We continue our slow march through what's been happening with other Big Ten teams now that spring practice is over and everyone has played their spring games.
Today we look at Illinois, a team Nebraska hasn't played since 1986 and who last beat Nebraska in 1924 when Red Grange was galloping around the gridiron. The Fighting Illini are a lot like Purdue in that they're not a team that's on the minds of most Nebraskans but will be one of our conference opponents this coming season.
Tom Fornelli from the SB Nation site TheChampaignRoom.com was kind enough to answer our questions about this year's Illini team.
Tim Beckman is heading into his second year at Illinois after going 2-10 last season. He hired Bill Cubit away from Western Michigan to be his offensive offensive coordinator. What changes did you see this spring with regards to Cubit's impact on the offense?
A much quicker tempo and a different approach. First of all, the quarterback actually lined up under center at times, which is something we haven't seen around here in quite some time. Also, Cubit employs more of a power-running scheme rather than relying almost exclusively on the read option play.
All in all, the scheme itself, from the quicker tempo, the power running and short pass routes, is an improvement. The only question, as always around here, will be execution.
Nathan Scheelhasse is entering his fourth season as the starter. Is he the clear cut starter, or are there any solid competitors?
There is a competition but it doesn't appear to be much of a competition. Although he played much better in the second half of the spring game, it was obvious that Reilly O'Toole does not have quite the same grasp of the offense that Scheelhaase had. Now, four-star QB Aaron Bailey was the prize of the 2013 recruiting class and he'll be joining the team this summer, but I don't think he'll have enough time to actually unseat Scheelhaase.
What about the rest of the offense - the offensive line and receiving corps - who stands out as a known commodity after spring ball, and who are the impact newcomers?
The offensive line still needs a lot of work. The hope is that the new scheme will make life easier on them as far as pass protection is concerned, but I still see run-blocking being a problem. Which isn't good because Donovonn Young has the talent to be one of the best running backs in the conference, but he can't do it alone. As for receivers, nobody has really emerged as The Guy, which is disappointing if not unexpected. Still, one name that people may hear a bit this fall is that of Justin Hardee.
Hardee didn't make a large impact as a freshman last season, but he has good size and looked good during the spring game.
The Fighting Illini defense was not very good last season. What changes have been made on that side of the ball that will impact the play of the defense?
I think the defensive numbers were a bit misleading. I can't help but wonder what kind of numbers the defense would have put up had the offense actually been able to stay on the field for any given amount of time last season. Only Iowa ran less offensive plays in the Big Ten last year.
Unfortunately, a lot of what made this defense better than it seemed last season won't be back. While the linebacking corps will be solid, there are too many questions on the line and in the secondary this fall, though the secondary played well during the spring game. So there may be room for some optimism there.
What position group is the strongest on the defense and what key players stood out this spring that opponents' fans should know?
It's the linebackers, hands down. Mason Monheim may have been the best player on the defense last season as a freshman, and he looks even better this year. Mike Svetina showed promise while filling in for Jonathan Brown last year, and he should improve as well, and then there's Brown himself.
When healthy Brown is probably the best player on this defense, the problem has been he's had a hard time staying healthy.
As for an unknown quantity that might emerge, there's safety Taylor Barton. He redshirted last year, but he was that name you kept hearing about from coaches for his play in practice, and the talk suddenly made sense during the spring game. He seems to have that knack for always being in the right place and at the right time, and he could make a few plays for this Illini defense in 2013.