As Tim Beckman climbs aboard for his third Illini rodeo, will the ride by less bumpy?
What can we expect?
First item: Tim Banks.
Illini Nation is convinced that the football team needs a defensive change. How can you retain the leader of a unit that permitted 425 points and a school-record 5,778 yards?
It has been a two-year disaster. Banks inherited a veteran corps that had finished No. 7 nationally in yards allowed, lost them in the Arizona desert due to fouled communication (a 45-14 loss at Arizona State) and two weeks later crumbled against Louisiana Tech 52-24. Banks couldn’t bring those seniors back into the fold and never had a chance this season with the talent level severely diminished.
So it is expected that Banks will be replaced. But when Mike Thomas sits down with Beckman to discuss changes this week, the move is more complicated than most fans can imagine. Questions abound.
If Banks is dumped, what does that mean for assistants Mike Ward, Greg Colby and Al Seamonson? Wouldn’t a new coordinator from who-knows-where want his own assistants, much as Bill Cubit preferred a line coach (A.J. Ricker) with whom he was already familiar? Do you shatter the staff for the second straight year? How would that affect recruiting?
Beckman and Ward are longtime buddies. They were together under Urban Meyer at Bowling Green in 2001-02, and Ward later became defensive coordinator there before rejoining Beckman as assistant head coach at Toledo in 2009-11. Line coach Colby also has credentials, having served three years with Nick Saban at Michigan State and handling coordinator roles at Kent State and Northwestern (2002-07).
So Beckman has multiple alternatives in working out the team’s defensive problems. If he stays pat, most loyalists will throw up their hands.
Will a favorable schedule help in 2014?
A previous column on this subject may have been misinterpreted. Yes, the home schedule offers opportunity, but it isn’t a cakewalk. The Illini could be expected to reach 4-2 by defeating Youngstown State, Western Kentucky, Texas State and Purdue at Memorial Stadium.
But it’s the second half of the season that will be fresh in Thomas’ mind when he sits down with Beckman a year from now ... this after the Illini have been put to the test in road games at Wisconsin, Ohio State and Northwestern, and home dates with Minnesota, Iowa and Penn State.
Since Minnesota, Iowa, Penn State and Northwestern occupy a mid-conference rung just above Illinois (but not close to the OSU-led elite), my long-range projection is that these four contests will set the mood at decision time for Thomas.
If a change comes, it’ll ignite a round of I-told-you-so’s from second-guessers who reflect on every Illini firing as a year too late. Talk about a graveyard: Only one UI head football coach among the last nine (John Mackovic) left of his own volition.
A step slow
Is Illini talent sufficient?
The simple answer is “No!”
Beckman is working with the remnants of Ron Zook’s last classes and his own modest additions. Joliet’s Josh Ferguson displayed extraordinary improvement this season, but beyond him, there isn’t a bona fide NFL prospect in next year’s junior or senior class. Or if there is one, he has yet to surface.
The squad lacks overall speed and athleticism, is short on quality depth, desperately needs a couple of NFL-level linemen on both sides of the ball, and will receive modest incoming help beyond the receiver position.
As has been widely reported, the best players on the 4-8 team this season were the seniors. Not a big group, but they’ll be missed.
And before you bring up Wes Lunt and his magical arm, remember: Nathan Scheelhaase was a highly durable performer in three of his four seasons. In Lunt’s lone season at Oklahoma State, he was injured in the third game, missed the next three, returned for two, sat out the next four, and threw just three passes in the 58-14 bowl rout of Purdue. He wouldn’t have left Oklahoma State if he had been No. 1 last spring when the 1-2 punch of Clint Chelf and J.W. Walsh was being developed (they combined for 23 TD passes for a 10-1 team).
Cubit’s biggest job will be firming up the protection to keep the lanky Rochester product injury-free. That is assuming (and everyone is) that Lunt wins the spring QB sweepstakes over Aaron Bailey and upcoming senior Reilly O’Toole.
For those of an Orange and Blue persuasion, the Illini will be better because they’ll be a year older.
But will the offense match 2013 numbers if Cubit sees greener grass elsewhere? The 60-year-old play caller will surely be high on many lists, and some might be willing to double his $400,000 salary. Illinois can’t afford to lose him, and if suitors call, Thomas may be required to go to the mat to retain him.
As for “being better next season,” so will many others. Take Northwestern. If the Illini have four solid returnees in the O-line, Northwestern has five. Illinois will be turning to a new quarterback while the Wildcats have a guy (Trevor Siemian) who just hit them with 414 yards and four TDs.
Other teams have linebackers who came in more highly regarded and still are. From any viewpoint other than local, this is seen as an unlikely uphill climb for a program that is losing 5,000 fans per year and has not regained touch with Chicagoland’s premier athletes.
All this said, it’s conceivable, even likely, that Cubit will find some productive new receivers to pair with tight end Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse. Up front, it might make sense to move two-year guard Ted Karras to tackle, but not if Austin Schmidt or Patrick Flavin develops opposite Simon Cvijanovic.
In any case, the offensive unit will likely be set by spring. As for defense, the coordinator, whoever he is, faces monumental restructuring. With 20 of the top 22 defenders returning, they’re bound to be better than the weakest unit (based on stats) in UI history ... but will they be sufficiently improved to give their defensive guru, Beckman, his fourth rodeo?
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.