Two Steps Forward.......Three Steps Back.

Two Steps Forward.......Three Steps Back.
The rebuild of the Illinois football program continues as they drop a tough 34-31 loss in overtime to Purdue.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Signing Day Debacle

     Coach Tim Beckman could possibly become a singer in his next life, and if he does, he could use as his theme song the hit by Britney Spears entitled "Oops, I Did It Again".  What it is you ask that I am talking about?

     I am sure that you have heard this by now, but at his annual Signing Day press conference on Wednesday afternoon, Beckman took to his bully pulpit to challenge the media to be more positive about the program in general, instead of heaping it on the recruiting class, which was the best one that he has assembled in his four years as head coach.

     It is no secret that Illinois is lacking in some key positions, and this recruiting class went a long way in addressing some of those needs.  But to get up on the podium and lash out at the media to be more positive takes some guts.  But then again, with Beckman, we shouldn't be surprised.  Since he was hired at Illinois, Beckman has consistently given us, the media, some "comedic gold" with remarks or comments that he says.  As a matter of fact, just a couple months ago when the Illini received the Heart Of Dallas Bowl invitation, Beckman got up in front of the assembled media and mentioned that it was "a giggle" when referring to how he felt Illinois was being perceived.

     I know some of you are probably thinking as you read this (and I hope you are reading this!) that my comments thus far are part of the problem, but when you are given ammunition, you normally want to go out and use it, which I am doing.  I plan to get to the recruiting class in a bit, but I want to get this off my chest and out in print.

     I guarantee you that I am not the harshest critic of Beckman, and throughout his early tenure at Illinois, I have attempted to be very fair and report about the program on an objective  level, which is the main goal of the media.  Also, as a freelance writer for a local newspaper, I have, on occasion, met with Beckman one-on-one, as well as other coaches to complete stories with reputable quotes.  Sure, the program hasn't been the most successful over the past decade, but I do think that Beckman is making progress and trying to move the program forward.  The progression in wins over the past three years will reflect this point.  But to continually get up in front of reporters and do these missteps keeps the critics fueled and the fires burning.  And, no less, this was all done in front of athletic director Mike Thomas, who is responsible for bringing Beckman to Illinois in the first place.

     I guess if Beckman wants us to help him create a positive atmosphere around the program, I will do my best by offering a little advice. (He probably won't see this anyway, since he claims not to read any of it, but I regress).  Tim, if you want the media to write and report positively about you and the program, don't throw us under the bus in doing so.  You saw where that got Bruce Weber.  Okay, off my soapbox and onto the recruiting class as a review.

     Illinois welcomed 25 new signees, including 9 already on campus to take advantage of early enrollment and participation in spring practice, making this a strong class that addresses several critical needs.  The headline of the class is running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn, a four star player from Nashville, Tennessee.  Cameron Watkins, a two star defensive back, is also from the same high school (Pearl-Cohn HS) and was a major influence on Vaughn committing to the Illini.

     All told, four running backs and five offensive linemen highlight this class, in terms of need and filling those voids left by graduation and other attrition related departures.  Besides Vaughn, the running backs coming in are Dre Brown, (DeKalb), Reggie Corbin (Upper Marlboro, MD) and Henry Enyenihi (Lawrenceville, GA by way of Sacramento City College JC).  These four individuals will be able to hopefully step in right away and supplement Josh Ferguson and Kendrick Foster in the backfield.

     As far as the offensive linemen go, Gabe Megginson heads the class at that position, coming in from Jacksonville and having a chance to step in right away and make an impact on a position that was depleted by injuries last season.  Normally, you don't try and play true freshmen, but Megginson has that type of build that hints toward him trying to maybe spot fill one of those line positions.
I got a chance to catch with up with one of the new Illini linemen on Wednesday, Connor Brennan, and the juco transfer told me that he is excited to join the Illini family.

     "I really liked the family aspect that Coach Beckman conveyed on my visit, and the chance to step in and help the team out on the offensive line really appealed to me as well", Brennan said when asked why he chose Illinois.

     Beckman and his coaching staff have continued to hit the Chicagoland area, as well as the radius within "Illini Nation", which is a 6 hour radius any way from Champaign-Urbana.  The Illini have 6 from the state of Illinois with 2 of those downstate (Megginson and Champaign Centennial quarterback Jimmy Fitzgerald).  13 of the 25 players are within the radius of what Beckman likes to call "Illini Nation".  Spring practice will begin on Saturday, March 14th, with the 2015 annual Spring 'Orange & Blue Game' set for Saturday, April 18th at 5:00 pm at Memorial Stadium.

     During this stretch of Illinois basketball without senior guard Rayvonte Rice, the Illini have gone 4-3, and then when Aaron Cosby went down against Indiana with a retinal tear, the Illini had to regroup even more in his absence.  It was announced last Saturday just before game time that both Rice and Cosby have been suspended indefinitely by head coach John Groce for unspecified team violations (meaning we don't know what they did, nor will Groce divulge that information).  What we do know is that both are doing well in their recoveries and have been practicing with the team even through their suspensions.  In that span of games, the Illini have climbed back to the .500 mark in conference play at 5-5 and carry a 15-8 overall record into a tough road environment on Saturday at Michigan State (11:00 am CT, ESPN).  The Illini defeated both Penn State and Rutgers at the State Farm Center to square their Big Ten record and at least for the time being, keep their head above water and entertain talk about a possible NCAA Tournament bid.  At some point, Rice and Cosby will both return to the lineup, and when they do, their teammates will hopefully know their roles and not have to be the ones to step up like they have done since the duo have been sidelined.  Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn have done their fair share in keeping the Illini afloat, while sophomore Jaylon Tate and senior Ahmad Starks have also stepped up their games as well.  In the logjam at the middle of the Big Ten standings, a couple marquee wins would go a long way in determining the postseason future of Groce's squad, and like Groce frequently does, offers no excuses for any of their shortcomings.  What Beckman lacks in communication skills, Groce more than makes up for.

     Since jumping out to an 11-4 early season record, Matt Bollant's Fighting Illini women's basketball team has run aground of some hard luck losses that have sent them on a 7 game losing streak.  The Illini are now 11-11 overall, but just 2-8 in Big Ten play, and welcome Minnesota to the State Farm Center on Thursday evening (8:00 pm CT, BTN) for a chance to snap this skid.  As has been the case with Groce, Bollant's team has been dealing with some injuries, and they recently got Ivory Crawford back, who had been out several games with an injury.  Bollant continues to get some good play out of his McDonald's All-American freshman Chatrice White, but he knows that it takes much more than her to get the team back on the winning track.  After the Minnesota game, the Illini will play 4 out of their next 5 games away from Champaign.  

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