Spring practice kicks off at Illinois on Wednesday, and like all programs at this time of year, there is an air of optimism.
Head coach Tim Beckman said he creates goals for his team for each "quarter" of the year, which consist of winter workouts, spring practice, summer voluntary work and then the season itself. The goals for this spring include getting more physical, especially a year after Illinois fielded one of the worst rush defenses in the country, and learning how to finish.
The ultimate goal for the 2014 Illini, however, is pretty clear. Entering Beckman's third season, the program needs to show more improvement and get to a bowl game after going 2-10 and 4-8 the past two seasons.
Beckman understands that and all but promised more.
"We've got to be better," he said Monday. "We've got to win more football games. We all understand that. There's no question about that. So we're going to win more football games."
Beckman said he is not under any sort of mandate from athletic director Mike Thomas to make a bowl this season, but a disgruntled fan base may not show much more patience. Illinois had gone to back-to-back bowl games before Beckman arrived in Champaign.
“We’ve got to showcase that we’re getting better,” Beckman said. “That would be five, six [wins].
"Heck, my wife locks the door in December because she wants to be at a bowl game. ... 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.”
The Illini have seven home games in 2014 and should go at least 3-1 in the nonconference schedule, as Youngstown State, Western Kentucky and Texas State all come to Memorial Stadium. They will be a considerable underdog in a Week 3 trip to Washington, however, and the Big Ten schedule includes crossover games against East Division opponents Ohio State and Penn State.
Illinois must break in a new quarterback this season, but Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt is a talented option and the favorite to win the job. Beckman said Monday that he'd probably name a starter by the end of spring practice.
Beckman brought back his entire coaching staff from 2013, including embattled defensive coordinator Tim Banks. This spring is a crucial time for the defense to make as many strides forward as the offense did a season ago. And the entire team will need to make notable progress this fall or else the prospects of a Year 4 under Beckman become much dimmer.