Positive offseason positions Illinois football well for 2012 season

“Dawn of a New Era” is the campaign for this year’s football season, and there isn’t a slogan that can more accurately portray the new regime leading the Illini in 2012.

When Tim Beckman was hired Dec. 9, he had a long list of things to do to not only get the Illini in a position to consistently compete, but, more importantly, win over the fan base.

Despite his predecessor, Ron Zook, not leaving him with much to work with, Beckman is placing the program squarely on his shoulders and is making things happen.

With a little over a week until the seasons starts, he has done everything he can to generate interest around a team that has two bowl victories the last two seasons — making Illinois the only team in the Big Ten that can say that.

With a new head coach and the general lack of interest around the team, even with the back-to-back bowl wins, it’s obvious why the change was made.

His first victory was getting Terry Hawthorne and Michael Buchanan to hold off on testing their ability at the NFL level for one more year. Once they were on board, he had something to work off of.

The weather for the Spring Game was bad and the game was just the usual run-through to feed fans’ football craving in the spring, but Beckman didn’t treat it that way.

He let a few fans call some offensive plays, he revealed that Miles Osei and Terry Hawthorne were going to have big offensive roles and he provided entertaining sound bites about the beans and weenies and the steaks that were going to be handed out based on the outcome.

Then news came of four-star quarterback Aaron Bailey verbally committing to play at Illinois, which started a wave of commitments that have the Illini class currently ranked No. 22, according to Rivals.

The Big Ten Media Days arrived and he did what turned out to be a major promotion for his program: Visit Happy Valley with eight coaches and recruit Penn State players.

It may have looked bad initially, but Illinois was the second-most talked about team after Penn State at the media days, getting the program national attention for a few days.

What came out of that? Ryan Nowicki transferred to Illinois, proving that Beckman and his staff’s efforts were worth it.

Ryan Klachko, a former Nebraska player, followed suit, giving the Illini two offensive linemen to lean on for the future.

The two transfers more than likely acted on their own terms, but they fill a void and further prove that Beckman isn’t messing around.

Not to mention Beckman has given playful commentary about the in-state rivalry with Northwestern, calling it “the team up north,” and was spotted taking an ice bath with his players after a Camp Rantoul practice.

His chatter about eventually having new uniforms, trying to set a Guinness World Record and getting the players involved with the fans before games shows that he has big plans for Illinois football while he is the head coach.

The season starts Sept. 1 against Western Michigan, a team the Illini struggled to beat at home last season. It is the first of a seven-game home schedule that gives Beckman a good chance at success during his first season, especially facing Penn State, Indiana, Minnesota and Purdue at home.

The road games are going to be tough, particularly playing at Camp Randall, the Big House and the Horseshoe, but given that the team has only gone 7-6 in each of the last two seasons, fans shouldn’t expect to see the Illini win there.

Between the seven home games and the two road games at Arizona State and Northwestern, Beckman has put himself in a position to give fans at least another 6-6 season and maybe even stretch it to 7-5 or 8-4. Throw in what is expected to be another stellar defensive unit led by speedy defensive end Buchanan and an offense featuring more creativity than in years past, and the blueprint for an exciting season is there.

Whatever happens this season, the initial strong push in recruiting by a young coaching staff that also has the experience of developing recruits into NFL players, gives Beckman a leg up on reconstructing a roster that has holes all over the place from years of imbalanced recruiting.

Add in the rest of his plan and it makes the atmosphere around Illinois football seem that of perennial program.

Illinois fans should expect the same proactive mentality that kept up the buzz around the team during the offseason to translate into a new level of excitement, which will carry into the 2012 season.

_Dan is a senior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @WelinAndDealin._