Tim Beckman is going around the state with head men's basketball coach John Groce and head women's basketball coach Matt Bollant as part of the Illini Caravan. Speaking on WDWS radio Saturday morning, he senses excitement around the state toward Illinois athletics.
"What a great opportunity to get out and speak to the Illini faithful. You can see the passion for this great university we have. We went from Peoria to Chicago and got the same reception. It was well worthwhile to be able to shake hands with the faithful up there.
"With the newness of all three coaches, I think people are excited about the direction Mike Thomas is taking this athletic program. Not just football-wise, but you hear it when Coach Groce speaks and when Coach Bollant speak about the commitment players are making to make our programs better and more accessible to the community."
As a head coach, Beckman was not permitted to travel for recruiting purposes this spring. But he has found plenty to do.
"There is a lot of critiquing going on. Our coaching staff is out on the road right now. We have 148 opportunities from April 15 to the end of May to go out on the road and meet with high school coaches.
"Our goal was to hit every school in the state and build relationships, whether that's 10 minutes or two hours, or however long it takes, and shake hands with every coach in the state. We feel that's very important.
"We have a couple coaches in the office, especially the coordinators. Tim Salem was in the first week, and we did a bunch of critiquing of our special teams. Things we've got to do, fundamentals we've got to get better at. Last week, we did offensive stuff with Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales. This week, we'll have Tim Banks in and do some things with Timmy defensive-wise."
Since special teams have struggled the past few years, Beckman was asked what has gone wrong and what improvements are being made.
"I think it goes back to fundamentals. It wasn't a scheme thing, it was fundamentals. We weren't catching footballs, we weren't running in proper lanes, we weren't catching the snap properly. So we spent 15 days, every day we were allowed to have, focusing on fundamentals of special teams. We saw our players get progressively better and better.
"I think the more we simplify those things, the better it is for your football players to run down in space and make plays. The more you simplify things, the easier it is for a punt returner to recognize where he needs to go to be successful based on where the blocking is coming from. That was a key we tried to use throughout the spring."
Beckman was asked the team's strengths and weaknesses out of spring ball.
"The experience we have on defense is definitely one of the considered strengths. The weakness is the issues we have with lineman depth offensively and defensively, and in the secondary. That's a major concern.
"Defensively, we've got some great returning faces but must continue to get some more depth. On defensive football, you can't just play with 11 players throughout the season. It starts wearing down. We've got to make sure we've got around 25 players capable of being all-conference-type football players.
"And then also the wide receivers. We don't have that all-star, and we're going to have to have that all-star. Millines, Lankford, and Harris will have to move their games up even more for us to be successful throwing the football. And then the backups, we need more depth so we can progress as a Big Ten-caliber offense."
Running back depth was also a concern this spring. Donovonn Young sat out most of spring ball nursing a foot stress fracture back to health. Beckman feels Young will be a big boost to the offense.
"He's definitely a young man who is very capable. He and Josh Ferguson can create some two-back stuff that can make us a better football team. He's progressing, and we look forward to getting him back."
Several incoming freshmen will be counted on for help this fall. Beckman singled out a few of them.
"I think we have a couple freshmen who are going to have two come in and provide depth, just based on numbers. We don't have enough offensive linemen, so (Joe) Spencer and (Robbie) Bain better be ready to come in. That's what we've been saying to them. It's good we can get these kids in the second week of June and get them started through classes and through preparation with Coach (Aaron) Hillmann.
"I think Vontrell Williams is another young man who has got to be ready to come in and do some things. And because we signed six defensive backs, a number of those young men better be ready to come in and be backups and special teams players for us also."
"You'll see Hawthorne playing some on the offensive side of the ball. There is a possibility of Green being over there too, trying to make sure we've got playmakers so that we can get the ball in the hands of those guys in space and utilize some of the things those guys do."
It is apparent Beckman needs to improve overall Illini team speed. With that in mind, he was asked how hard the UI will canvass talent-laden Florida for speed and skill.
"I think we've got great connections. Billy Gonzales coached at Florida and has great connections down there. Tim Salem coached in central Florida for the last 10 football seasons. Coach (Keith) Gilmore has been pulling up the d-linemen we've gotten from down there in the Miami area.
"Of course when I was in that school in Columbus, I recruited the Tampa area down to the Naples area. So we do have a lot of contacts in that area, contacts good enough that we feel we can go down there and get some good football players."
There's been a lot of discussion among college presidents, athletic directors and football coaches about adding a playoff system of some sort to more accurately determine a national champion. Beckman sees value in it but also recognizes all the criteria that must be met to prevent problems.
"I think this is huge. I've been around college football my whole life, and this is a decision that will change college football. We all need to make sure that we're thinking about how much this is going to change the end of the football season.
"What I believe is based upon the student-athletes. The bowl system gives that student-athlete an opportunity to do things he might never ever get to do again. Going to San Francisco, we had numerous players who had never been to the west coast. That is an experience that college football will give them.
"I'd like to state, if there is going to be a playoff system, the playoff system has to be built around the bowls because the bowls have been so instrumental in college football. If there is going to be a four team playoff-type deal, then we need to make sure we include the bowls so our players can experience that."
Beckman hopes two semifinal games will be associated with bowls.
"That would be good for me. I think as big as it is for the Big 10 and the Pac-12, we believe in the Rose Bowl and want to keep it. It's one of the top bowl games in the country. And we've got to make sure that it's fair for everybody."
With college football going to longer seasons, a legitimate question is, how many games is too many? Injury concerns and academic needs must be considered when adding more games to the schedule.
"I think that's a valid point. We've talked a lot about concussions lately, and that's been a big factor. As long as we're not interrupting school, I would think 14 or possibly 15 games would be feasible."
Illini coaches will participate in a number of summer camps between June 8 and June 23. A little over a month later, Camp Rantoul begins. Beckman plans only one week in Rantoul this year and has changed the format somewhat.
"It will be opened up to the public. It will only be one week because school has been moved up a week. That time is an acclimatization period. The NCAA basically states that we've got to start without being in full pads, and then progress to full pads in a five day period.
"What we will do is, our players won't have two-a-days, but the coaches will. We'll split our team up into Orange and Blue; we will have an Orange team practice in the morning, and the Blue team will be lifting, and then we'll flip it in the afternoon. The coaches go through two--days, but the players don't go through two-a-days."
Life is never dull for a college football coach; hard work is required every day of the year. And the 2012 fall schedule will be upon us before we know it.