The Tim Beckman era reaches a new phase Wednesday as Illinois players go through their first spring practice under their new coach. Beckman is a high-energy leader who wants to foster competition in every element of his program. Although two-year starter Nathan Scheelhaase returns at quarterback, he'll have to fend off three contenders and make an impression on the team's new coordinators, Billy Gonzales and Chris Beatty. The Illini are short on running backs and wide receivers, while the defense looks to continue the momentum it generated in 2011. Beckman takes over a team that has recorded back-to-back bowl victories but struggled to show it can take a step toward the top half of the Big Ten.
ESPN recently caught up with Beckman. Here are his thoughts.
What are your expectations for spring practice?
Tim Beckman: I want our players competing. I want them playing with outstanding effort in everything they do in spring ball. That competitive nature will be in every drill we do. These players will be evaluated in everything that they do. They're going to get feedback from the coaches on what we feel is championship-caliber and what we feel is not championship-caliber.
How much have you looked at tape from last season?
TB: Definitely. I've watched and evaluated tape, and been involved with what they did last year. But that's in the past. As I told the players when I met individually with each one of them, this is the future, this is a new era and we're building this thing forward, not building from the back.
How would you describe your quarterback situation entering the spring? Will it be a full competition?
TB: Oh, it's great. That's what life's all about. We've got the capabilities of being good at that position with four guys. Competition just makes you better. We've got one that has played [Scheelhaase] and played quite a bit and proven that he can win football games, won seven this year and won a bowl game. But we also have some backups with Reilly [O'Toole] and Miles [Osei] and [Chase] Haslett, there's three backups and a starter that are capable of winning football games.
How does Nathan fit into your vision for the offense?
TB: Your vision for the offense is scoring points and securing the football. I'm not going to bang my fist on the table, saying, 'We've got to do it this way.' We've got personnel that's already involved here. Nobody here is anybody we've been able to go out and recruit, so we're going to fit our schemes to what we have here talent-wise. Yeah, I want to be able to say we're a spread football team, but if we don't have the personnel to be a spread football team right now, we've got to fit an offensive scheme to the player personnel we have. I know this, though. We're going to be fundamentally sound in what we do. We can secure the football on offense, and on defense, we can take the football away.
You brought in two coordinators on the offensive side, both younger guys [Gonzales and Beatty]. Are you going to be evaluating them this spring in their new roles?
TB: Everybody gets evaluated. Heck, they're going to be evaluating me. This is a new coaching staff, so that's the life of a coach, that's the life of a Division I college football player. You are being evaluated in everything that you do. If it's at a speaking engagement or if it's lifting weights or running or whatever it might be, you're going to get evaluated. So we're going to evaluate ourselves and try to make ourselves the best we can be.
Really impressive year on the defensive side in 2011. Is it a matter of keeping it going, or do you want to do something dramatically different with coach [Tim] Banks and your vision for that group?
TB: They did an outstanding job last year, no question about it. But there's other categories they've got to get better at. They didn't have enough takeaways , and the game of football is simple: you've got to have the football to score. So you've got to take it away on defense, and you need to secure it on offense. That is an avenue that this defense must get better at because it just wasn't quite as productive [at takeaways] as it was in all the other categories. That is the one thing we have to strive to do better at.
And how do you plan to emphasize that?
TB: If you look at where we've been the past three years, we've always been very, very strong at takeaways and ball security. We practice it in everything that we do, from Period 1 to Period 24 or Period 1 to Period 18, whatever the practice entails, we'll have a ball-security and a takeaway drill. We'll have constant talk about ball awareness, so that our players understand that's the key to any football game, securing it or taking it away on defense.
You lose an outstanding player to the NFL in Whitney [Mercilus]. Who do you see emerging at the defensive end spot and filling that production?
TB: The great thing you've seen is we were able to keep Michael Buchanan. Michael Buchanan's a heck of a football player. He was one of our top recruits, keeping Michael here, keeping Terry Hawthorne here, keeping Akeem Spence here on defense. That was very, very crucial for us. Graham Pocic also. They were all capable of being able to go out in the NFL draft and they didn't. And at this time last year, Whitney's name wasn't named very much throughout college football, so you can make tremendous strides, as Whitney did. There's a possibility of a Justin Staples or a Timmy Kynard or a Brandon Denmark. All of our defensive ends have had outstanding winter workouts, and now they've got to prove it on the field during spring.
At running back and wide receiver, what are you looking for from those groups? You lose a top receiver in A.J. Jenkins.
TB: Oh my goodness. That is a major concern, the depth at both of those positions. They're going to have to grow up fast. We've only got really three running backs on scholarships. I've never been at a place where there hasn't been more than four or five on scholarship at one time. So depth is a major concern. And wide receiver, it's the same. You've got a couple names of guys that have done decent, but they need to elevate their game and then the depth of our young players to make ourselves better at those positions.
Is depth also an issue up front on the offensive line?
TB: There are some freshmen that have done some good things and have been able to step up and play, so I think there's a little more depth on the offensive line than there is at wide receiver and running back.
How much are you looking for leadership to emerge during spring ball?
TB: It's huge. You talk about it every day to the players. It's our leadership that can push this football team past a 7-win season. That's the challenge for the senior group and the challenge all the way down to the freshman group. Everybody's got a role on a football team and everybody's role is different. You can be a leader based on any one of your roles. I've pushed this football team to be better leaders and to be better guides for our football team to be successful. So if we do have a young man that's late for maybe a 6 o'clock weight workout, I don't blame just that man. I blame his roommate, I blame the position group and I blame the whole unit itself. That's how leaders are built.
Even with the competition that we've been doing throughout the winter workouts, by drafting teams and having an offensive lineman with a kicker or a DB with a wide receiver, all on the same team, to try and enhance the leadership roles of each one of the football players as we compete.