CHAMPAIGN – Illinois head coach Tim Beckman’s weekly press conferences are always focused on the future – the immediate future. On Monday, however, the discussion turned to more distant concerns.
After Illinois’ (2-8, 0-6) latest disappointing game, a 17-3 loss at home to Minnesota, both the coach and the press were eager to talk about recruitment and beyond.
One hot topic on Monday was true freshman Mason Monheim, who earned his second Big Ten Freshman of the Week honor after an outstanding, 15 tackle, performance against the Golden Gophers. Monheim, along with fellow true freshman Mike Svetina, started at linebacker for Illinois and encouraged the coach with his play and maturity.
“Anytime an 18 year old and steps in to play Big Ten football as well as he does, I think, it surprises us all,” Beckman said. “I’m proud of this freshman class. We have a lot of Mason’s, a lot of guys who step up and don’t act like 18-year-olds…[when recruiting] we look for guys who want to be great, we look for guys who are willing to do everything to be the best in everything they do.”
In recent days Beckman and his staff have turned their attention finding more players like Monheim. Because of quirks on the Illini roster, including players who have already graduated but retained eligibility, Illinois has as many as 13 positions available in the current freshman class for players to assume in January.
So far the team has identified seven players, mostly high school students, who will fill those spots. For the final eight positions the coaching staff will look through the remaining talent pool and also try to recruit some players from the junior college ranks.
“We are very active right now trying to find the best players, junior college or high school,” Beckman said. “It’s huge [to get those players in here early].”
Though his attention was often turned toward future, perhaps more fruitful, concerns, Beckman did spend a good deal of time talking about Illinois’ final home game of the season against Purdue (4-6, 1-5).
The Boilermakers come to Champaign this Saturday on the heels of their first conference win, a 27-24 victory over Iowa, clinched with a last second field goal. Beckman said Purdue’s athleticism was crucial last week and felt their picking up a conference win on the road would be a boost for the struggling team.
“This is going to be another challenge for us,” he said.
One challenge for Illinois in particular, will be containing Kawann Short, who picked up Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors after notching four tackles for loss against Iowa. The challenge is not a new one for the Illini, though.
Before the season quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase names Short as one of the best defensive players in the league. He said Short forces change in the game plan because of how good a player he is. Scheelhaase did not think Short of the Purdue defensive line presented a challenge the Illini could not overcome, however.
“Since I’ve played against them their defensive line has always been a strength. They’re a big blitzing team, so we have to not only prevent them from making big plays when they do blitz, but make big plays ourselves,” Scheelhaase said.
To make big plays, however, the offensive line for Illinois will have to improve. Beckman made it clear no lineman’s job was safe, and changes to the line could be forthcoming.
“We’ve been working on different things and trying to get better. If it means some personnell changes, that’s what it means,” the coach said.
Last week the Illini failed to convert a few short yardage plays, most notably from second and goal on the one-yard line. Center Graham Pocic acknowledged his unit’s shortcoming and said the line was working on improvement.
“Short yardage, goal line situations, those are key situations in the game. As an O-lineman you pride yourself on those situations and obviously we didn’t do a good job on that,” he said. “As a group we have to win the match-ups, one-on-one.”
Illinois will kick-off their final home game of the season at 2:42 p.m. on Saturday. The game will be televised on the Big Ten Network.
-The status of junior linebacker Jonathon Brown (shoulder) is still uncertain for Saturday. Beckman said the Butkus Award semifinalist was out of the sling he was seen wearing on the sideline against Minnesota, but had not been cleared by the doctors yet.
-When asked to assess Scheelhaase’s contributions so far this season, Beckman said the quarterback has been good as a player and excellent as a leader. When you accounted for injuries that have limited him to just six fully healthy weeks, he continued, and the fact that this his first season in a new system, Beckman was very pleased with Scheelhaase.
-Illinois is last in the Big Ten in several offensive categories, including rushing offense, total offense and sacks allowed per game.
-Saturday’s game will be the final home contest for 21 Illini seniors.