Tim Beckman is caught in a dilemma.
The Illini football coach wants to be as positive as a 2-10 football season would permit, but a look at his depth chart tugs him in another direction.
Without Steve Hull, who’ll be sidelined (shoulder) this spring, the chart shows three safeties and three green cornerbacks. Also, the rover position has one name, and Michael Buchanan’s vacated end slot has two now that Houston Bates has been switched from linebacker.
With sixth-year returnee Corey Lewis appropriately discounted, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase will be one of just four fifth-year seniors in 2013. And junior Akeem Spence, already completing his work toward graduation, is almost certain to turn pro, thus leaving another hole at defensive tackle.
Furthermore, the current freshman class, while offering immediate help at linebacker, is small and unimpressive by Big Ten standards.
As a result, Beckman and his staff are engaged in the biggest junior college push since the Mike White era in the early 1980s.
Changing it up
Beckman’s goal is to bring in as many as eight JC transfers.
“The way to push this program forward, and the way I’ve seen it done, is with people,” Beckman said Friday after returning from another of his recruiting trips.
“We have a lack of depth in our upper classes, and we need to get more quality players involved. There are opportunities for players on this team, and we have to surround them with new additions.
“We accumulated junior college transcripts and brought them in so the university could tell us the ones that they thought would be successful academically here. We’ve had a good response in this area.”
Defensive line help is coming from 305-pound Abens Cajuste and 245-pound Kyle Kragen, son of 13-year NFL standout Greg Kragen.
“Counting five early enrollees from high school, we could have between 10 and 13 new players here in January. That’s the most I’ve ever had.
Our depth issues demand that we bring in 10 to 13 players to join us immediately for spring practice,” he said.
“And we must continue to recruit the high school players who have already committed to us (they sign in February). I’m encouraged.”
He pointed to the UI’s ranking as No. 3 in Big Ten recruiting. According to Rivals.com, the Illini are behind Ohio State and Michigan, and in a virtual tie with Wisconsin for third. Not all recruiting services agree, of course.
Like all coaches with losing records, Beckman and his staff are surrounded by background chatter and negativity.
“We have playing time to sell,” is Beckman’s counter. “Our senior class and our freshman class are thin. I’m out trying to find young men who want to be involved in a great institution. We can get this done if we get top recruits in here to build up depth and continuity.”
Beckman is thus far disappointed by efforts in the Chicago area. He has 11 in-state players among his 24 commitments thus far, but only four from the greater Chicago area.
“Every coach on our staff is involved in a section of the Chicago area,” he said. “We’re hitting areas hard that weren’t hit before. It takes time to build relationships.”
A week earlier, athletic director Mike Thomas made it clear Beckman would continue as coach after rumors abounded he might be replaced after one year. Thomas said a statement of that nature shouldn’t have been necessary.
Said Beckman: “The opportunity to be a head coach here was granted to me exactly a year ago. I had been 14-2 in the (MAC) conference with back-to-back bowl games. And I surrounded myself with coaches who had been in bowl games, one of them (LSU’s Billy Gonzales) in the national championship game.
“It’s ironic to think you lost your ability to coach football in 12 months. But people have the right to grumble. We were 2-10. No one wants to be 2-10. But I think there were certain factors involved in that.”
One of those factors was the injury list, which exacerbated Beckman’s depth problems.
“I mentioned back in the spring that we might have depth issues if injuries happened,” he said. “We lost 83 starts from guys who would have been starters for us. It began to accumulate on us.”
Thomas has said on several occasions that Dr. Robert Gurtler told him this was the most injuries he has seen in 29 years with the Illini football program.
‘The low point’
The UI nine-game losing streak hit bottom in the final 50-14 loss at Northwestern.
“That was the low point, walking off the field with no chance to practice any more or be on the field again with these seniors. We didn’t get it done,” Beckman said.
“I’m meeting individually with players now to discuss going forward. I just met with the juniors (Friday). I’ll do the sophomores Thursday and the freshmen Friday.”
Recruiting consumes his time early each week.
Beckman didn’t have many high points in 2012. He points back to the Western Michigan game.
“Coming off the field with that first victory was great, but also when (tackle) Corey Lewis came back after 21/2 years of struggling physically and mentally to return. That was huge.”
Beckman spoke openly throughout Friday’s half-hour chat. But not on the issue of his assistant coaches. He noted they are actively recruiting but wouldn’t comment whether all will return.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.