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updated: 8/31/2012 2:26 PM

For Illini football, the Beckman era begins

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  • Illinois head football coach Tim Beckman's team opens the season against Western Michigan at 11 a.m. Saturday in Champaign.

      Illinois head football coach Tim Beckman's team opens the season against Western Michigan at 11 a.m. Saturday in Champaign.
    AP photo/The News-Gazette, Darrell Hoemann

 
 

T-shirts reading "A New Era Beck-ons" are available at FightingIllini.com.

The slogan is a nod to new coach Tim Beckman, who takes over after the school released Ron Zook.

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This is Beckman's second head-coaching job. He spent the previous three years at Toledo and his 21-16 record might have induced some yawns when the hiring was announced.

But a coach doesn't necessarily have to be pegged as an up-and-coming hotshot to have success at a major college. Beckman's most recent jobs as an assistant coach were defensive coordinator at Oklahoma State, cornerbacks coach at Ohio State and defensive coordinator at Bowling Green.

He worked for Mike Gundy, Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer. Of the three, Meyer was in heavy demand, Gundy was an in-house hire and Tressel was considered Ohio State's backup plan after Oklahoma's Bob Stoops said no.

So no one really knows where Beckman will fit in. He certainly sounds like a head coach. His speech pattern resembles a bark, with a forceful enthusiasm and emphasis on just about every word.

He talks like a coach, offering that he challenged the 19 seniors to adopt a team motto. The winner: "Invest."

The news conference to announce his coaching staff last winter became almost comical for Beckman's repeated use of the word "family." Such as, "I'm looking forward to the Gonzales family joining the Beckman family."

He even came up with a signature coaching ploy, although there's always a good chance the idea was borrowed from someone else. Beckman's plan for summer training was to divide the roster into eight teams, using a draft, with each group led by a different coach.

"We're going to compete in everything we do," he said before the summer. "From mat drills, combative drills, to weight room to academics to tutor sessions. You name it, we're going to compete because that's the name of life and that's the name of football."

Beckman got started right away on that idea. After the spring game, the winning team ate steak, while the losing team was served beans and wieners.

Beckman is billed as a native of Berea, Ohio, but in reality, he moved around quite often. His father, David, coached football, mostly at small colleges. He was an assistant at Iowa from 1973-78, worked in player personnel for the Browns and Chargers, then served briefly as head coach of the CFL's Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 1990-91.

Tim Beckman, 47, believes he's assembled a coaching staff full of relatively young go-getters. The Illini will have co-offensive coordinators. One is Billy Gonzales, who followed Meyer through Bowling Green, Utah and Florida, before serving as LSU's passing game coordinator the past two years. Sharing the job is Chris Beatty, who has worked at Vanderbilt, West Virginia and Northern Illinois.

"Everywhere I've been at, it's something I've done," Beckman said of his co-coordinators, adding that more people brings more involvement and more success. "Yes, Billy Gonzales will be calling the offensive shots, but Chris Beatty will be a big part of those calls, also."

The defensive coordinator is Tim Banks, who held the same job at Cincinnati the past few years. Also on the staff is former Illinois lineman Luke Butkus, as offensive line coach.

"There's not going to be any hands-in-pockets coaching," Beckman said. "We're going to be involved in these players' lives 24 hours a day. I love having a young staff. We're going to be very, very energetic, I'll tell you that."

Illinois hasn't made much noise on the field since the 2007 season when Juice Williams led the Illini to the Rose Bowl. Talent hasn't necessarily been an issue in Champaign, though. Illinois had two first-round picks in the most recent NFL Draft -- defensive end Whitney Mercilus (Texans) and receiver A.J. Jenkins (49ers).

The defense returns some all-Big Ten candidates in linebacker Jonathan Brown, defensive end Michael Buchanan and cornerback Terry Hawthorne.

On offense, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase returns for his third year as a starter. Up front, center Graham Pocic and tackle Hugh Thornton have piled up 51 career starts between them.

"There is a new momentum building," Scheelhaase said this week. "There is a new look for what we're all about. It's exciting. I think our fans are excited. I think our players are excited about the new era we've been talking about for so long.

The Illini need to find some running backs. After missing his freshman year with a hamstring injury, Naperville's Josh Ferguson (Joliet Catholic) is listed as the starter. He figures to share the role with sophomore Donovonn Young, who ran for 451 yards last season.

They could also use some consistency. Illinois started last season 6-0 before dropping six in a row, although strength of schedule goes a long way toward explaining that experience.

This year, Illinois is facing road games at Arizona State, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State. The Illini open Saturday at home against Western Michigan (11 a.m., ESPNU).

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