Illinois football coach Tim Beckman went into spring ball with his eyes wide open. He knew he had some talented players, but how many and how good remained to be seen. He was pleasantly surprised by some things he discovered coming out of spring practices.
"I think the depth at quarterback, the capability of those quarterbacks, from the first to the third, is one. I think Chase (Haslett) needs to continue to progress; he's only been doing it for 15 days.
"Then I thought the depth at running back. Josh (Ferguson) and Donovonn (Young) were both able to prove they're good football players, and I hope to like these freshmen coming in.
"And then you look at the tight end position. You've got a lot of players who are capable of being an attached tight end or a flexed tight end, or even moved into the backfield a little bit. So offensively, I thought those three positions probably impressed me the most."
There were some defensive surprises as well.
"I thought that the corner position is a darn good depth position. For a young corner, Eaton Spence had a good spring. I thought our linebackers did decent; we've got to continue to improve at the position depth-wise. I think the defensive linemen have a good group with the first team, but we've got to continue to build the depth at those positions."
No team can go through a 12 game season without some attrition, and some teams have multiple injury setbacks that can be devastating without adequate replacements. Preparing more of the younger players will be important during fall camp.
"Depth is a major concern. It's a major concern on the offensive line and defensive line. We've got to continue to improve throughout summer and then into the season.
"I've always been a firm believer that you have to have enough depth to play 25 guys on offense and 25 on defense, so that you're fresh when the season gets going. So we're going to have to push those young men to be able to come in and play, and be successful when they play."
The Illini have a number of experienced seniors, especially on defense. But there is a big gap between them and the young ones. The Illini need some of the less experienced players to develop rapidly.
We've got to continue to push our younger players and all the freshmen to continue to improve their body types, continue to improve their work ethic and smarts, and continue to make them better. The time will come when players like Kenny Nelson, Darrius Caldwell, Austin Teitsma and Jake Howe are gonna have to step up and be able to perform at a starter level."
Are they capable of being that good?
"Sure. They're just puppies, young guys. They're learning and will continue to be pushed. And then we've got some freshmen coming in, some linebackers and defensive linemen who are pretty good football players. We haven't seen them play at Illinois as a group, but we're looking forward to seeing what they can do."
In recent years, Illini teams have lost confidence after emotional losses, making it more difficult to compete at a top level in subsequent games, especially road games. Last year, they lost six straight games, including a couple on the road they might have won with more belief in themselves.
They defeated UCLA in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, but their confidence is likely still fragile. What is Beckman doing to overcome bad memories?
"That's the past. We are trying to move this thing to the future. We're changing the mentality of this football team. We have to because that's not good. I don't bring up the losses; we are working toward the future. We have to teach our players how to play one series at a time, one game at a time."
Beckman had great success as head coach at Toledo. His Rocket teams found a way to play well on the road, a sign they maintained their confidence during a long season. So Beckman figures he can do the same thing for the Illini.
"If you look at our track record, we've done a very good job of playing on the road. We went to Purdue and beat Purdue. I'm going to say we beat Syracuse on the road, and we had a great opportunity to beat Ohio State. I think we've done a very good job of winning. We were 14-2, and a lot of those games were on the road."
Perhaps one of Beckman's best traits is his ability to inspire and uplift his players. He works constantly on improving team confidence.
"You have to. That's what the competitions are for. That second drill we're doing, that's like the second quarter. We've got to be able to come back in the third and fourth. That's football."
Illinois fans have never seen Beckman coach a college game. He talks about his game day coaching and a little about what fans can expect in the conclusion of this report.