Tate: Change is painful — but necessary for UI defense

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.


Inquiring minds

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.


Older, wiser

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 ltate@news-gazette.com.

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illini82 wrote on December 03, 2013 at 8:12 am

My money is  on the "I told you so" crowd being right.

Expect fewer fans in the stands, more season ticket cancellations, continued lack of student interest and support and more bad football.

This is Mike Thomas' baby. He owns all of it. He hired Beckman. Why he did is the #1 question asked by Illinois fans the last two years. Many understand the box Thomas is in for keeping him a third year. It looks bad to dump a coach after just two years which would limit your replacement candidates.

But by kicking the can down the road will it be any better next year?  Illinois is still a career killing destination. That legacy is on Guenther and the administration(s) over the years and in fact decades. That historical baggage is our greatest handicap when trying to find a quality replacement. Thomas didn't understand it until he got here and found out that waving an open check book wasn't enough to attract the best candidates.

Thomas didn't do his due diligence in his pre-candidate search. That is he "fired before he hired" when he canned Zook. A good A.D. will not only have a "wish" list of top candidates but also among those names would be those likely and/or willing to come as well.

What we have now is the Moeller era 2.0   Good luck trying to sell tickets to that.

 

 

walker wrote on December 03, 2013 at 10:12 am

Illini FB under T.B. and M.T. is very similar to obamacare.  We all instinctively know that both are huge mistakes and will never work out, given all the inherent issues. I say pull the plug now. What we had before was better.  At least the zooker could get future NFL players and get us to a bowl game occasionally. 

pberg wrote on December 03, 2013 at 10:12 am

Thank you for that Illini82. Said it neatly and succinctly.  You can put lipstick on a pig but in the end it is still a pig.

Railsplitter wrote on December 03, 2013 at 11:12 am

It really doesn't matter who the AD is at Illinois , at least not now . Guenther set this football program so far back it may never come back . At least not without some magical recruiting or maybe pure luck . Look at what a new coach would have to work with , and who would want to try ? I know the players try their best but , well you see the results .This team lacks fundamentals wich you can blame on the coaches . Defensive schemes too. It still kills me that they don't know how to wrap up on a tackle . That I just don't get . My suggestion , try to bring back Lou Teper. Heck what can it hurt .

illinifaningeorgia wrote on December 03, 2013 at 12:12 pm

I agree wholeheartedly about Guenther.  However, I think we can come back.  

Think Wisconsin.  Some of us old farts remember when Wisconsin Football was as bad as Illinois Football is now.  Then along came Barry Alvarez and, well, you know the rest of the story.

I agree that no established D1A head coach would touch this program with a 10-foot pole (or a ten-yard marker).  But how about a hungry (and very successful) head coach at a lower level.  There must be such guys at  D1AA or D2.  It's worked in the past. One example: Jim Tressel went to Ohio State from  D1AA school, Youngstown State.  

Dan Bloeme wrote on December 03, 2013 at 12:12 pm
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Tate claims Beckman is a 'defensive guru'. In his own mind, right? Otherwise that is flat out moronic insanity. Beckman is absolutely worst coach on the football staff for this worst Illinois defense in history. But unless Beckman severely impeded Banks's coaching like Zook tried to do with his coordinators, Banks has failed miserably and should be informed he will not return. While Thomas is at it, he should tell most of the rest of the defensive coaches, sayonara, those that can't teach tackling or defending receivers. Cubit deserves to be kept much more than Beckman does as he at least put up some points though inconsistent. Maybe with Scheelhaase gone, offense willl be better. Lunt and Cubit gives offense some hope moving ahead. But defense needs to be completely revamped with the best powerhouse DC available and with a new defensive staff to match. Then Thomas needs to have talk with Beckman to ensure he stays out of his coordinator's ways (and also out of the referee's way) ala Zook's last 2 years.    

rdk573 wrote on December 03, 2013 at 12:12 pm

 

For everyone calling for Tim beckman's firing, who we going to get?? Firing someone for the sake of poor performance is useless unless you have a top rate coach willing to take this job..Unelss Nick Saben wants to come back to the Big Ten,unfortunately,  I think we're stuck with Beckman for a long while...

Dan Bloeme wrote on December 03, 2013 at 12:12 pm
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Illinois was able to draw Mike White and John Mackovic to Champaign. I could live with the excitement those two brought to town, even without championships.

