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July 27, 2012
CHICAGO - Tim Beckman needed six full seconds before he could find words to answer the question.
What positions does he feel confident in before the Illini start training camp at Rantoul?
The first-year Illinois football coach - who rarely has gone through a media session during his eight months at Illinois without talking about his concerns over lack of overall depth - gradually found some words.
"To me, it's always trying to be three-deep at a position and feeling comfortable at three-deep," Beckman said.
He eventually pointed to tight end and quarterback as two offensive positions he doesn't lose much sleep over. He referred to both wide receiver and offensive line as problems.
Based on Beckman's words, expect some shifting along an offensive line that lost two key senior starters from an already shaky group.
"You'll notice that real quick when we get to camp," Beckman said. "Since those practices are open to the public, you'll notice that real quickly."
Senior Graham Pocic, who started the past 26 games at center, said he's worked at all five offensive line positions during the spring and summer but has not been told where he'll line up this fall. He could move to guard or tackle with redshirt junior Jake Feldmeyer filling in at center, while senior guard Hugh Thornton could be moved to tackle.
Beckman also is trying to fill holes at receiver. Defensive backs Terry Hawthorne, named Parade Magazine's top receiver after his high school career, and Justin Green will work for reps at receiver, as will third-string quarterback Miles Osei. Beckman also has shifted freshmen Justin Hardee Devin Church to receiver to give the position some depth.
On defense, Beckman feels most confident in the defensive line but worries about the lack of experience at linebacker, finding a fifth cornerback for the rotation and the uncertain health of his safeties.
As for special teams?
"Not even close," Beckman said. "Nobody's proven they can do it other than (longsnapper) Zac Pedersen. Both of our kickers are not proven yet and that's what we'll have to use."
Beckman inherits a program coming off two straight bowl wins, but it's also a program that has struggled to lure deep recruiting classes the past three seasons because of questions about Ron Zook's job security and last winter's coaching change.
Beckman said Friday that he won't hesitate to play true freshmen. He said he needs a first-year running back, likely Dami Ayoola or LaKeith Walls, to fill a role in the rotation behind Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson. Other freshmen Beckman said could make an impact early were: offensive lineman Robbie Bain; kicker Ryan Frain; defensive tackles Teko Powell and Vontrell Williams; and defensive backs B.J. Bello, Taylor Barton, V'Angelo Bentley and Javaris Little.
Beckman hasn't been afraid to switch things up. The first-year Illini coach plans on introducing new uniforms and helmets next year. The Memorial Stadium FieldTurf is being replaced this week. But Beckman isn't quite done with the minor changes yet.
"We're still going to keep the same traditions," Beckman said, "but I think (changes) that's what kids want. Whatever I'm capable of doing minor, I'm going to do it."
That includes a new team walk through a tailgating area outside the stadium about two hours before home kickoffs "to create more buzz." Beckman also said he will host free football camps every Thursday for local football players and anyone else who'd like to attend.
Other ideas floating around Beckman's head? He would like to invite a student organization, possibly a fraternity or sorority, to watch a game from the balcony outside his office that overlooks Memorial Stadium. Beckman also plans to have a football player give a student a student body flag to raise up a flag pole before every home game.
His more ambitious goal is to set a Guinness world record. Beckman said he wants to invite the UI student body to the Sunday practice before UI classes begin. After practice, he'd like to invite the students onto the field to set the record for most people on a football field while someone makes a field goal.
"I thought it'd be cool," Beckman said. "I'm just trying to think of different things."
Buchanan moving on from past
Michael Buchanan doesn't want to speak much of the off-the-field incident that left him with a broken jaw.
"This incident's in the past," Buchanan said. "I've learned from it, and I've been very apologetic to my teammates and I let them know that this situation won't happen again."
Buchanan, who was named to the Second-Team All-Big Ten selection by both coaches and the media following a 7.5 sack season, had his jaw wired shut for a week but is back to his playing weight of 240 pounds and wants to add an additional 10 pounds.
With the departure of Whitney Mercilus - who was drafted by the Houston Texans in the first round - Buchanan is the Illini's most feared pass rusher. Beckman called Buchanan one of his biggest recruits after Buchanan, who received a third-round grade from the NFL Draft Advisory Board, decided to return for his senior season.
Buchanan said Beckman had a very "honest" discussion with him during the draft process. They had a different conversation after Buchanan's summer incident, but Beckman said Thursday that Buchanan will not be suspended any games this season.
"(Beckman) told me what I needed to know, and some things I needed to change personally," Buchanan said. "I need to feel less sense of entitlement. I need to prove to my teammates that it won't ever happen again."
Games in Chicago?
Beckman said he and Mike Thomas would like to play a game in Chicago every two seasons "as long as it doesn't interfere with the seven home games at Memorial Stadium." Future games likely would be played at Soldier Field unless Wrigley Field's dimensions are changed. During the 2010 game between Northwestern and Illinois at Wrigley Field, only one endzone could be used because of safety hazards. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald also did not like that both teams stood on the same sidelines.
Fitzgerald said Northwestern would like to play a game in the city as long as the Wildcats play six games at home each season. U.S. Cellular Field also is a possible host for an inner-city game.
Respect the 'Cats?
Talking about building up the Northwestern-Illinois rivalry, Beckman paid the Wildcats compliments.
"I respect Northwestern, the team upstate," he said. "I respect their coaching staff. I've been around their coaching staff a lot. I want them to win every football game but one. I really do. That's my feeling toward it because I really respect what Coach Fitzy is doing up there and what that program is all about."
Beckman added to the rivalry by putting up signs with a universal no sign over the Wildcats logo.
"I've heard about that from a couple guys," Northwestern senior guard Brian Mulroe said. "That's good. It's good fuel to the fire. It's fun. It's all good and fun."
Scheelhaase echoed Mulroe's sentiment, saying UI and Northwestern have a "healthy" rivalry.
"I don't think anybody's trash talking or anything wild like that," Scheelhaase said. "We didn't have any situations like Auburn-Alabama with killing trees or anything like that."
Jeremy Werner is the co-host and Illinois reporter for the "Tay and J Show," which airs weekdays 3-6 p.m. on 93.5, 95.3 ConnectFM in Champaign-Urbana and streams online at www.myconnectfm.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @WernerConnectFM