The men behind Illinois’ offense: Beatty, Gonzales working with what they have
Following the completion of his coaching staff, Tim Beckman outlined his expectations for the new-look Illini offense. Co-offensive coordinators Billy Gonzales and Chris Beatty went right to work with visions of an up-tempo spread offense designed to spread the field and get playmakers the ball in space.
But Ron Zook and former offensive coordinator Paul Petrino didn’t construct their Illini roster for a spread scheme. There weren’t enough receivers or athletic tight ends, depth was lacking at nearly every position, and the offense was packed with underclassmen.
Yet while the Illini could certainly use a few All-American playmakers, it wasn’t necessarily talent that the co-offensive coordinators yearned for as much as it was numbers and depth.
“Coach Zook and those guys did a great job with some of the things they wanted to do, but there’s a reason why you move to a different group,” Beatty said. “And so we’re just trying to maximize what they did and shape them into what we’re trying to become.”
Beatty and Gonzales are still running their spread scheme, but they’ve adapted it to fit Illinois’ roster and strengths. For example, they would like to run more four or five wide receiver sets with an empty backfield. But with the departure of leading receiver A.J. Jenkins to the NFL, the Zook regime left behind just three receivers with any experience on the roster — juniors Spencer Harris, Ryan Lankford and Darius Millines — and even then, the trio caught just 57 passes for 552 yards and three touchdowns in 2011 to Jenkins’ 90 for 1,276 yards and eight scores.
Behind the three juniors is a dearth of experience.
“The bottom line is we’ve got our guys right here, right now,” Gonzales said. “We’ve got to coach them up, and we’ve got to get better.”
Illinois’ lack of depth is arguably one of its greatest weaknesses, but it could also be one of its greatest strengths in the long run. This week’s depth chart, released Monday, features 28 underclassmen on both sides of the ball, including six starters. Injuries and inexperience have forced some younger players into positions and playing time earlier than expected, which could prove valuable down the road.
“I heard Peyton Manning say that the greatest thing that ever happened to him is when they threw him into the fire as a rookie,” Beatty said. “The only way to get better is to play.”
Neither Beatty nor Gonzales would pinpoint a number on the amount of recruiting classes it will take or give a year for when their complete vision of the offense will take shape, but Beckman’s first few recruiting classes will be a strong indicator.
“If you get the right guys, it can be really quick,” Beatty said. “If you don’t, then it can take some time. We’re hoping that we’re going to get the right guys.”
While the roster will need time to take shape, Beatty and Gonzales say the coaching staff is gelling successfully, partly due to the fact that most of them knew, or were at least familiar with, one another before arriving at Illinois.
Beatty and Gonzales go way back to 1998, when Gonzales — then the wide receivers coach at Kent State — was recruiting at North Stafford High School in Stafford, Va., where Beatty was head coach. At the time, Beatty never imagined he would be running an offense with Gonzales in 2012.
“I was a high school coach, and he was at Florida playing for a national championship,” Beatty said. “So you’re obviously not thinking of moving up to that extreme.”
Fourteen years later, Beckman brought in Beatty and Gonzales to share the offensive coordinator responsibilities with the Illini. Beatty is in charge of the run game and coaches quarterbacks, while Gonzales runs the passing game and coaches the receivers.
“I hired the best people that I could bring in,” Beckman said. “I look at more than just X’s and O’s. I look at guys that do great jobs with their families, do great things for the community and are great people to be around.”
While neither Illini coach has run his own offense at the FBS level, Gonzales has coached in nine bowl games, three of them BCS championships, and brings nearly two decades of college coaching experience to the Illini, including stints at elite programs such as Florida and LSU. Beatty’s resume lacks Gonzalez’s experience but still includes stints at West Virginia and Vanderbilt. At Illinois, however, neither coach has more say in the offense than the other.
Both insist it’s a group effort that incorporates an entire offensive staff, including running backs coach Tim Salem, offensive line coach Luke Butkus and tight ends coach Alex Golesh. Gonzales said that while they all have specific responsibilities, they still spend hours together every week working out the “meat and potatoes” of the offense.
“Everybody’s got ownership in this thing,” Gonzales said. “It’s not just one guy running things. It’s everybody’s got a piece of the pie that they’re responsible for, so we’re all in there together trying to figure out what’s best for our offense.”
On game days, Beatty mans the coaching booth with Salem and calls in the plays to Gonzales, who, along with Butkus and Golesh, relays the signals to the players on the field — which reflects the personalities of the calm, reserved Beatty and the fiery, outgoing Gonzales.
“I’m a little bit more on the louder end, I would say,” Gonzales said, smiling.
“I’m a little bit more subdued, I guess,” Beatty said. “But sometimes you need that. You need yin and yang.”
While the coordinators say the transition is gong well among the coaching staff, on the field, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing.
Beatty and Gonzales find themselves in charge of a unit ranked 112th among FBS schools in total offense and have been blown out in five losses, including a 45-0 defeat to Michigan two weeks ago.
Illinois has managed to score just 21 points through three games of Big Ten play and will be looking to snap a four-game losing streak in its game against Indiana at home this weekend.
Beatty experienced a coaching transition last season at Vanderbilt, and although he has only been at the college level for six years, he understands that a coaching regime change is a process — and one that takes time.
“It’s a situation where you’re not the big dog in the conference but you’re trying to be,” Beatty said. “Things don’t happen overnight.”
Chad can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @cthornburg10.