CHAMPAIGN — Every Friday this spring the University of Illinois football team settles in to watch a tape of a game played last October.
New head coach Tim Beckman has selected Illinois’ 38-35 victory over Northwestern not because it leaves everyone with a warm and fuzzy feeling. He’s showing it — one quarter each week for a month — because he feels that game underscores some of the problems Illinois must fix before a new season begins on Sept. 1.
On Tuesday, amid a hectic search for the school’s next basketball coach, we were reminded that less than four months ago it was another coaching search that brought Beckman to Illinois from Toledo.
In the 15 week’s since, Beckman has watched from the sideline as Illinois beat UCLA to win the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, has assembled a coaching staff and appears to have won the trust of returning players who would like to make it three bowl victories in a row.
Second-year quarterback Reilly O’Toole, who appears to be on track to split time with incumbent starter Nathan Scheelhaase, said the energy level has changed since Beckman blew through the front door.
“Coach Beckman is high energy,” O’Toole said. “He has brought a whole new wind in here. When we go out to practice everyone is running around. He said we’re going to be high-tempo and everyone is moving to where they need to be.
“Sometimes we practice to music and that makes it fun, even over on the sideline jumping around with your teammates.”
If Beckman has complaints about buy-in from the returning players, he is keeping them to himself. He can’t say enough about the leadership level being demonstrated on a daily basis from a number of key players, with quarterbacks Scheelhaase, O’Toole and Miles Osei high on the list.
“They want to win,” Beckman said. “They have won some football games and went to bowl games in back-to-back years. They want to take it a step further and I’m proud of the way these players are working. At every position.
“And they are still learning what we expect. We might expect a little more (than past coaches did), I don’t know. They’re learning how we’re coaching and you can see us progress every day on the field. That’s what is so much fun.”
Players are generally grouped by position and there is chemistry being developed between the quarterbacks, for example, and co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Chris Beatty.
“I’d like to think I’m easy to get along with and they are easy to get along with,” said Beatty, who came to Illinois after stops at West Virginia and Vanderbilt.
But when Beckman rolls tape of that Oct. 1 Northwestern game, he likes the dynamic of offense, defense and special teams players packed into the same room while hearing criticism and learning from past mistakes.
“Defensively, the one fault we had last year was not creating enough takeaways,” Beckman said. “So that has been stressed in everything we do.
“Offensively, it’s more consistency level. The thing we found in the Northwestern game is, boy, there’s a big play on offense and all of a sudden we’re in a second-and-18 situation. We’ve worked on consistency and been fairly successful in doing that.”
Special teams, where Illinois struggled mightily throughout the year, has required a return to the most basic of fundamentals.
“As we studied the tape, it’s catching the snap, it’s blocking, it’s tackling. It’s been a matter of making sure we do those things right,” Beckman said.
Two injuries have prevented Beckman from getting a look at all of his projected starters.
Running back Donovonn Young has yet to take the field as he nurses a foot injury. They hope to have him back before the April 14 spring game.
Safety Suppo Sanni has been sidelined by an Achilles tendon injury.
The biggest problem, Beckman said, is depth.
Depth at running back, wide receiver, on the offensive line. And depth at safety.
It’s a major concern that can’t accurately be measured until the season begins and injuries as well as the development of incoming freshmen can be calculated.
But the coaching staff will sit down at the end of spring and see where there may be surpluses and decide who can be shifted.
That’s how a one-time prized receiving threat — Terry Hawthorne — ended up as a current star at cornerback.
And it could result in Osei, the third-string quarterback, landing at running back or wide receiver.
Beckman has closed much of his practices to the public and the media, guarding the element of surprise a new staff will carry into the 2012 season.
But we’ll get a look at a full practice Friday evening when some 1,400 coaches are expected to be on hand as part of the Illinois High School Football Coaches Association clinic that Beckman and his staff are hosting.
Ultimately, the depth issue will be addressed through recruiting. That’s why Billy Gonzales, the co-offensive coordinator who will call plays, was studying his map on Tuesday.
He will recruit much of Central Illinois including Decatur, Macon County, Bloomington and beyond. He said starting on April 23 he’ll be visiting all 90 of the high schools in his area.
He’ll also be responsible for recruiting the areas around Dallas and Miami, Fla.
Prospects from southern states are already being given a whopper of a sales pitch.
“We’re telling them the weather is like this every winter,” Gonzales said.