Beckman, Illini football ignore negativity heading into 2013

CHICAGO — This time around, Tim Beckman knows what to expect. The Illinois head coach has a year under his belt at the helm of a Big Ten football program. And Illini fans have had more than enough time to get a feel for their coach.

With college football media days signaling the unofficial beginning of the college football season, Beckman had a clean slate and a pep in his step when he spoke at Big Ten Football Media Days on Wednesday in Chicago. 

Like every football coach in the country, Beckman is optimistic in July. His quarterback, Nathan Scheelhaase, may have said it best. 

“You talk to anyone at a media day across the country, you’ll probably hear that the summer went great,” Scheelhaase said, “that they’re looking forward to the season, that they’re ready for Game One. You’re going to hear a lot of the same things.”

So what’s different?

Thirty-three new faces is a place to start. Between transfers and incoming freshmen, the Illini have revamped about one-third of their roster. Add five new coaches to the mix and you have a program that looks vastly different from a year ago, at least on paper.

But games are not won on paper, and Beckman knows that. He also knows that there is a lot of pressure on his team and on himself to improve this season.

“We’re not going to let negativity infiltrate our program,” Beckman said. “We’re going to be positive with a great passion toward what we want to get accomplished.” 

If anything, Beckman accomplished a recruiting victory over the summer. The transfer of former Oklahoma State quarterback Wes Lunt, who won’t be eligible to play in 2013, gives the Illini an optimistic outlook for the future. Throw him next to incoming freshman quarterback Aaron Bailey and offensive coordinator Bill Cubit has a healthy quarterback battle in 2014.

But it’s not 2014, and Scheelhaase is undoubtedly the Illinois starting quarterback in Beckman’s eyes.

“I’m sure nobody is picking us to win games or picking us to do anything this year,” Scheelhaase said. “And that’s all right. 

“It doesn’t matter what’s going on outside. It matters what’s going on inside our walls.”

Scheelhaase is right: No one is picking the Illini to compete in the Big Ten. And why should they? They haven’t won a conference game in more than 21 months.

When Beckman spoke Wednesday, he was an afterthought. Urban Meyer, targeting rules and NCAA reform, ruled the media discussion. Expectations are low following a two-win season. In the players’ eyes, the difference between the 2012 and the 2013 Illini is camaraderie.

“We’ve become more close-knit,” Scheelhaase said. “Our talent isn’t as great as it’s been over the last few years, but that’s required us to play as one. It doesn’t guarantee us anything, but it gives us a greater chance.” 

Beckman sat down with his team following the season-ending pounding Northwestern handed them and examined what needed to be done to turn things around. That plan played out behind closed doors — in the winter and in the spring, in the weight room and in the film room.

Only when the Illini take the field against Southern Illinois on August 31 will the success of that plan be apparent. What Illini fans should expect is not quite so clear.

Sean can be reached at sphammo2@dailyillini.com and @sean_hammond.