Tom Dienhart, Senior Writer, April 22, 2015

It has been a slow, steady build at Illinois under Tim Beckman.

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He has made steady progress since arriving from Toledo and taking over the Illini in 2012, going 2-10 (0-8 Big Ten), 4-8 (1-7) and 6-7 (3-5) last season. Illinois landed in its first bowl since 2011. And Beckman is looking to push the program up another notch this fall.

Beckman, 50, has tweaked his staff, letting go defensive line coach Greg Colby and special teams coach Tim Salem. Beckman tabbed Ryan Cubit-son of offensive coordinator Bill–as quarterbacks coach and Mike Phair as co-defensive coordinator and d-line coach. And Beckman has a roster that continues to add depth and experience.

A big key to success will be the continued evolution of a defense that has been an albatross during the Beckman tenure. That is where Phair comes in, who spent the last 13 seasons in the NFL and will work with coordinator Tim Banks for a unit that made strides in the spring. In 2014, the Fighting Illini ranked last in the Big Ten in scoring defense (34.0 ppg), last in total defense (456.4 ypg) and last in rushing defense (239.2 ypg).

I caught up with Beckman to get his thoughts on his squad coming out of spring ball and headed into the offseason.

Q: What were a few things that you were pleased with this spring?
A: Defense first, beginning with the line. The word I have been using to describe them is ?maturity.? They are now juniors or former junior college players with a year under their belt from Joe Fotu to Jihad Ward to Jarrod Clements and D.J. Smoot, they have matured. You can see that they have played together and understand what we are trying to ask on each defensive call. Their pass rush, run stop, you can see drastic improvement from the front.

Q: Anything different schematically on defense for 2015?
A: Not really. We have a bit more freedom as a staff to incorporate more of the defense. When you are starting guys for the first time, we tried to keep it as simple. But with the maturity of the players, we have the flexibility to call more things.

Q: What has Wes Lunt gotten better at?
A: He has gotten more comfortable. That first year, he was working with the scout team. He had three new faces to throw to last year in Geronimo Allison, Mikey Dudek and Malik Turner. I think Wes is more comfortable with the receivers. And they are more comfortable with him. And he is more comfortable around the offense with (new quarterbacks coach) Ryan Cubit and (offensive coordinator) Bill (Cubit) is still running the same stuff.

Q: Can you name 2-3 players who emerged this spring?
A: Jihad Ward. I think he played well at the end of the year. He can be a special player, no question about that. I thought Caleb Day and Clayton Fejedelem on defense got better. Caleb is more comfortable now playing at safety, more active, a hitter, runs the alley. And so did Clayton. On offense, the maturity of a D.J. Taylor at receiver. And I think Josh Ferguson had a really good spring.

Q: What is the next step in your program?s evolution?
A: We want to keep getting better. The challenge we have are the expectations we have for ourselves. In everything we do, we have gotten better. Academically, we were a 3.04 GPA this last semester. We had 52 guys over a 3.0. We ask for improvement each year in the classroom and on the field. Our challenge is to keep moving forward and not to stagnant.

Q: Is the program where you think it should be after three seasons?
A: The first year was a disaster, I?ll be honest. I put it on my shoulders. Depth and injuries ? I didn?t do a good job. But we have made strides. We still are lacking a tremendous amount of maturity on the field. I would have loved to have redshirted a Mason Monheim or a few other guys, but we couldn?t do it. I have 22 seniors this year, almost close to double what we had before the last few years. We have a lot of good leaders and guys who have played a lot of Big Ten football. We are making the strides.

Q: How have you gotten better as a head coach?
A: I have been around some great coaches in Jim Tressel, Urban Meyer and Mike Gundy. We won a lot of games at those places. Being able to adapt to the losing. I hadn?t experienced it in a long time. I had to keep pushing players to do what we believe in even though the wins weren?t coming. We were being successful in other categories. Everyone kept telling me-my mentors-to stay with your plan and what you believe in. At times, you question it and wonder if you should go off of it. You may adapt something, but you still stay with that philosophy of honesty and trust, keeping our core values. And you have to believe in yourself. Don?t let the outside pressure affect you, because it did affect me at first, I?ll be honest. It affected me that first year, but I have been able to cope more ? this is what I believe in and do. (What I do) has been successful, a part of national championship programs.

Q: What is your stance on satellite camps?
A: I was the part of the start of them at Oklahoma State. We had many in Texas. Then they were outlawed. We have them in our state, but we aren?t going outside our state.

Q: Why not have camps out of state like Michigan and Penn State?
A: The programs I have been a part of were built in-state first. We have what we call ?Illini Nation,? a six-hour radius around the school. There is good football in that area and will recruit that first. If we can?t fill some needs in that area, we will seek elsewhere. There is cohesiveness to having players from similar backgrounds together. That is our philosophy.

About Tom Dienhart senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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