Beckman emphasized four key words on which he and his staff have focused this offseason.
Though it has come at a slower rate than many would have liked, the Illinois football team has improved each year, as has the team’s record. Continually getting better has the team motivated to continue the upward trend.
"It’s the energy we have in this program,” Beckman said. "It starts off with the amount of wins going up each year. What we’ve done as a program on and off the field. The energy of success and playing in the postseason."
Speaking of continuing that upward trend, building upon last season’s bowl berth will be crucial for a team that had to play their best football down the stretch.
"We always talk about the momentum we have in our program right now,” Beckman said. "We had an outstanding second half of the season. When the games were on the line, we had to win them to have an opportunity to play in a postseason bowl. We’re working to get the program better and that’s the momentum we’re carrying right now."
Part of that improvement is related to the experience that the roster now has. Two seasons ago, a lot of younger players were forced into action out of necessity. Now, many of those same players are juniors and seniors who are not only leaders, but also key contributors in the depth chart.
"We have a team that has played quite a bit,” Beckman said. "We have a lot of starters returning and players who have played a lot of football in our two-deep. That’s an exciting time for us and you’ve seen that in our winter workouts. That’s another key term we talk about."
Beckman wants the players to all stay motivated, however he wants them to take pride in the success that they have achieved recently and use that as fuel to keep getting better.
"We have pride that we are getting better,” he said. "Pride in being the Fighting Illini Football Family. Having former players back here on pro-timing day like Hugh Thornton, Terry Hawthorne, and Graham Pocic and the pride they have in their program."
Looking Ahead to Spring
In his fourth spring football session at Illinois, Beckman is very thankful for the experience some of his top players and leaders have accumulated over the last few seasons.
"I think the guys we have back that have played a lot of football such as Mason Monheim, are very important,” Beckman said.
One of the big additions this offseason on top of a successful recruiting class was new defensive line coach Mike Phair. Coach Phair has been exposed to some stellar coaches during his time in the NFL, but is inexperienced as a college coordinator. But Beckman is confident in the abilities of Phair and thinks his background will boost the defensive front.
"We have two very capable coordinators,” Beckman said of Phair and Banks. "I think Mike has brought new inside with his Lovie Smith background and the respect the NFL has for Lovie. I think that will bring something to our defense.'
One of the other additions that made news in recent days was the announcement of a Friday night time slot for the season opener against Kent State. Beckman sees a big opportunity for exposure that comes with a non-standard time slot despite some of the potential drawbacks relating to recruiting and high school football.
"Again, it’s a great opportunity for our program to play on a Friday night,” he said. "I know that interferes with high school football. Heck, my son is playing that night, so yes it will affect me being able to watch him. It’s not a regular thing we plan on doing. Maybe a once in a year type deal. But it fives us an opportunity to open up on a holiday weekend and play a good Kent State football team."
One player who will be watched closely this spring, especially following the transfer of Aaron Bailey to Northern Iowa, is 2nd-string quarterback Chayce Crouch. After enrolling early, participating in spring football last year, and redshirting this past season, Crouch is poised to push Lunt in the quarterback competition.
If anything, last year proved that the backup quarterback is just as important as the incumbent starter.
"Him having his second spring football this spring (helps),” Beckman said. "We just had meetings with the offensive staff talking about each individual player. Coach Cubit has talked about him learning the game and being in situations he wasn’t able to be in last year being redshirted. He has an opportunity to lead the other 10 players on the field every play. We’re looking for situations for him to be a leader at quarterback."
Quarterback won’t be the only position where competition is expected. Several players on defense return from injuries last year and will be expected to contribute and add depth where it was lacking in 2014.
"I definitely feel that way,” Beckman said about positional competition. "Look at our defense. Defensive line-wise, we haven’t really had battles and now we do. We don’t have a ton of depth but we have guys like Jihad Ward and Kenny Nelson, who is back from injury. We have Teko, who won’t be able to go through the spring with us. Guys like Joe Fotu, Jarrod Clements, and Rob Bain."
He continued, "We have competition at linebacker with Svetina back. Corner is another position too. Also we have maturity at the wide receiver position and guys will compete and challenge each other."
