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2014 Nebraska Football Opponent Preview: Illinois Fighting Illini

Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

At first glance, Illinois started 2013 in strong fashion after a miserable two-win season the year before: going 3-1 in non-conference play. The Illini trounced a Cincinnati team that would win nine games, and was very competitive in losing to Washington 34-24. But in B1G play, the wheels fell off, beginning in Lincoln against Nebraska.  They would lose their next six in a row, with the only victory coming against hapless Purdue. 4-8 didn't do much to cool off Tim Beckman's hot seat and now the Illini need to find a successor to four year starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.

That successor would appear to be sophomore Wes Lunt, a 6'5", 215 pound transfer from Oklahoma State who started five games for the Cowboys in 2012 before injuries sent him to the bench. Last spring, he decided to seek playing time elsewhere, and picked Champaign. He's a strong-armed quarterback ideal for offensive coordinator Bill Cubit's passing offense, though he'll have to take better care of the football. In Stillwater, Lunt completed nearly 62% of his passes in those five starts for 1,108 yards and six touchdowns...but with seven interceptions. If Lunt's injury problems continue (or if the interceptions don't improve), they might turn to sophomore Aaron Bailey (6'2" 220 pounds) who was a four star dual-threat prospect. At the very least, look for Bailey to see some action as a wildcat option. Senior Reilly O'Toole (6'4" 220 pounds) returns as well; he finished up last year's game at Nebraska and started a couple of games for an injured Scheelhaase in 2012. O'Toole is proficient with his arm (completing 68% of his passes in 2012 and 75% in 2013) with decent mobility, as we saw in that late touchdown drive against the Huskers.

Perhaps the most unheralded weapon in the Big Ten is junior running back Josh Ferguson. Both the leading returning rusher (811 yards, 7 touchdowns last season) and receiver (50 catches for 535 yards and four touchdowns), he's got great speed and hands, combined with some good elusiveness. When you look at Bill Connelly's advanced stats, you'll see he compares favorably to some of the best running backs in the nation. Senior Donovonn Young saw his playing time drop markedly last season after fumbling against Nebraska; he rushed for 376 yards and three touchdowns in 2013 after rushing for 571 yards in 2012.

With last year's top four receivers gone (along with a new starting quarterback), the passing game will take time to develop. Senior Martize Barr (6'0" 195 pounds) caught 26 passes for 246 yards and a touchdown after transferring from Iowa Western last season, is all that's back at receiver. Junior college transfer Geronimo Allison (6'3" 185 pounds), also from Iowa Western, enrolled for the spring and made quite an impression. Tyrin Stone-Davis, a 6'3" 195 pound sophomore, arrived this summer from Pierce (CA) College as a highly touted recruit, and last month, 6'2" 205 pound Raphael Barr from Citrus (CA) College committed to play for Illinois this fall. Needless to say, this receiver corp is very much a work in progress. Senior tight ends Jon Davis (6'3" 240 pounds) and Matt LaCosse (6'6" 245 pounds) caught 25 and 20 passes respectively last season, combining for five touchdowns. Considering the inexperience at receiver, their role might increase this season.

With four returning starters on the offensive line, one would typically expect stability would be a given. Well, not necessarily at Tim Beckman's Illinois, where A.J. Ricker's departure for Missouri earlier this month means that Illinois will be on their fourth offensive line coach since the end of 2012. That man is Tom Brattan, who's contract as the offensive line coach at Maryland wasn't renewed after last season. The Brattan hire is probably best described as a guy available on short notice. The most notable name on the line is junior Ted Karras, great-nephew of legendary Detroit Lion Alex Karras.  The 6'4" 300 pound right guard has started all but two games (due to injury) the last two seasons.

Last year's Illinois defense was young and inexperienced. It also was really bad, ranking 104th nationally in scoring defense, 110th in total defense, and 116th against the rush. Up front, the hope is that junior college transfer Jihad Ward (6'6" 285 pound defensive tackle) and true freshman defensive end Paul James (6'4" 240 pounds) will make an impact right away on a defensive line that was extremely soft last season. James enrolled in the spring after failing to qualify academically last fall, and showed signs of being a disruptive in the pass rush.

Junior Mason Monheim (6'1" 235 pounds) moves from middle linebacker to the weakside linebacker this season, with sophomore T.J. Neal (6'2" 235 pounds) taking over in the middle.  Monheim is a two year starter who has 183 tackles in his career to this point, but it was Neal making the big push for playing time this spring.  Senior hybrid linebacker/safety Earnest Thomas III (6'2" 210 pounds) is the leading returning tackler for the Illini, as well as the team leader in pass breakups.  Thomas probably though he was going to get an easy interception last October in Lincoln until Kenny Bell went one-handed in front of him.

Pretty much the entire secondary returns from last season; it's up to you to decide whether that's a good thing or a bad thing. Considering the youth and the lack of a pass rush up front, it's probably worth expecting some sort of improvement ... especially if the new pieces on the defensive line can apply some semblance of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Senior free safety Zane Petty (6'1" 200 pounds) should be the strength of the secondary after totaling 75 tackles last season.  Also keep an eye on junior cornerback V'angelo Bentley (5'10" 190) who has the speed to keep up with anybody he's trying to cover.

Tim Beckman has been on the hot seat for much of his time in Champaign, and this season's schedule doesn't do him much of a favor. Home games against Youngstown State, Western Kentucky, Texas State, and Purdue would seem to give Illinois a decent chance to match last season's win total. But where will Illinois find two more wins to become bowl eligible?  Besides Nebraska, Illinois must travel to Washington, Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Northwestern. Can they turn a couple of home upsets against Minnesota, Iowa, or Penn State? That might make or break the Beckman era at Illinois. And that's a tough request with so much uncertainty, aside from running back Josh Ferguson, on both sides of the ball.