This won’t be 2013’s most popular decision, but it’s final ... for 2014.
Tim Banks, much-chastised UI defensive coordinator, will return in that capacity after his unit set school records for inefficiency.
Coach Tim Beckman, who is also personally engaged with the defense — he handles cornerbacks in practice — has made it clear to the staff that no changes are planned. This resolves the most pressing issue of the postseason for Illini fans.
All staffers have been fully involved with on-the-road recruiting and continue to do so. If anyone leaves — and some offensive members may receive offers — it will be their decision.
That leaves Greg Colby in charge of the defensive line, Mike Ward and Al Seamonson with the linebackers, and Banks and Beckman coaching the secondary.
From Beckman’s viewpoint, Banks didn’t have a fair chance to succeed with such a dramatic dropoff in talent this season. The Illini gave up 5,778 yards, most in school history. Five opposing teams sent individual rushers over 200 yards (another first), not counting Wisconsin, which alternated Melvin Gordon and James White for 240. Rival passers completed 65 percent of 354 passes, with just three intercepted.
Breaking it down
There are multiple considerations in this decision.
(1) By sticking with the status quo, Beckman appears to be putting himself on the firing line. If it doesn’t work, his own status in 2014 will be weakened.
(2) Who could Illinois attract as defensive coordinator under the circumstances?
(3) If a new coordinator was hired, he would surely want to name his assistants, which would bring about the second major staff shakeup in Beckman’s two seasons.
Working against the no-changes decision is the attitude of the ever-decreasing clan of season ticket-holders who, for the most part, have come to blame Banks for the stunning falloff from a national ranking of No. 7 in total defense in 2011.
The tailspin began last season when Illinois returned 11 players who had started at least one game in 2011 — Terry Hawthorne, Justin Green, Supo Sanni, Steve Hull, Jonathan Brown, Michael Buchanan, Houston Bates, Ashante Williams, Glenn Foster, Akeem Spence and Justin Staples.
Injuries hit the secondary, with Hull limited to five games, Sanni to seven and Hawthorne below par at times. Then, too, Brown wasn’t at full strength as he was limited to eight games at linebacker. After being routed by Arizona State 45-14 and Louisiana Tech 52-24, the Illini were repeatedly hammered and failed to win a Big Ten game.
Clearly, Banks and the veterans on that team never meshed. And when nine of those 11 were gone (including Hull, who moved to receiver), the line found itself overwhelmed and the secondary much too young.
Banking on Banks
As a strategist, Banks built strong credentials prior to replacing Vic Koenning at Illinois. A Central Michigan graduate who co-captained the Chippewas’ 1994 Mid-American Conference champs, he returned to his alma mater as defensive coordinator in 2007. His teams led the MAC in rush defense twice and led the MAC in scoring defense (18.9) in 2009.
Moving to Cincinnati, Banks directed the defense for a 10-3 team in 2011 that finished No. 6 in rush defense and led the nation in tackles for loss.
With that as background, Beckman chose Banks from the same university that provided UI athletic director Mike Thomas. Because the head coach and AD work closely together, this was deemed a joint decision.
To his credit, Banks handled his on-field difficulties with calm emotions in the face of heavy criticism. After losing his veteran 2011 secondary, he was obliged to field one of the nation’s youngest units. Of his top eight corners and safeties, there were no seniors and two juniors, Earnest Thomas and juco transfer Zane Petty.
With so much undeveloped youth, the team showed only a few late-season upswings in the overtime loss at Penn State and the 20-16 win against Purdue. With only one Big Ten win over two seasons, Illini Nation will watch intently to see if Banks can salvage a listing ship. His situation won’t be helped by the fact that two redshirting freshmen, defensive tackles Bryce Douglas and Vontrell Williams, have serious neck and ankle problems, respectively. It appears unlikely that either will be able to help the team in 2014.
That’s not a good way to start, particularly with the UI so thin on the line and so few defensive players expected to sign in February.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.