold medals by our world-best women?
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.