However, one position group that is still feeling the effects of a couple key injuries is offensive line. While the Illini did bring in three solid junior college prospects, depth for split-squad practice is a concern. And with the Illini’s three high school offensive line recruits not arriving until summer, Beckman and his staff will be making ends meet at some positions.
"Offensive line is a big concern,” he said. "When you want to take the team and go orange and blue, but only have 10 guys, it’s a concern as far as depth along the offensive line."
Illinois will have to go through the spring with several players still out with or limited by injuries. Beckman hopes the week of spring break in the middle of the practice schedule will allow for some of them to recover and participate in at least some of the practices.
"We have a split in the spring due to spring break, which gives us an extra week,” Beckman said. "Plus we moved it back a week, so hopefully helps some guys get healthy. But we have Teko Powell, who won’t be able to go. Carroll Phillips won’t be going through contact-type practices. Darius Mosely is being held out because of a sports hernia. Tyler White, who was hurt prior to the Louisiana Tech game. Teddy Karras is still out with his knee injury as well as Chris O’Connor."
And while Illinois has had to move forward without some of their best players healthy, the opportunity has arisen for some new faces to make themselves known and make an impact. One player Beckman singled out in particular for doing so was former Iowa Western CC tight end Andrew Davis.
"Andrew Davis has impressed,” Beckman said. "We had our last offseason workout and took our top winners for competition. Andrew Davis has done a great job competing. He was with the A-team which meant he was a winner. He has jumped out and shown that he is very capable. He’s gained about 14 pounds and is up to about 235 pounds."
As previously mentioned, three junior college offensive linemen joined the team this semester. Though the transition will take some time, Beckman is pleased so far with the progress of Jordan Fagan, Connor Brennan, and Zachary Heath.
"Those players jumped right in and went right to winter workouts,” he said. "I don’t know that any of them have separated themselves from one another yet, but I’m proud of the way they’ve worked. I’m also proud of the competition at running back as well."
One particular area where Illinois was horribly inconsistent last season was in the kicking game. Combine that with the graduation of four-year starting punter Justin DuVernois, and the kicking game will be one of the big question marks throughout the spring.
"Ryan Frain is in there,” Beckman said of the punting competition. "We haven’t been able to work with them as far as kicking since we aren’t allowed to have a ball in winter workouts. Ryan, David (Reisner), and Chayce Crouch will compete for the punting position. The kicking position is Taylor (Zalewski) and David. We might add a couple more walk-ons. We had a couple guys try out and show us their capabilities."
Yes, you read that right: Chayce Crouch can punt. And according to Beckman, he has one of the best legs on the team. The last time a player from another position punted? Receiver Ryan Lankford, who punted in high school and often handled rugby-style punts.
"You’d be amazed. He has a very strong leg,” Beckman said. "But having a quarterback back there puts some things in mind for the defense. Very impressive leg. Back in high school I think he averaged above 40-yards per punt. If he does it the best, it’s a weapon. DuVernois did an outstanding job of helping us with field position. He may be the number two quarterback, but he could also help us change field position.
The addition of Mike Phair as DL/Co-DC coach as well as the impending addition of another offensive member to the staff means that some responsibilities and duties will be re-allocated among the position coaches. Ultimately it sounds like Beckman hopes to be able to spend more time with the special teams units this year.
"We’ll see. That’s why we continue to work,” Beckman said. "That’s the same reason Bill wants to be sure of who he has in the box and on the field. Just want to make sure we’re heading forward. I’ve spent more time with special teams, and Alex Golesh is going to run our special teams. Alex and I have been together quite a bit so we both know what we want out of our special teams.
For a while now, rumors have swirled regarding the hiring of the final assistant coach. While no name has officially been announced for the position, it’s likely to happen very soon and could very well be something kept “in the family” so to speak.
"It’s still a process,” Beckman said. "We’re going to get it filled as quickly as we can."
One other need that Beckman hopes the Illini have filled is a number-two running back on the depth chart behind starter Josh Ferguson. Backs Dre Brown and Henry Enyenihi have already enrolled for the spring semester, and two more talented backs Ke’Shawn Vaughn and Reggie Corbin arrive this summer.
"We knew the importance of finding a number two running back in this recruiting class,” Beckman said. "In spring ball, we want to see who can step forward and be that leader."