CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- About an hour after Illinois finished its final workout before a 10-day break in its spring practice schedule, athletic director Mike Thomas sat at a large table in his office. He laid out his expectations for the football program, which can be summed up by one word: Progress. This is a simple concept, and for Thomas, one that's quite familiar.
He used the same word to describe what he hoped to see last fall, after Illinois went 2-10 (0-8 Big Ten) in coach Tim Beckman's debut campaign in 2012. The Fighting Illini ultimately finished 4-8 (1-7) in '13, though in Beckman's estimation the team was in position to win three more games -- against Penn State, Indiana and Northwestern. For Thomas, that constituted progress. For a large, vocal segment of Illinois fans, it did little to prove that the program was headed in the right direction.
The Illini were blown out in several conference contests, including a 60-35 loss to Ohio State on Nov. 16, in which Beckman and offensive coordinator Bill Cubit nearly came to blows on the sideline. A series of small gaffes -- including a sideline interference penalty at Northwestern in 2012 and Beckman's violation of an NCAA rule prohibiting the use of smokeless tobacco during games -- did little to boost the coach's standing with fans.
At the end of last year, as he did near the end of 2012, Thomas addressed Beckman's job security. "The questions were being asked," Thomas said on Friday. "I basically said that, I think for the long-term health and stability of the program, it makes sense."
Thomas, who said he never considered removing Beckman at the end of last season, pointed out that former coaches Ron Turner and Ron Zook struggled early in their respective tenures before going on to lead the Illini to success. Turner won a combined three games in 1997 and '98 before leading Illinois to the 2002 Sugar Bowl. Zook guided the Illini to the '08 Rose Bowl after winning a combined four games in '05 and '06.
Whether Illinois will reach those heights under Beckman remains to be seen. What's clear, however, is that 2014 will be crucial for the Illinois head coach. "We want to continue to move the needle in a forward way and, very importantly, on the field of competition," Thomas said.
To make progress this season, Illinois must improve on defense. It ranked 10th or lower in the conference in scoring defense, total defense and rushing defense, respectively, in 2013, finishing 103rd in Football Outsiders' defensive S&P+ ratings. If the unit doesn't make major strides this fall, the scrutiny facing coordinator Tim Banks will only intensify.
Beckman, who attributes the defense's struggles last fall to inexperience -- the Illini started five underclassmen on that side of the ball -- has been pleased with the group's play during spring practice. He returns eight starters and is particularly encouraged by his linebacking corps, which features Mason Monheim and Mike Svetina.
"We have a number of players back that started but were still young," Beckman said. "Our defense didn't play very well last year, so the question is, these last six practices, can we continue to progress on defense?"
On the flip side, the offense made big improvements under Cubit in 2013. Illinois leaped from 119th to 45th nationally in yards per play, and jumped from 122nd to 60th in points per game. Perhaps most impressively, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase led the Big Ten with 3,272 passing yards. Senior Reilly O'Toole, sophomore Aaron Bailey and Oklahoma State transfer sophomore Wes Lunt are competing to fill the starting spot this spring. While Beckman and Cubit have yet to officially settle on a starter, it would be a surprise if Lunt isn't leading the' first-team offense in Illinois' season opener against Youngstown State on Aug. 30.
In 2012, Lunt became the first true freshman quarterback in Oklahoma State history to start a season opener. Yet the Rochester, Ill., native was limited by injuries and eventually lost the starting spot to junior Clint Chelf. He opted to transfer in May '13, but Cowboys coach Mike Gundy blocked him from transferring to 37 schools, including three of his top five choices. Still, an Illinois fan growing up, Lunt was drawn to Cubit's system and the opportunity to help turn his hometown program into a Big Ten contender.
Though Lunt sat out last season in accordance with NCAA transfer rules, he made good use of his time. He worked with the scout team and began to attend quarterback meetings midway through the fall. Each week, Cubit would give Lunt the game plan and subject him to the same pregame exam as the Illini's eligible quarterbacks.
"I gotta give Wes a ton of credit," Cubit said. "You could just see him taking notes, asking questions, deciphering, watching a lot of tape."
Coaches and teammates have also been impressed with Lunt's arm strength, a trait that wowed Cubit when he initially recruited Lunt as the head coach at Western Michigan. "Wes has got a pretty strong arm," Cubit said. "It's been pretty impressive how he can throw from one has to the other hash some 20 yards down the field with pretty good accuracy."
The Illini bring back four starters on the offensive line as well as their top two running backs, Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young. However, they'll need receivers Martize Barr and Geronimo Allison to replace the production of departed wideouts Steve Hull and Miles Osei, who combined for 1,342 receiving yards and eight touchdowns last season.
Near the end of Friday's workout, Allison, a juco transfer, elevated over a defensive back to haul in a touchdown grab. Teammates howled with delight and swarmed Allison, who let out a loud, celebratory roar. "I feel like I'm versatile and like I bring excitement," Allison said.
Illinois will need that excitement come fall if Beckman hopes to show that the program is trending upward. Two wins aren't acceptable any more. Neither are four. Given a manageable schedule -- Illinois hosts Youngstown State, Western Kentucky and Texas State before opening Big Ten play at Nebraska on Sept. 27 -- Thomas will expect to see progress sooner rather than later.
"I want this program to get better," Beckman said. "That's the bottom line. And that means five or six wins."