Prior to Nebraska's 2010 season opener, Jon Johnston and I were at the University Bookstore for an autograph signing for "Cornhusker Kickoff"...and watching the start of the Missouri-Illinois game on television. Illinois was surprising the Tigers with redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhasse driving the Tigers crazy in the first half. A lot has changed since then.
- "Cornhusker Kickoff" ceased publication after the 2011 season when the publisher went out of business.
- Nebraska left the Big XII for the Big Ten.
- Missouri left the Big XII for the SEC.
- Ron Zook was fired (big surprise! NOT.), and replaced with Tim Beckman.
One thing that hasn't changed... Scheelhasse is still the Illinois starting quarterback, though you could argue that Scheelhaase was better at the start of his career than he's been since. As a freshman, Scheelhasse threw for 17 touchdowns and ran for five. As a sophomore, he threw for 13 and ran for six. Last season, he threw for only four and ran for four touchdowns. Last season, an ankle injury suffered in the season opener bothered him all season. Junior Reilly O'Toole relieved him in several games. O'Toole is a much better passer (75% completion, six touchdowns, four interceptions, 142.7 passer rating) than Scheelhasse (61% completion, four touchdowns, eight interceptions, 105.9 passer rating), though nowhere near as mobile. If Scheelhasse is healthy, he'll need to reverse his career regression. And, oh yes, there's that whole mobile quarterback bugaboo to consider as well.
Enter new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, formerly of Western Michigan. Cubit's work as an offensive coordinator is well regarded, and the new offense will try to limit quarterback mistakes. Get the ball out to receivers quickly, run the ball up the middle, and be multiple in personnel formations. Short, quick passes should make Scheelhasse more effective in 2013.
That'll mean that running backs Donovonn Young (6'0" 220 pound junior) and Josh Ferguson (5'10" 185 pound sophomore) will take on an increased role in 2013. Neither have put up any numbers to date that would indicate that they can be that kind of back. Young rushed for 571 yards and three touchdowns last season, averaging 4.4 yards a carry. Ferguson rushed for 312 yards last season, averaging 4.2 a carry. I suspect that Young might fit Cubit's plans for downhill running a little better, being the bigger back, but both will need to contribute a lot more this season.
One reason for that approach is the anemic production of the Illinois wide receivers back. Most everybody is back, aside from last year's #2 receiver in Darius Millines, who was dismissed after spring practice. The top returner is 6'0" senior speedster Ryan Lankford. He got off to a hot start in 2012, but only caught 5 of his 37 receptions in the second half of the season. Spencer Harris, a 6'3" 195 pound senior, also disappeared at the end of 2012, only catching four of his 21 receptions in the final four games. The name to keep an eye on is Iowa Western transfer Martize Barr, who made a splash this spring. For a unit looking for playmakers, this might be the guy.
It usually starts up front, and last year's offensive ineptitude started with the offensive line. The Illini were last in the Big Ten in allowing 39 sacks, and rushing yards dropped to just 128. One would think they have no where to go but up, except that they lost a second team all-Big Ten left tackle in Hugh Thornton (third round draft pick of Indianapolis) and a three year starter at center to graduation. Sophomore right guard Ted Karras (nephew of Alex) should be the anchor up the middle; he started every game last season. Junior college transfer Dallas Hinkhouse was an all-American at Iowa Western last fall; you have to expect him to find a spot at tackle since he was in for the spring.
Only four starters return from a defense that ranked tenth or worse in the Big Ten in most major statistical categories: Scoring Defense (11th), Total Defense (10th), Rushing Defense (11th), and Pass Defense Efficiency (12th). Yet for all that lack of production, three Illini defenders were selected in April's NFL draft, led by nose tackle Akeem Spence. The only returning starter is 6'3" 260 pound senior defensive end Tim Kynard, with only 18 tackles last season. Last year's backups don't seem terribly impressive, so look for newcomers to have an opportunity to contribute. Redshirt freshman Vontrell Williams (6'4" 300 pounds) and junior college transfer Abe Cajuste (6'3" 290 pounds) are names to keep an eye on.
Linebacking should be the Illini's relative strength on defense this season. In the middle, 6'1" 230 pound Mason Monheim was a second-team freshman all-American last season, leading the Illini with 86 tackles. Senior weakside linebacker Jonathan Brown was banged up last year, but was a second team all-Big Ten player in 2011 with 108 tackles. If he's healthy, he should be the leader on the defense. Sophomore Eric Finney will play the Star position, akin to the "Peso" at Nebraska. He's undersized at 6'1" 205 pounds, but his pass coverage skills will more than make up for any liabilities in run support.
In the secondary, only junior safety Earnest Thomas returns as a starter, and after that, it's a bunch of question marks. Once again, I suspect newcomers will fill the rest of the roles. Redshirt freshman Taylor Barton was the star of the Illinois spring game, while junior college transfer Zane Petty should contend for playing time. Freshman cornerback Darius Mosely probably will as well. Some think the secondary could become the strength of the Illinois defense - in 2014, after a year of seasoning. That means growing pains in 2013.
Not much went right for Tim Beckman in his first year in Champaign. He rubbed people the wrong way by staking out the Penn State campus for transfers in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sanctions. Going 2-10 with a team that had a Big Ten-leading four NFL draft picks suggest that there were bigger problems at Illinois than talent. So he fired half of his staff, and brought in Bill Cubit to be his offensive coordinator. Is that shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic, or will Beckman get a mulligan in 2013? Fighting off the injury bug would be a start, but even so, with a tough schedule ranked 20th in difficulty, improvement might not mean bowl eligibility. And that might not be enough to ward off the boo-birds.