First-year head coach Tim Beckman did not make strong first impression with the Fighting Illini. The former Tulsa coach went 2-10 overall and 0-8 in the Big Ten in his first season with Illinois, and it put the new ball coach square on the hot season.
The best way for Beckman to cool the pressure would be winning. Can Illinois do that this upcoming season? It will not be tough to top last season’s two wins, but the Illini will need to stay healthy and execute their offense under another new coordinator.
During league action, Illinois offense averaged just 11.8 points, last in the conference, scoring only 11 touchdowns in eight games. The offense also ranked last in yardage, gaining 272.1 yards per game. By comparison, Penn State, the top team in the conference, averaged 437 yards.
Neither the running nor passing games were solid for the Illinois. Illinois was 11th in the conference play in passing (152.8) and 10th in rushing (119.4).
Overall, the Illini averaged 168.8 passing yards (111th in NCAA), 125.3 rushing yards (99th) and 16.7 points (122nd).
Beckman is hoping his new offensive coordinator, Bill Cubit, can turn around the woeful offense. Not only will Cubit be bringing with him 32 years of experience, the last eight as head coach of Western Michigan, he also brings him with offensive powerful.
In 2011, his team set a number of programs records including points scored (459), touchdowns (58), passing yards (4,385), total yards (5,960), offensive plays (945) and first downs (320).
Now, Cubit must turn around an offense, which returns nine starters, that struggled to find rhythm.
Nathan Scheelhaase (6-foot-3, 200 pounds) returns for his senior season with the Illini, and he is hoping his last go-around is his first healthy. The Kansas City native sat out two games last season, and was limited during a handful of games his first two seasons in Champaign.
Last season, Scheelhaase threw for 1,361 yards with four touchdowns and eight interceptions. Both were collegiate lows for the highly-touted QB from nationally-ranked Rockhurst High School. Scheelhaase, in three seasons, has thrown for 5,296 touchdowns with 34 touchdowns and 24 interceptions.
Scheelhaase will not be the only one taking snaps under center. Junior Reilly O’Toole and freshman Aaron Bailey will fight for time, and all three could see time in the season opener against Southern Illinois Carbondale on Saturday.
O’Toole, from Wheaton, Ill., and former Gatorade Illinois football player of the year, threw for 564 yards with six touchdowns and four interceptions last season. He completed 74.7 percent of his passes, including 26 of 31 in a 44-0 win over lowly Charleston Southern.
Scout Allen Trieu told scout.com that there is plenty of upside to Bailey.
Fantastic athlete with great size and open field ability. Has a very strong arm and can make all the throws and get the ball downfield. He still has to develop as far as making reads and polishing his overall game, but he was much improved in those areas between his junior and sophomore season. He’s a big time threat with the ball in his hands though and an ideal spread quarterback.
At 5-10, 185 pounds, Young had 75 carries for 312 touchdowns, but no touchdowns. He also caught 29 passes out of the backfield for 251 yards, and again no touchdowns. The production came from 10 games, including six starts.
Young, meanwhile, looks to get back to where he was as a freshman after going through his struggles last year. Young saw his rushing totals drop from averaged 5.2 yards per carry as a freshman to 4.7 last season. His rushing touchdown was also cut in half, going from six to three.
WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS
Wide receiver Ryan Lankford (6-0, 175) was one of the few bright spots for the offense. The senior caught a team-high 37 passes for 469 yards and five touchdowns. He will be the go-to target for whichever quarterback is behind center.
Teaming with Lankford will be a combination of seniors Spencer Harris and Miles Osei. Harris caught 21 passes for 252 yards and two touchdowns, while Osei will look to adjust from playing quarterback to lining up on the outside. Last year, Osei caught 12 passes for 47 yards.
Junior tight end Jon Davis has the inside track as on the starter’s job. Davis caught nine passes for eight yards and a touchdown.
The biggest subtractions on offense comes on the offensive line, where the Illini must replace center Graham Pocic and guard Hugh Thornton. Pocic was signed by New Orleans as an undrafted free agent, and Thornton was selected in the third round by the Indianapolis Colts. Pocic was the team’s Outstanding Offensive Player of the Year.
Starting on the line will be junior left tackle Simon Cvinjanovic (6-5, 310), junior left guard Michael Heitz (6-5, 305), junior center Alex Hill (6-3, 315), sophomore right guard Ted Karras (6-4, 300) and senior right tackle Corey Lewis (6-3, 315).
Lewis is the one to watch. He missed the 2010 and 2011 seasons after tearing his ACL three times. Lewis returned last season and played in the final four games. Now, he is healthy and ready to go.