ChiefIlliniFan wrote on December 03, 2013 at 10:12 pm

You are right Dan, really enjoyed the Mike White teams.

jjohnson wrote on December 03, 2013 at 1:12 pm

Thanks for making some sense. This year's team, with less talent than last year's, not only won two more games but was more competitive and probably should have won 2 or 3 of its losses (Penn State, IU, NU). While the fact that they did not win those should be pinned as much on the coaches as the wins, the dramatic increase in competitiveness has to be pinned on the coaches; mostly (except for a couple of very encouraging freshman DB's and one JC transfer safety) the same players whose team was not competitive in 2012 made it competitive in 2013. 

Should Banks go? I do not know. Was it lack of coaching or inexperience or lack of talent that led to breakdowns in pass coverage? Jonathon Brown says the inexperience, and I would take his perspective over any of us writing these waste-our-time comments. I do feel the fall-off in talent at defensive end and "Star" and "LEO" positions hurt, not meaning to knock anyone, and we did not have an Akeem Spence/Corey Liguet at tackle, though Powell is certainly growing in the position (what a shame is red-shirt was burned in 2012).

But it will be a process! Recruiting is the most important thing right now, and uncertainty about for what coach a player will be playing can be crippling to that.

Finally, about all these cancellations, how many writing these comments are season ticket holders? A serious question. Saturday's game was frustrating, but it certainly was not a waste of time. I want back to the Rose Bowl perhaps more than anyone else, but I am not a fair-weather fan, which . . . well, enough said.

ChiefIlliniFan wrote on December 03, 2013 at 10:12 pm

Yes I was a ticket holder for 20+ years until Beckman was hired, then gave them up. Will become ticket holder again once Beckman is fired. My wife and I know of at least 200+ that did not renew last season and she tells me a lot more this season are cancelling since Beckman is coming back.

None of us are fair weather fans for cancelling, we just choose to vote with our money since that is the only vote we can use. If enough vote that way, positives will come from it.

Profilo wrote on December 06, 2013 at 1:12 am

sure, if enough do and attendances fall to the 20Ks will certainly have buck loads of money and a very attractive position to bring THE guy, right?

thats a poor way of seeing things

billbtri5 wrote on December 03, 2013 at 2:12 pm

make Beckman an  assistant AD and name Cubit as head coach...

arch73 wrote on December 03, 2013 at 5:12 pm

Walker, if you wish to comment on Obamacare, please write to the Opinion section.

Profilo wrote on December 04, 2013 at 2:12 am

Wonder when this columnist will have the courage to tell more than simply his one-sided view of things?

sure go ahead, talk about embarasing school records and total pts allowed, but don't dare mention that the difference between points sper game scored by the offense and allowed by the defense is of only 5.7. Again 5.7. That's right, not even a single TD per game separates the worse defense in the HISTORY of the school from the lord saviour of our offensive woes.

And dont' even compare this amazing defense with the HISTORY of previous units cause youll find that had this year's offense had at least the semblance of effectiveness of what we had in 2010 in terms of 4th down conversions for instance (33% in 5 of 15 vs 81% in 9-11) we'd likely be bowling baby!

be very alert folks, this columnist is an expert in half truths (or is that lies?)

tonyjb37 wrote on December 04, 2013 at 9:12 am
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ChiefIlliniFan hit a homerun with his comments! Good job! Keep em'coming!

Profilo wrote on December 04, 2013 at 11:12 am

my poor fellow fans, living in the great-offense/horrible-defense delusion that the media feeds them. 

Let me ask, fellows, is there a thinking mind in this comment section with which to have an honest talk about the other reality of this season?

wlazarus wrote on December 05, 2013 at 11:12 am

Clearly Tate's reference to Beckman as a "defensive guru" was meant as ridicule of Beckman -- his professed defensive expertise has resulted in the worst defensive stats in the history of Illinois football.  Quite an accomplishment for Coach Beckman.  The larger problem, as I see it, is that, in the face of results so disastrous, it is wrong to apply the standard approach to maintaining a coach -- i.e., firing after just two years is too quick.  This is not a player problem -- this is a coaching problem.  The solution is easy -- fire the head coach now, and hire a good coach who is already here -- Cubit as new head coach.  He has demonstrated that he's clearly capable of inspiring players to perform as a team, beyond their individual capabilities.  That's what a good coach does.  Rebuilding no doubt will take time in any event, but waiting until next year to start rebuilding means having to dig out from an even deeper hole from which to rebuild, as Beckman is plainly not competent to perform the task (just listen to his unintelligible interviews -- and don't tell me he deliberately obfuscates; he has repeatedly shown he's not capable of clear expression) and there's no way Cubit sticks around for another year unless he's promoted. 

krfink wrote on December 05, 2013 at 12:12 pm

How about bringing in Ed Orgeron for the defense?