Beckman generates buzz around football team vying for third-straight bowl game

Illinois head football coach Tim Beckman is saying and doing all the right things to appease a fan base still disgruntled after last year’s 0-6 finish to end the regular season.

His influx of ideas was apparent throughout the 15 spring practices, using bowling as a way to build team camaraderie and rewarding players who followed his rules.

The victors of the Orange and Blue Spring Game will even be rewarded with steaks.

Given the small crowd that attended Saturday’s spring game, which can be attributed to the dismal weather, Beckman’s approach to his first go-around of the annual affair was something to see

Besides awarding the victor with steaks, which the Blue Team earned with a 13-12 victory for those keeping score at home, Beckman allowed his players to draft the two teams and fans to call two offensive plays.

He even dusted off a spring game trophy that hadn’t been used since 2002 — or in other words, since Ron Zook was hired.

What Beckman’s predecessor didn’t do and ultimately resulted in his dismissal was maintain consistency, particularly in the win department.

Even in a season that started off 6-0, the Illini failed to win a game for nearly three months, something that sucked the wind out of an Illinois sail that had the potential for, dare I say it, three BCS bowl games in one 10-year span.

While Zook’s coaching deficiencies, memories Illini fans need not recall, shot a Memorial Stadium-sized hole through that Illini sail, it did not completely sink the ship.

Beckman’s visor-clad, gray-haired head may resemble that of Zook’s, but his passion and football background tell another story.

Having not had consistent winning seasons since the late ‘80s, Illini fans may be skeptical buying into another football coach.

What cannot be forgotten amidst the transition from Zook to Beckman is that the Illinois football team is vying for its third-consecutive winning season and its third-consecutive bowl appearance, while also returning key contributors from the 2011 team.

Of those key contributors, senior Michael Buchanan was a menace in collecting 4.5 sacks, and fellow senior Terry Hawthorne caught a touchdown pass, played cornerback and returned punts.

On offense, sophomore running back Josh Ferguson used bursts of speed and some quick cuts to rack up 150 yards, including a 68-yard scamper.

Given fellow sophomore Donovonn Young’s foot injury and ongoing fumble woes, expect Ferguson to make big contributions.

Sophomore Reilly O’Toole slightly outperformed two-year starter Nathan Scheelhaase at quarterback.

O’Toole, however, had to deal with Glenn Foster, Akeem Spence and the aforementioned Buchanan.

Beckman chose not to showcase special teams, but the 14 punts it did show kept conversation about last season’s offensive struggles alive.

If there’s one thing worth noting, it was the creativity Beckman’s Illini showed.

Junior Miles Osei’s developing role in 2012 will be an interesting one.

Seeing him return punts and play quarterback, running back and wide receiver in one outing was all anyone needed to know that the coaching staff will exercise his versatility.

As a new coach in the conference, it’s likely Beckman kept his playbook a surprise for the regular season.

But witnessing Osei at multiple positions and double-reverse flea-flicker play calls can give you an idea of what to expect.

Seeing Hawthorne on the offensive side of the ball was what was most intriguing Saturday.

With the likes of Oklahoma and Missouri among others that joined Illinois in the recruiting of Hawthorne, it’s anybody’s guess as to why he chose the Illini over programs that have been better in recent memory.

One could assume Illinois presented an opportunity to play wide receiver and cornerback, but all that matters is instead of wasting all four years of his speed and athleticism on one side of the ball, Beckman has intentions to utilize it on offense as well.

Ambiguity is a mainstay with a new coach, but a depth chart and a regular season schedule always allows for assessments to be made.

The Illini’s 12-game slate features seven home games, all winnable.

Games at Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan will more than likely be losses, but road contests against Arizona State and Northwestern are toss-ups.

A third-consecutive 6-6 regular season with the potential for a third-straight bowl appearance was on display Saturday. Anything exceeding that will be welcomed with open arms.

The coach, whose personality has been metaphorically said to make caffeine nervous, has used that same trait to reinvent the buzz around a team that deserves it.

_Dan is a junior in Media. He can be reached at_

[email protected] Follow him on Twitter @welinanddealin._