The five-member group will look to open holes for Young and Ferguson, and help an offense that struggled to find consistent holes despite playing with two eventual NFL players.
It was not pretty for the Illinois defense, which meant the team was consistent from top to bottom. The mediocre offense could not keep up with their defense that allowed 32.1 points per game. Only Indiana was worse in the Big Ten, allowing an average of 35.2 points.
The unit allowed 387.6 yards per game, with 193.9 coming on the ground and the rest through the air. The run defense may have been the most concerning in a rugged conference that focuses on the running game.
And the cherry on top of all the struggles, the defense only returns four starters.
The defensive line lost Akeem Spence, a junior defensive tackle, to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the graduated defensive end Michael Buchanan to the New England Patriots. Buchanan, who had 4.5 sacks and five QB hurries, was a second team All-Big Ten selection. Spence was an honorable mention, after posting 62 tackles and one sack.
Senior Tim Kynard (6-3, 270) and junior Houston Bates (6-2, 250) will be on the ends. Kynard made six starts last season, appeared in 11 games, and compiled 18 tackles and two fumble recoveries. Bates, playing out of the LEO position, goes on the list as Illinois’ 3-4 defense features the linebacker at the line a significant amount of time. Last season, Bates had 18 tackles and one forced fumble.
In the middle, junior Jake Howe (6-3, 300) lines up at nose tackle and junior Austin Teitsma (6-2, 290) at defensive tackle. Howe played in the first five games before missing the remainder of the season with a broken arm. He did not record any tackles. Teitsma had 15 tackles and two sacks for losses.
The linebacking core is the key to the Illini defense.
Jonathan Brown, a senior from Memphis, is the standout player on a defense that lacks athleticism and playmakers. Brown, who had 59 tackles and 2.5 sacks, is on a number of watch lists this season, and he is certainly on the radar of opposing offensive coordinators. Included in his list are the Butkus Award, given to the best linebacker.
Mason Monheim (6-1, 235) complements Brown in the middle of the defense. The sophomore was a two-time Freshman of the Week in the Big Ten and was named to Phil Steele’s second team Freshman All-American team. He had 86 tackles, six for losses, 1.5 sacks and one interception.
Another sophomore will be to the side of Monheim, Mike Svetina. The 6-2, 235-pound STAR had 40 tackles as a freshman.
Howe will also line up in the middle, as well.
Terry Hawthorne must be replaced in the secondary, after the graduated senior was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Ashante Williams is also gone.
Sophomores V’Angelo Bentley (5-10, 190), Eaton Spence (6-0, 185) and Eric Fineny (6-1, 215). Bentley had 11 tackles and three pass break-ups, and Spence compiled 16 tackles and one sack, Finney sat out last season with an injury.
Strong safety is where the most experience is in the secondary and junior Earnest Thomas (6-2, 210) resides there. He had 69 tackles, two sacks and one interception.
Redshirt freshman Taylor Barton (6-1, 215) is lined up to play free safety. Barton was a three-star recruit from Orlando.
Place kicker Taylor Zalewski (6-3, 220) returns for his sophomore season, after going 4 for 7 on field goals and a perfect 12 for 12 on extra points.
Punter Justin DuVernois (6-1, 190) is hoping he is not as busy this season. The junior had 73 punts last season that averaged 41.9 yards, and he had 15 punts go at least 50 yards. He is on the Ray Guy Award watch list for top punter in the country.
Bentley is the top punt returner, and Osei will team him with on the kickoffs. Neither figured into the return game last season.
Four home games will start the season, though the third will be against Washington at Chicago’s Soldier Field on Sept. 14 at 5 p.m.. Southern Illinois (Saturday) and Cincinnati (Sept. 7) are the first two of the season, both starting at 11 a.m. Before conference play begins, the Illini welcome Miami (Ohio) to Memorial Stadium on Sept. 28.
Nebraska (Oct. 5), Indiana (Nov. 2), Penn State (Nov. 9) and Purdue (Nov. 23) are on the road this season, and Illinois gets Wisconsin (Oct. 19), Michigan State (Oct. 26), Ohio State (Nov. 16) and Northwestern (Nov. 30) at home.
The Oct. 26 game against Michigan State is Homecoming.
An improvement is needed if Beckman wants to keep his job and get a chance to watch Wes Lunt play next season. After winning twice last season, it does not seem like it should be too tough to be better. Games against Southern Illinois, Miami (Ohio), Indiana, Purdue and Northwestern are winnable, but that does not mean it will happen. More than likely, if Scheelhaase is healthy, the Illini should at least get three of those games. Look for a 3-9 season and for Beckman to be in trouble.
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