Matt Daniels: Spring practice lookahead

Football is never far from Tim Beckman’s mind. Or his vocabulary. The third-year Illinois coach met with the media Monday, two days before the Illini begin spring practices.

“We get to start in two days in this nice, beautiful weather,” he said with a grin from the press box at Memorial Stadium. “It might be the first time that I’ve ever been through spring (practices) where we’re looking outside and there’s snow on the ground.”

The race to replace Nathan Scheelhaase at quarterback won’t get decided on who throws the best snowball. More like the best spiral. Here’s the biggest news beat writer MATT DANIELS learned Monday:

Name the starter

Illinois isn’t disclosing who will start at quarterback. Don’t expect a formal announcement any time soon, either, about whether Wes Lunt, Aaron Bailey or Reilly O’Toole will receive snaps because Scheelhaase, the school’s all-time leader in total offense, is out of eligibility.

Beckman said a clear-cut starter might separate himself by the end of spring ball, but he didn’t put a definitive date on when the starter would be finalized.

“All three of them had outstanding winter workouts,” Beckman said. “All have been very competitive, and all have shown leadership on and off the field. I’m really anxious to see how Reilly, Wes, Aaron and even Chayce Crouch, being a freshman, handle that competition. We’ve got some outstanding talent at quarterback. It will be a heck of a battle. I want to see how they do.”

Competition is ongoing at other spots, like wide receiver (Martize Barr is lone starter coming back, and that’s only with two starts) and right tackle (Austin Schmidt or Christian DiLauro are two possibilities to replace Corey Lewis).

“We say the depth chart is penciled in,” Beckman said.

Potential position changes could come on defense, while some already have happened.

Beckman indicated Earnest Thomas might get more time at the STAR position, the hybrid linebacker/safety role Mike Svetina and Eric Finney played at last season. Svetina will go back to an inside linebacker spot he played in 2012, with Finney still in the fold at STAR. Thomas should see the field either at strong safety or at the STAR considering he had 101 tackles last season, the most of any returnee. Taylor Barton, Jevaris Little and Darwyn Kelly could factor into a strong safety position if Thomas sticks at STAR.

“We kind of moved (Thomas) to safety out of necessity,” Illinois defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. “It’s nothing that he necessarily did wrong as to why we’re moving him, but it’s really just trying to get our best players on the field. We felt like moving him up front would help us increase our speed, and that position is critical because we ask them to do a lot, from pressuring to playing man coverage to zone coverage. We think this would be something that would benefit us.”

Going bowling

Illinois hasn’t so far during Beckman’s tenure with the Illini. Spending December busy only on the recruiting trail isn’t the way Beckman’s staff particularly envisioned how their first two seasons in Champaign-Urbana would unfold. They’d like to get some bowl practices in the mix, too, along with a trip to a warmer locale than what east central Illinois delivers in the winter.

“We’ve got to win more football games,” Beckman said. “We all understand that.”

The magical six wins required for a bowl trip seems like a realistic possibility based on the soft nonconference schedule and relatively favorable home Big Ten schedule. A 5-7 record or anything worse doesn’t exactly help Beckman’s job prospects for coaching Illinois in 2015, but doesn’t necessarily seal his fate.

“We’ve got to showcase that we’re getting better,” Beckman said. “Heck, my wife locks the door in December because she wants to be at a bowl game. I’ve been involved in a lot of bowl games and a lot of great ones. Is there pressure on me to get to a bowl game? Well, I push myself to get our football team to a bowl game because I enjoy going to bowl games. Has anybody told me or pressured me by saying you’ve got to get to a bowl game? No. I’m my worst critic, so pushing myself to get to a bowl game is definitely something I want to do.”

Who’s hurt?

Who’s here? The injury report is one Beckman likes to keep close to his chest. The program released a list last season on Thursday night before games, but bring up the issue during the week with Beckman and he’d remain pretty tight-lipped. Two key contributors who might not go full bore during spring drills are defensive tackle Teko Powell and tight end Matt LaCosse. Both are dealing with ankle injuries.

“Teko had surgery, so he’s going to be limited what he can do, but he’ll be able to go through spring ball with us,” Beckman said. “Matt has not gone through the winter workouts. We want to make sure he’s totally healthy before he gets back on the field. For sure he’ll be back on after spring break.”

Two other notable names aren’t on the team anymore. Running back Dami Ayoola — who Beckman said in early February was reinstated to the team after he was dismissed from the team three days after the 2013 season opener — is not on the roster. Neither is defensive tackle Vontrell Williams, who did not play last year because of a foot injury. Beckman didn’t elaborate on why two of the players in his first recruiting class at Illinois won’t suit up for the Illini in 2014.

“Dami is no longer with us,” Beckman said. “It’s a family, and we’ve got guidelines of what we need to have here. I wish him the best as he continues forward in his career. Vontrell is in the same scenario. He didn’t meet a couple guidelines that we asked for this football team, so he will not be with us any longer, either.”
 

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