Illinois announced the signing of nine new players on Wednesday, including four junior college players and five high school prospects who will enroll in January. Head coach Tim Beckman is trying to add experience and talent to his roster after winning just six games combined in his first two seasons in Champaign.
I caught up with Beckman on Wednesday for this Q&A:
How do you think some of these additions fit in with your needs on next year's team?
Tim Beckman: Tremendously. As you know, we lost a bunch of wide receivers to graduation, great players. And of course, we've got three wide receivers coming in in January to help us and be a part of it immediately. That's huge for us. But I think one of the things is, if you don't look at it by position but look at it by where these young men come from. What I think they're bringing experience-wise is winning. They've been involved in bowl games or national championships as junior college players. The high school players have been involved in state championships. They understand what needs to be done in terms of being successful. So when you talk about positions, that's great, but also these guys have a lot of experience at winning.
This is the second straight year you have brought in several junior college players. Is this a strategy going forward or more a case of trying to fill some holes on the roster right now?
TB: I think it's one of the things that can be beneficial here at Illinois. The players that we're bringing in are quality young men that have the capabilities to graduate. So it's something that we will look at. But right now, I would definitely say that it does bring some age into the program that we need. Looking at that, down the road, I think we'll continue to do this.
You showed some improvement this year and doubled your win total from 2012. How much progress has the program made, and how much farther do you still have to go?
TB: The credit really goes to the players. You try to bring the atmosphere of success to your program, and the players are the ones that have to buy into it and have to progress toward it. And these players did that this past year. It was a very unselfish football team, a team that was willing to do whatever it took to be successful. I do believe we're heading in that direction so that we can make this program a consistent winner.
How much does having Bill Cubit around, with his experience, allow you to maybe focus on some other things besides the offense?
TB: You can lean on him a little, because he's done some of the things you're asked to do as a head football coach. We both did it in the MAC, both competed against each other. I really jumped in and tried to run with the corners and get involved with them as much as I could because of the youth last year. I thought just having another coach on that side of the ball would definitely help us. I know our defense didn't play well, but I think we'll continue to get better as these young players play. But there's no question that he helps. You know what's going on in that offensive meeting room, so you can spend a little bit more time on special teams and of course on the defensive side.
Can the defense in 2014 make a similar leap as the offense did in 2013?
TB: Sure. I mean, what's the difference? You've got an offense that came back with a bunch of seniors, and they go from one of the worst to one of the better ones in the country. And the same scenario can be said on defense. We only lose two guys on the two-deep. Now, we've got to get better, there's no question about that. We've got to get stronger, we've got to get more physical, all those things. But the capabilities are definitely there.
It's a long way until spring practice, but how do you see the quarterback situation shaping up? Is it an open competition?
TB: No question. Those guys are doing a great job already. Chase Haslett decided to transfer, but the three young men we've got and one walk-on, those four have really jumped in there and gotten involved in some one-on-ones and some seven-on-sevens already. They're doing that on their own, but they're doing it to get this football team better. You can see the maturity and the leadership of each one of those quarterbacks.
You just brought in several players. What will be your focus in recruiting now until signing day?
TB: We're just about done. We'll probably have one more left, through commitments and those sorts of things. We've had a bunch of people in already to visit us. We'll use the month of January to shore up one more possibility of a big defensive lineman. But we're happy with these guys that are coming in and we'll utilize January to finish it up.
Finally, is the mood around the team more positive now than it was a year ago at this time?
TB: Well, definitely in our facility. Our players believe, and belief amongst the players is the most important thing. Last year at this time, I think they were saying, "Can we do it?" Now it's more of a "When we do it." They understand the only way we can be successful as a team is to be a family. It's not about the individual but it's about all of them. They're all in to building this team. And we're going to utilize this first quarter, which is what we call it -- it's really winter workouts -- to get this team to gel even more as a family.