Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Beckman Era Off to Rough Start

Beckman isn't off to the greatest start
Lost in the shuffle of the rest of the college football world this past weekend was 52-24 trouncing that Illinois was given at the hands of an explosive Louisiana Tech football team. The loss came only two weeks after a similarly embarrassing performance against Arizona State on the road, and has Illinois reeling at 2-2 entering Big Ten Conference play. The 2-2 record is astounding when you figure that the beginning of the schedule was configured to ease Tim Beckman's transition as coach. There's no doubt that this team should be 4-0, or 3-1 at the latest. I mean, doesn't this team have all that talent that Ron Zook was known for recruiting?

Well, the fact is they don't. Sure, Illinois has sent numerous players to the NFL in the past few years, with more top picks than any other Big Ten school in the last 5 years. But that overshadows the woeful recruiting job that Ron Zook did at Illinois in his last two seasons. Look at his 2011 and 2010 classes, two classes that should be the backbones of this team right now. The only two four star recruits in either of those classes are not with the team for various reasons. Now, I know that Zook was known for taking unheralded players and recognizing their talents. He did this with an underrated Vontae Davis out of high school, for instance. But there's a difference between having a nice success story with a few unheralded recruits and having nearly your entire team comprised of such players. You know what happens when those players make up your team? You become mediocre, just like Illinois is right now.

When you combine that with the 2012 class that Beckman had to throw together when he was hired this past year, the simple fact is that there is just not that much talent on this team right now, especially in key areas like offensive line, the secondary, and wide receiver. The players that do hold this team together are the upperclassmen from the 2009 recruiting class, which was full of talented players and clearly shows what Zook could do when he wasn't running the Illinois program into the ground.

The problem is that those guys can't do it all. And when you have some of them go down with key injuries, like Supo Sanni, Steve Hull, and other veteran players, it's going to be nearly impossible to put forth a competitive team.

Injuries to starters like Hull have hurt
Yet, how much of this do we put on other problems? Clearly the defense is a huge problem with this team right now, and this was in spite of all the injuries in the defensive backfield. Wide open offenses like Arizona State and Louisiana Tech have torched the Illinois defense, which for the past few years has been the strength of the team. Could this be a problem with the new schemes under new defensive coordinator Tim Banks? Banks is a far cry from his predecessor, Vic Koenning, but seems to try and emulate him with aggressive play calling on the defensive side of the ball. The problem is, he doesn't know how to disguise his schemes or blitzes and it leaves his secondary exposed. Considering that the secondary has been decimated by injury, it's pretty clear where a lot of the problems are coming from. Younger kids, kids who weren't highly recruited out of high school, are being thrown into the fire and being exposed on a consistent basis.

How do you fix the defensive issues going forward? First, Banks is going to have to make some adjustments to protect his fledgling secondary, at least until some veterans get back. He needs to rely on his talented front four to get pressure on the quarterback, and drop his linebackers into coverage to protect against those wide open gaps in coverage that have destroyed the Illini in their two losses. He has to find a way to mask the weaknesses and maximize his strengths. That's what separates the good coaches from the bad. It's what made Koenning special.

On offense, there are even more problems. For me, it feels like we have a continuation of the Zook era play calling, with read option and crossing patterns dominating our offense. Beckman can't seem to stay with a quarterback either, as he dumped Nate Scheelhaase for Reilly O'Toole early in the game. This is what worries me. Is Beckman, and really what I mean here is co-offensive coordinators Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales, merely trying to fit the play calling to the dearth of talent on the offensive side of the ball, or is their system really this vanilla?

Last year's Illini struggled to a 6-6 finish after starting the season strongly. They had more talent on defense for sure, with Tavon Wilson and Whitney Mercilus. They also had AJ Jenkins and key figures on the offensive line. So I guess it's difficult to expect much from an offense where there is no real reliable receiver besides Ryan Lankford. Or the fact that there wasn't much to expect from offensive line to begin with, let alone one that also has been wrecked by injury. And with Beckman benching the one true leader that this team has, Scheelhaase, you have to wonder what the rest of the veterans on the team are thinking right now.

Coaching transitions are always difficult. Prior to the season, Illinois fans were excited by Beckman's uber competitive rhetoric, and all the hoopla that came with it. But what we didn't realize is that despite Zook's reputation, this team is severely lacking in talent. Combine that with the injury bug that has swept through this team, and it's clear that this is going to be a mighty difficult first season for Tim Beckman. He's going to have to show that he can guide this team out of the depths created for him, and even those created by him (ahem, the Nate fiasco), or he's going to lose faith with the Illini fans quickly. I think he realizes that his new coach honeymoon is over, and that it's time to show why Mike Thomas went out on a limb to hire him. If he doesn't start quickly showing that he's not some Ron Zook clone, the season is going to unravel fast and the program will be worse off than it was when Zook was fired. This weekend's game against Penn State is a huge game for that reason alone. Beckman must have this team come out strong against the Nittany Lions and show that he can coach and keep this program competitive during these early stages of rebuilding, because it for sure isn't looking great thus far.