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November 19, 2012

Illini football: Five burning questions




Orange and Blue News football analyst Doug Bucshon tackles some of the toughest questions surrounding the Fighting Illini football program.


1. Is Tim Beckman's job in jeopardy after one season?

Not likely. Athletic Director Mike Thomas will probably give Beckman more than one year to bring in his own players and try to build the program. But it's amazing that the culture surrounding Illinois football is right back to the volatile situation that existed under the perennial hot seat holder, Ron Zook. It's the same soap opera with a different cast.

Give Zook his due - he put Illinois football back on the radar. But like every coach that preceded him in the recent past, Zook couldn't establish an identity for the program and build a consistent winner. Tim Beckman's plan to change that was to lock down "Illini Nation", a 6 hour radius surrounding Champaign. Remember that? It seems like 100 years ago.

Beckman is an eternal optimist, but the odds are against him. The 2012 season has been a train wreck, and Beckman faces a jaded fan base, fair weather donors, and a cynical press corps. Beckman has to pull off a minor miracle to have a long stint at Illinois. Can it be done? Only time will tell, and Thomas will likely give Beckman enough time to sink or swim.


2. Will the bad season impact recruiting?

Obviously, the poor results on the field have made the job of selling the program much more difficult. The first order of business for the staff is to hold on to the recruits that they have on board. Losing any of the headliners like Aaron Bailey would be a major blow to the program that I'm not sure they could recover from.

Another immediate impact will be on the effort to close strong in the 2013 class with out-of-state talent. (DE Josh Augusta is Illinois' last hope to land a top in-state player in this class - and Augusta has options.) It's already a decent class with an impact quarterback, but Illinois must fill needs at offensive line and wide receiver. It's a hard sell. All of sudden an offer from Illinois doesn't look as good to a player from Florida, for example, who could stay at home and play at a second tier Florida school like South Florida or FIU.

The JUCO route that Beckman is taking is smart - they need immediate help - but only if they can get those kids enrolled. What is disappointing is that Illinois was making some strong in-roads with the 2014 kids this past summer selling hope and change. Now all you really have to sell is early playing time until you turn it around on the field.

What the staff has to hope for is that some of the top targets in that class wait until late next year to commit. That gives them another season on the field to right the ship. I still think they can get a good class in 2014 - they are in on some talented players - but this season makes it that much harder.


3. Is the spread the right scheme for Illinois football?

I say this with as much conviction as any answer in this article……no. Sure, you can have a decent season every 5 or 6 years running the spread at Illinois if you get the right combination of players. But you won't have sustained success.

Not long ago, I was of the opinion that the spread could be an equalizer for teams with lesser talent. I don't believe that anymore, at least in the Big Ten Conference. You have to beat teams in football, not trick them. To beat them with the spread you need great overall team speed and studs on the offensive line who can keep the QB on his feet without having to keep backs and TE's in to block. When has Illinois ever recruited speed? Great O-linemen? Are they going to be able to get speedy receivers with a Midwest recruiting strategy? Speed is at a premium in this part of the country, and the top kids go to the power schools.

I hope I'm proven wrong, and Illinois builds a winner with Aaron Bailey and the spread offense. Bailey is a good one, so it's possible.

And since we are talking schemes, Tim Banks' 4-2-5 isn't far removed from the RichRod 3-3-5 that cost him his job at Michigan. You have to get physical in the Big Ten. This defense creates space and 1-on-1 situations. Illinois is going to lose more than half of those battles. There's nothing wrong with a straight up 4-3 defense. The gimmick schemes do nothing for me.


4. Will there be major changes in the off season?

How could there not be? I won't speculate on which coaches will stay, and which coaches will move on. But all you have to do is look at the numbers and ask yourself if the talent level is really that bad - particularly on the defense.

That said, you are in trouble when you start playing musical coordinators to save your program. The Koenning-Petrino plan didn't save Zook, and no Band-Aid plan is going to get things on track for Tim Beckman. He has to do that himself - with sound decisions, a system that is set up to succeed, some recruiting hits, and strong leadership. Sure, it's important to have a good staff with coaches who can recruit and teach. The top schools have top coaches. But history doesn't remember the assistant coaches, and no program should succeed or fail based on who is on your staff.

The plan in the off-season shouldn't be to find coordinators to take over the team. It should be to (a) acknowledge that what you did failed, (b) decide what you want to be, and (c) find the best coaches to implement the plan. And it better be a better plan than the first one.


5. Who will be the staring QB in 2013?

True freshman Aaron Bailey from Bolingbrook (Ill.) should be given every opportunity to earn the job. In fairness to Nathan Scheelhaase, he has won football games for Illinois when they had a better supporting cast. But you just can't keep throwing him out there and hoping for the best. Bailey is the future, and the future is now for Tim Beckman.

Still, Illinois should have never been in a position where they have to gamble their future on a true freshman quarterback. Ron Zook should have been recruiting a QB early on in the 2012 class, and Beckman should have searched high and low for one when he took over the program last December. It's the most important position on the field, and Illinois is two injuries away from playing a running back / receiver at quarterback in Miles Osei. They should also bring in another QB in 2013 with the idea of redshirting him.

One positive is that the receiving corps will be deeper next season, but if they don't get immediate help on the offensive line then 2013 will be a repeat of what we have seen this fall.

I'm not sure how you can stay the course at quarterback. It's not working. Scheelhaase is snake-bit, and he can't make all of the throws that you have to make to be successful with the spread. Would Reilly O'Toole be more effective? Who knows? It can't hurt to try something new when you are 2-9.




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