Illinois football prepares for life without Mercilus

Michael Buchanan has big shoes to fill.

Sixteen sacks, six quarterback hurries and nine forced fumble-sized shoes.

The Illinois football team will have to make up for the production lost with All-American junior defensive end Whitney Mercilus leaving for the NFL, and Buchanan is the most likely source.

“It’s gonna be tough,” Buchanan said. “I feel like, just from an edge rushing standpoint, that’s my job to be able to apply the type of pressure he did and get some of those sack-fumbles and just do a lot of the things he did.”

Mercilus made the jump from rotation player to bona fide star, recording just 16 total tackles and one sack in the season prior to breaking out as the nation’s leading pass rusher in 2011.

Buchanan’s jump would be much less dramatic, as he was a strong performer for the Illini at the hybrid linebacker/defensive end bandit position last season, registering 64 tackles, 7.5 sacks and one forced fumble in Mercilus’ shadow. Buchanan said he and his fellow seniors are ready to step up as leaders in 2012.

“Just basically leading more by example,” he said. “I can’t lose my head when we’re in practice, and I just have to always stay composed and always work hard because I have younger guys looking up to me now. Been there four years, and my job is really to set an example.”

Buchanan’s effort hasn’t gone unnoticed by new head coach Tim Beckman.

“What has really impressed me about Mike is just his leadership,” Beckman said before practice Monday night. “I mean, the kid works hard in everything he does, if it’s special teams, if it’s defense. Outstanding.”

Beckman yet to make decision at quarterback

Beckman said before Monday’s practice that he hasn’t made a decision on how he plans to use his quarterbacks next season.

“I can’t answer that right now,” Beckman said. “It’s all going to be dependent on what happens in the summer and throughout the fall.”

Junior Nathan Scheelhaase and sophomore Reilly O’Toole are splitting first-team reps this spring, and third-string junior quarterback Miles Osei has seen action at running back with the first and second teams. Beckman ran a two-quarterback system at Toledo last season and could do the same with the Illini.

“Nate’s done a great job, but I’ve seen Reilly do some good things and I’ve seen Miles do some good things,” he said. “All three of them are very capable of doing it. We’ll compete, and it’s just gonna make all three of them better.”

UI to see 1st glimpse of Beckman’s Illini at Orange and Blue game

The Illini are 13 practices into their 15-practice spring season, and fans will soon have their first look at Beckman’s Illini. The team will take the field for the annual Orange and Blue Scrimmage at 2 p.m. Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

“I’m fired up,” Beckman said. “I won’t be doing much. I’ll be standing in the back. I’m gonna let the coordinators coach, let them call the plays. Of course, I’ll be on the headset listening.”

Beckman split the seniors into two teams — Orange and Blue — and they will hold a draft Tuesday to fill out the remainder of the rosters. Former Illini Jeff George, Mike Holmes and Brit Miller will serve as honorary coaches for the Blue team, and Doug Dieken, Dana Howard and Tim McCarthy will coach the Orange team.

Football alumni to return to campus for 1st-ever golf outing

In addition to the six honorary spring game coaches, more than 200 former players and coaches will return to campus this weekend.

Beckman will join them for a golf outing Friday.

“I think we’ve got over 20 different foursomes that will be involved in the first-ever golf outing that we’ve had,” he said. “So we’re getting these players back here on campus and showcasing those former alumni.”

Beckman admitted he isn’t much of a golfer.

“I’ll be cruising around, though,” he said laughing.