Billy Gonzales is ready for this. He’s ready to take the Illinois offense to the next level under new Fighting Illini coach Tim Beckman. The Illinois attack struggled in the second half of last season in what was a bizarre campaign that saw Illinois open 6-0 and then lose six in a row before ending the year with a bowl win over UCLA.
The Illini finished the season ranked ninth in the Big Ten in scoring (22.6 ppg); ninth in total offense (355.7 ypg); sixth in rushing (171.7 ypg); seventh in passing (184.0 ypg).
Enter Gonzales, a 40-year-old co-offensive coordinator (Chris Beatty is the other co-coordinator) who has worked on staffs that have won two national titles and played for another. He cut his teeth under Urban Meyer, who was Gonzales position coach at Colorado State. Gonzales then worked on Meyer’s staffs at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida from 2001-09. It was at Bowling Green from 2001-02 where Gonzales worked with Beckman, who was the Falcons’ defensive coordinator under Meyer.
I caught up with Gonzales, the passing game coordinator the past two seasons at LSU, to get his impressions of this first Illini offense, an attack that will be without its best player from 2011 in receiver A.J. Jenkins.
Q: What was your relationship with Tim Beckman before being hired?
A: I had the chance to first work with Coach Beckman 12 years ago at Bowling Green when he was defensive coordinator. He was fantastic. He’s a great motivator, a great coach, great teacher and a great person. Looking at our staff, everyone kind knew each other or was intertwined one way or the other. We are a bunch of family-oriented coaches and are blue collar. We have coaches who have worked their way up with hard work. Coach Beckman has hired a staff a lot like him.
Q: Are you happy with your quarterback situation?
A: They both have done a great job. The progression of Reilly (O’Toole) and Nate (Scheelhaase) this spring was what we wanted it to be. They both improved and got better. The biggest thing you look for at that position first and foremost is: Can he lead? If he is a great leader. That’s the most important thing at that position.
Q: Do you have another A.J. Jenkins at receiver? He led the Big Ten with 90 catches for 1,276 yards.
A: We will be searching for that one. We are thin in numbers. The guys worked hard in the spring, but we have a void to fill at receiver. We need some guys to step up. A.J. was very productive last year. That’s going be a major goal for us in camp in August.
Q: Will cornerback Terry Hawthorne play some receiver?
A: Yes. When you have a guy as athletic as he is, you need to. He came out of high school as a great two-way athlete. He’s gonna be a guy. When you talk about having an opportunity to get the ball in playmakers hands, you have to do it. If you have a guy who is explosive and can do it and has done it, you have to implement a package to get him involved somehow, someway.
Q: Donovonn Young, Josh Ferguson, you think you have some guys who carry the load at running back?
A: I’m pleasantly surprised at that position. Our running backs did a fantastic job this spring. We were thin at tailback in the spring. Young was a little banged up in the spring. Ferguson had a great spring and had a great spring game. His big thing was coming out and getting the tough yards. And in pass pro, you look to see if he’s gonna turn his head or strike the guy down the middle. I was surprised. He’s a tough son-of-a-gun. I’m excited about the running back position.
Q: How would you describe your offense?
A: First and foremost, we want to be a physical team. We want to be a team that establishes dominance at the line. From there, we will build on. We want to make the defense defend the entire field. We want to put players in conflict, whether it’s defensive ends, linebackers, three-technique tackles. We want to be able to slow them down and not just allow them to pin their ears back and come get us. We want to be a physical, aggressive, blue-collar football team. I say that all the time. Blue collar. That’s our coaching style, that’s who we are. We want to dominate the line and make that defense expand and spread to defend us and put one or two defenders at a time in conflict in what they have to defend.
Q: Are you gonna bring some SEC swagger to the Big Ten and Illinois?
A: I think that’s all determined by the players. Bottom line, if we take care of our responsibilities and not worry about any other programs and do our job and do what we do best, when our number is called—that all comes along with it.
Q: How excited are you for this opportunity?
A: It’s great for myself and (co-offensive coordinator) Chris Beatty and our whole offensive staff. (Tight ends) Coach (Alex) Golesh, (running backs) Coach (Tim) Salem, one of my old coaches at Colorado State, and (offensive line) Coach (Luke) Butkus has a chance to come back home … it’s an opportunity for all of us. It’s also an opportunity for the players, and that’s who it is all about.
Q: Have there been any one or two coaches who have had the most influence on you?
A: It’s obvious that one would be Urban Meyer. He was my position coach in college and I worked for him (at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida). I hopefully take a bit of everyone I have had a chance to work with or played for or worked for. (LSU coach) Les Miles did a lot for me, showing me a different style. Charley Molnar at UMass is a mentor of mine. Dan Mullen (at Mississippi State) is another. Greg Studrawa (LSU). So many coaches I have worked and played for. It’s hard to say that there has been just one or two. I appreciate all of them.
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