2012 Illinois Fighting Illini Football Preview
The Illinois Fighting Illini no longer have to labor under one of the most discussed and frequently questioned head coaches in recent college football history. They can now begin a new era and go about the business of building themselves into a more serious program, one that can stand in the ring and trade punches with the Big Ten's best.
Last year, the end of the line emerged for Illinois coach Ron Zook. The man who was chosen to succeed Steve Spurrier at Florida in 2002 markedly failed in the attempt to do so, but he was surprisingly given a second chance as a major head coach by Illinois in 2005. When the Illini reached the 2008 Rose Bowl against USC, it appeared for a moment that the critics would have to eat a large slice of humble pie on Zook, the affable and folksy man who seemed out of his depth in the Southeastern Conference, following in the footsteps of a college football icon. Zook's biggest strength as a coach was always his energy, something that brought in recruits and inspired confidence in Champaign, Ill. However, once the successes of the 2007 season faded away, Zook had to show that he wasn't a one-year wonder. Illinois became a target, and as a result, it could no longer sneak up on people the way it did in 2007. Zook had to elevate the quality of his coaching; injecting enthusiasm in his players could only do so much. Sure enough, the Illini failed to make a bowl game in the next two seasons, going 5-7 in 2008 and 3-9 in 2009. When Zook lost six more games in each of the next two seasons, getting Illinois into third-tier bowl games despite playing relatively soft non-conference schedules, he lost what leverage he had left. Last season, when Illinois started 6-0, Zook had a chance to rescue his job and renew the belief that Illinois could be a high-level winner under his direction. However, the Illini promptly lost their last six games to finish at 6-6, and even though the team qualified for the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, Zook was canned after the regular-season finale. The trajectory of the 2011 campaign mirrored Illinois's journey under Zook over the past five seasons: 2007 marked a bright start, but the following four years wiped away the good things he had done in the early part of his career in Champaign.
Now, Illinois will try to win with a younger man who brings a more modern approach to football. Tim Beckman, a decade younger than Zook (47 years old, compared to the Zooker's 57 years of age) was snapped up by the Illini after leading the Toledo Rockets to bowl appearances in consecutive seasons. Beckman's Toledo teams were extremely creative in their use of offensive personnel. Varied formations, a faster tempo, and spread-based principles aimed at getting the ball to fast playmakers in open space mark the Beckman approach. Illinois used a spread offense under Zook and former offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, but the Illini often relied on quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase to make improvisational plays with his legs. The Beckman offense will try to pry open big-gainers in a more structural way, with the flow and progression of plays. Beckman wants to get defenses off balance and out of position, and Scheelhaase will consequently need to be more of a field general than an impromptu swashbuckler.
Can Illinois make this transition? We'll find out this fall. However, it certainly appears that the Illini have a much better X-and-O man in charge of their program, and in the long run, that should prove to be the biggest benefit of their new head coach.
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