CHAMPAIGN — I really don’t know.
That’s the honest answer to a question that seems to find me whether I’m shopping for dog food at Rural King, getting my oil changed at Speed Lube or sampling the delicious Heinkels’ meat products at the Decatur Celebration.
How will the Illini football team do this season?
I don’t know how they’ll do even though I find new head coach Tim Beckman’s enthusiasm to be genuine and contagious, even though I think third-year starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is a tougher competitor than anyone gives him credit for and even though this Illini defense could have four or five NFL players in the starting lineup.
I don’t know because I’ve never seen Beckman coach, co-offensive coordinator Billy Gonzales is a first-time play-caller and because my crystal ball has never been very good when it comes to predicting injuries.
For everything I do know, the uncertainty of this new coaching staff and a roster thin at key positions makes getting a firm handle on Illinois’ football fate a dicey proposition.
That’s why I’ll be in Rantoul on Monday morning for the first-ever Tim Beckman Illini football practice.
This much I can predict: Beckman and his assistants will take the field in Rantoul with raucous enthusiasm. They’ll purposely create an up-tempo feel to practice that makes players hustle from one moment to the next. There will be hand-clapping. There will be barking and shouting. And — I hope — there will be meaningful teaching.
These coaches only got to work with the Illini players for 15 practices in the spring. And that did not include any of the incoming freshmen. So getting them to do things the right way will be imperative.
In the spring, coaches were learning about players and players were learning about coaches. There was apprehension, to be sure. But Scheelhaase is among those who came out of spring practice with a good feeling about this staff. And Beckman says he has a positive feeling about these players as training camp begins tomorrow.
“I think we’re settled in,” Scheelhaase said. “With 15 practices in the spring, we got pretty used to (Beckman). We had to figure out what he is all about and how he went about coaching us.
“That was a long time ago and I think we’re ready to get back around Coach Beck and the rest of these coaches now.”
Scheelhaase said Beckman has proven to be a coach who looks to his leaders.
“He leans on his seniors and he leans on me, because I have a lot of playing experience,” Scheelhaase said.
It helps that Scheelhaase has quickly embraced a new offense.
“I like it a lot,” he said. “The biggest difference is that it’s more up-tempo. We don’t huddle anymore. And this offense gets the ball to more spots on the field.
“Last year we were a little more predictable and we didn’t use the whole field. This offense allows us to get the ball to guys in space and we have some guys who can make people miss.”
Illinois’ offense looked pretty good early last season, then collapsed during an 0-6 finish to the regular season.
What happened in that second-half collapse?
Scheelhaase says it was simply coming up on the wrong side of close games.
“You have to realize how small a difference there is between winning and losing a game in the Big Ten Conference. In the first six games, we made a few plays that turned those games into victories. In the last six, there were two or three plays a game that were key. We didn’t make them and we lost.
“It was definitely an eye-opener as a Big Ten competitor. I’ve looked at the tape. I can show you in each of those games, two plays and the whole game would have changed.”
Beckman has watched the same tapes and said he sees a team that reacted poorly when things went bad.
“That was a team that did not handle adversity very well at all,” he said. “When something went wrong, they didn’t handle it right. Who’s to blame? No one is to blame. Everyone is to blame.”
Beckman said a review of those losses shows a football team that quickly reverts to negative body language, a sign that confidence evaporates in the face of adversity.
“Yeah, and I’m big on body language,” Beckman said. “And I’m big on handing the ball to the official.”
To get a feel for this team, we’ll have to see Beckman in action. Can he think on his feet? We all learned the last coach could not. Is he a gambler? Better yet, is he a smart gambler?
That’s what makes this an exciting time, just as it will be in November when we begin to get a clearer sense of what life will be with John Groce as the Illini basketball coach.
My sense is that Illinois has a chance to be a pretty decent football team. How good will depend on those factors the crystal ball won’t quite bring into focus.