- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Tim Beckman's first pivotal recruiting venture at Illinois didn't take place in a living room or at a camp for prep players.
It happened at a California hotel in late December. His targets already wore the Orange and Blue. The group gathered before the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl to meet with a man who, at that point, was their head coach only by title.
"They didn't know me, and I didn't know them very well," said Beckman, hired Dec. 9 as Illinois' coach. "I had met with them because I met with everybody on the football team. I had watched practices. But it wasn’t my job to interfere with them for their bowl game.
"It was kind of a scary situation because I wanted all of them to stay."
They were Illinois juniors who had the potential to enter the NFL draft after the bowl game. The group included defensive end Michael Buchanan, cornerback Terry Hawthorne, defensive tackle Akeem Spence and center Graham Pocic. Buchanan earned second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2011, while Hawthorne earned honorable mention honors and Spence displayed next-level ability.
All-America defensive end Whitney Mercilus, pegged as a potential first-round pick, also met with Beckman.
The meeting was part information session, part recruiting session. Beckman wanted to give each player an idea of his draft prospects. He fast-tracked the paperwork to the NFL draft advisory board and received the evaluations as soon as he could. Beckman leaned on his father, Dave, who had worked in the front office with the Cleveland Browns and San Diego Chargers, and other contacts to speed up the process.
"I tried to formulate as much information as I possibly could so they could make an educated decision, from Whitney to all of them," Beckman said. "I wanted all of them to stay. I wanted all of them to be able to say they played their senior year at the University of Illinois and had the opportunity to be a champion."
Despite that desire, Beckman didn't come on too strong.
"Not as much as you'd expect a coach to," Pocic said. "He showed us what kind of person he was and just talked about the opportunity we had if we came back."
Mercilus entered the draft after the bowl game, surprising no one, but the other four players opted to stay. They're now building blocks for Illinois as Beckman and his staff hope to make a transition without losing any ground.
What did Illinois retain?
Spence has started every game the past two seasons, while Buchanan has started 20 of 26 contests. Although Mercilus made the big splash in 2011 with insane numbers, Buchanan quietly racked up 7.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss. Spence recorded 69 tackles and a forced fumble and clogged the interior for the nation's No. 7 defense.
Hawthorne has made starts in each of the past three seasons, including 11 last fall. He led the team in both interceptions (three) and passes defended (11) in 2011, and finished sixth in tackles (60). On a team that has some issues at safety, Hawthorne's presence as a potential shutdown corner looms large.
Pocic has started Illinois' past 24 games at center and provides leadership for a youngish line that loses mainstay Jeff Allen at left tackle. Having a veteran center to help make line calls during the transition to a new offense is a luxury for the Illini.
After Beckman told the players of their NFL grades, he gave them the floor.
"It was funny," Spence said of the December meeting with Beckman. "Me, Terry, Mike and Graham, we were sitting there scared to ask the first question. But we had to because this is our future. I was trying to find out what the deal was going to be, what type of defense, his plans for us and the team."
Spence eventually asked Beckman if the team's defense would suit his game like the previous scheme had. Although Beckman hadn't hired his defensive coordinator, he had announced that defensive line coach Keith Gilmore would be retained.
After the meeting, Spence remembers talking with Buchanan and Hawthorne about their decisions.
"We all wanted to come back and be leaders," Buchanan said.
Beckman doesn't downplay the significance of their decisions.
"It's huge," he said. "To look out there and see No. 1 [Hawthorne] running around, and 99 [Buchanan] and 94 [Spence] and 76 [Pocic], those are guys who have played, who have been involved in two bowl games and understands a little bit of what it takes to be successful."
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