Tate: Beckman's got it going on
They won't huddle. If you're looking for a difference, Marcus, that's the first thing you'll notice Saturday about the new Illini.
But the change goes much deeper. In Tim Beckman, the team has a coach in complete charge. This wasn't the case the last two years. While Ron Zook had the final say, it was a team directed in large part by two independent coordinators, Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning.
The view here is that divided authority lacked long-term staying power. If, for example, Petrino produced a successful offense, he would be seen as head coaching material, and the Illini would have a vacancy to fill. If his offense failed, as it did late last season, Zook's regime would topple. This arrangement had the appearance, long term, of a no-win situation.
Worse yet, the special teams were the direct responsibility of the head coach, and the two-year record was arguably the worst in the 120-team field.
As soon as the Illini began slipping at midseason, the old staff operated under the demoralizing pressure of knowing, as was expressed later, they might soon be job-hunting.
Marcus, all this has changed. This is a fresh start. There is tremendous emphasis on all aspects of the kicking game, Bob Asmussen noting that this is the biggest change in his view. The head coach hired a special teams expert (Tim Salem) and has his nose in all the meeting rooms, offensively and defensively.
"I like to be involved in everything," Beckman said. "I'll click my headset back and forth between offense and defense. This is all about working together. We'll chart play-call decisions on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Chris Beatty will send them down from the press box, and Billy Gonzales will be on the field."
In terms of split-second sideline instincts and on-field management, Beckman projects a good grasp. This is his team. Zook never displayed those instincts and, by his seventh season, had lost control and fan respect. He left with a 34-51 record.
The players are optimistic again. The six-game losing streak is in the past. But there's one major hitch: A week prior to the opener, uncertainty lingers about the offensive line.
Third-year starter Graham Pocic, a member of the "leadership committee" that deals with team issues, said Monday he "has no clue" where he'll play between center, guard and tackle Saturday. Pocic has started 26 straight games at center.
Beckman has called O-line changes "injury-necessitated" and "experimental," emphasizing: "We're trying to find the five best players. We evaluate after every practice."
Pocic might have remained at left guard but newly-promoted center Jake Feldmeyer injured his left arm last week, throwing Pocic back into his customary position. Also in recent days, left tackle Hugh Thornton hasn't been full-go. With Simon Cvijanovic unavailable (no given reason), Luke Butkus has a huge responsibility for a first-year line coach, and has taken a particularly close look at promising young guards Alex Hill and Ted Karras.
Are Hill and Karras ready? What about Feldmeyer? We'll know later. Getting all the round pegs in the round holes may not be resolved until September game films have been thoroughly studied.
Offensively, QB Nathan Scheelhaase said new plays are being installed this week to (1) set up a two-back attack and (2) get the ball to various players at different places on the field. Watch for halfback Josh Ferguson to haul in more receptions than Jason Ford did, and look for tight end Jon Davis to lead the receivers.
While lauding the August performance of veteran defenders Akeem Spence and Ashante Williams, Beckman acknowledged that injuries have set back 2011 safeties Steve Hull and Supo Sanni. This is exactly the area that Western Michigan's Alex Carder (61 TD passes in two years) will attack. The good news, from the Illini standpoint, is that Carder has lost three receivers who caught 269 passes (add 'em up, 140, 67 and 62) last season. Jordan White, now with the Jets, caught 14 of his nation-leading 140 here last September but the Illini rallied to win, 23-20, on Derek Dimke's fourth-quarter field goal. The Broncos aren't a big threat on the ground but are adept at the short-pass game.
Beckman has worked to build a new camaraderie via frequent intrasquad fun and games.
"We are competing all the time," he said.
On one occasion, teams of non-quarterbacks threw empty bottles into trash cans with ice cream awaiting the most accurate. On another, linemen in tubs squirted Gatorade bottles. They bowled, swam, kicked field goals and shot baskets in competitive situations. On Sunday, 42 players were honored at the "all-in" banquet for class attendance, grades and "doing everything expected of them." In his effort to bring players and staff close, the athletes will be invited to their position coaches' home for meals each Thursday.
Back in the spring, Beckman inserted a fun element into the final game, Pocic recalling he was on the losing team and was served beans and wieners while the winners ate steak and cake.
On the field, Beckman is counting on Beatty and Gonzales to find a field-stretching aerial threat to expose the Western Michigan defense and excite the crowd. All eyes are on junior receiver Darius Millines, who impressed with three catches over 25 yards in Sunday's rain-filled scrimmage. Millines caught five balls for 119 yards in last year's opener but took stuttering steps around a four-game absence at midseason. Said Millines:
"Everything went downhill late last season. I wasn't all that healthy, coming off a foot injury. I'm ready now. We have more combination plays that are different. This offense will use the entire field."
Senior defensive end Justin Staples, who'll serve a one-game suspension Saturday, said: "Coach Beckman is all about family and being accountable. On our unit, we are older (eight likely senior starters when all are available) and we've spent years in the meeting room together. Some of us were thrown in early. I see this as my time."
Staples and tackle Glenn Foster have added distinct upper body strength, having been undersized for their positions earlier.
"With my extra 35 pounds (to 280), I can play the three-tech (interior)," Foster said. "When Akeem is blowing people off the ball, I can counter off him, or he can counter off me. I'm going to cash in on my sack opportunities."
Optimism everywhere. That's no different from every August, but it is different from last November ... different but as yet unproven.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.