The News-Gazette, Darrell Hoemann, Associated Press
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Tim Beckman came to Illinois with a mandate to fix the Illini, starting with whatever broke during their six-game losing streak last fall.
The weakness that stuck out most, the new head coach said, was one fans have complained about for years.
"Special teams were as bad as there was in this country, probably," Beckman said in an interview with The Associated Press, "and that's what needs to get definitely changed."
Illinois was last in the Big Ten last season in both kickoff and return yards, in spite of the Ron Zook's background as a special teams expert. The losing streak — after a 6-0 start — cost Zook his job, but years of head-scratching special teams were almost certainly a factor.
Beckman and his staff will get their first chance next week to start addressing the problems that led to a 7-6 season. Spring football practices start Wednesday.
In the months since Beckman arrived from Toledo in December, players have learned about a few of their new coach's quirks.
If you play for football for Beckman, meetings scheduled for 6 a.m. do not start at 6. In Illini time, you get to practice, meetings, class, whatever 10 minutes early.
He is also big on competition. Really big.
The offseason has been packed with high intensity games of ... bowling. And dodge ball. Everyone has a winner, and losers.
Everything, Beckman says, is a competition.
"I just think it's life," he said. "We're trying to teach these young men life skills ... If it is standing in line, or if it's in the weight room or if it's in the classroom."
Players like linebacker Jonathan Brown aren't sure yet what to expect on the field, but if things are intense at the bowling alley, they say there probably won't be much room to relax.
"This coaching staff is a lot more competitive," said Brown, a sophomore who was the team's leading tackler last season with 108. "You've always got to be on your A game. That's the biggest difference."
Special teams, in particular, could use a little of that A game. The Illini averaged 2.9 yards a punt return last fall and just under 16 yards on kickoffs, regularly starting drives deep in their own end of the field.
Even in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl win over UCLA, when the performance improved, it wasn't all good.
"They had some knucklehead things, too, if you'll remember," Beckman said, recalling at least one decision to field a punt inside the team's own 10.
Defense, on the other hand, may be the biggest strength Beckman inherited.
Even with national sack leader Whitney Mercilus (16 last season) skipping his senior year for the NFL draft, the Illini still return key pieces of a defense that was among the best in the Big Ten — second in total defense (286.2 yards a game), first in pass defense (162.3 yards per game), second in sacks with 41, and fifth in points allowed per game (19.1).
Brown (6 sacks) and defensive lineman Michael Buchanan (7.5 sacks) are both back.
Beckman, though, wants more turnovers. The Illini forced just nine last season, worst in the league.
"They were a very, very good defense last year, but they didn't create enough takeaways," he said.
Beckman's background is defense. He was a defensive coordinator at Oklahoma State before moving to Toledo, where his team gave up 30.9 points a game last season. Of course, they scored 42 a game.
"Winning football games is what matters," Beckman said, downplaying any concerns about his Rocket defenses. "That's really the only stat that counts."
The Illini will run a spread, with Nathan Scheelhaase at quarterback for the third straight year and again splitting time with at least one of his backups.
But offense is where another concern lies for Beckman — depth.
The Illini go into spring football with only two real running backs, sophomores Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson. Young carried the ball 87 times for 451 yards and six touchdowns as a backup last fall and Ferguson played in three games. But after them are four freshmen recruits.
At receiver, Illinois lost its one bright spot form 2011, A.J. Jenkins. He had 1,276 yards and eight touchdowns as a senior.
Behind him is a collection of mostly question marks. No one else caught more than 26 balls.
"We don't have enough of them," Beckman said. "I'm again just concerned with depth and the youth."
Illinois opens Sept. 1 against Western Michigan and will play seven homes games.
Beckman isn't ready to set a list of goals for the 2012 season. Illinois players like Brown, though, aren't so cautious.
"Big Ten championship, no reason why we can't go to a BCS bowl game," he said. "We've got the talent. We won the first six games (in 2011)."
Follow David Mercer on Twitter: http://twitter.com/DavidMercerAP
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