Illinois football optimistic at Big Ten Media Days

Tim Beckman speaks about the upcoming football season during the Big Ten Media Days in Chicago this week. 

By Charlotte Carroll

Chicago — The unofficial start to the season, this week’s Big Ten Media Days, represented a chance to speculate about the future for Illinois football. Featuring head coach Tim Beckman, tight end Jon Davis, offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic and defensive lineman Austin Teitsma, it was a chance for questions of optimism and realistic expectations.

There were questions about who will be the starting quarterback for the team’s opening game against Youngstown State on Aug. 30, questions about the defense’s ability to stop Big Ten opponents and questions about whether the offense can continue to improve.

And perhaps the biggest of all was the program’s direction under third-year head coach Tim Beckman.

After a disappointing 2013 season (4-8, 1-7 Big Ten), the mounting pressures Beckman faces were evident. While answers to some of those questions might still be up the air, one thing was clear: Illinois desires, and must, make a bowl game appearance.

Beckman was optimistic and stressed that the possibility of a bowl game was a real one.

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“I do think the things they’ve shown (the) football staff — the way they’ve worked and the way they’ve handled themselves off the football field — that they have the desire and discipline to have a great opportunity to make it to a bowl game,” Beckman said.

Yet with no confirmed quarterback, much of the interest was focused on who could take the first snap for Illinois.

The battle for a starter will continue into camp, which begins next week. Senior Reilly O’Toole and sophomores Wes Lunt and Aaron Bailey will compete for the job.

“Reilly is a kind of an underappreciated quarterback because he has the ability to move around and make plays from nothing,” Davis said. “He can extend plays, he’s a lot more athletic than people want to give credit. He probably has the most knowledge, just because he’s been here longer and been working with Coach Cubit the most.”

“Aaron Bailey is kind of the freak athlete. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are built-in packages for him, if he’s not named the starter. Wes Lunt is a big strong kid. Great arm. Throws the ball pretty much effortlessly. It’s always great to see that.”

Questions still remain about which of the three will replace graduated four-year starter Nathan Scheelhaase.

“I mean, (Scheelhaase) is an outstanding person,” Beckman said. “I always say this, I’ve been around football now for 49 years, and there’s only one Nathan Scheelhaase that I’ve ever met. The type of human being he is.”

Under first-year offensive coordinator Bill Cubit and senior Scheelhaase’s leadership, the 2013 Illini improved to 47th in the nation yards per game and 23nd in passing yards per game. They also went from an average of 16.7 points per game in 2012 to 29.7 points per game in 2013.

Returning much depth from last year, Beckman stressed the Illini are more experienced and mature.

Where the offense posted vastly improved numbers in 2013, the defense struggled to stop other Big Ten teams and finished 110th in the country total yards.

But with returning players and spring game experience, Illinois is optimistic for the 2014 season.

“Coming out of that spring game, I was extremely proud of the guys,” Teitsma said. “It showed that we are improving and that’s definitely a big help from the offense. Because they’re so good, they’re making us better.”

As Beckman’s third year is about to start, that period of adjustment is coming to a close.

“We are Beckman players now at this point,” Cvijanovic said. “It does take some time getting used to it, but we are at this point.”

The questions are abundant for this team, but Illinois is trusting in its optimism and experience.

Asked if he felt like an old hand in the Big Ten yet, head coach Tim Beckman laughed it off, saying he’d been around the conference his entire life.

“It’s hard-nosed, physical, very competitive,” Beckman said. “But being a hand in it yet, no. I don’t think I’m that yet.”

This season will be a big determinant in how much longer he’ll be a part of it sporting the orange and blue.

Charlotte can be reached at [email protected] and @charlottecrrll.