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Previewing the 2015 Illinois Fighting Illini

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Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

This summer, anybody creating a list of coaches on the "hot seat" would include Illinois' Tim Beckman near the top of the list. So it's not a surprise that Beckman would get fired at Illinois - what was a surprise was being fired a week before the season began. So offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, formerly the head coach of Western Michigan, was promoted to interim head coach for the 2015 season. Under Cubit, the Illini are 3-1 this season with blowout wins over Kent State (52-3) and Western Illinois (44-0), a blowout loss to North Carolina (48-14) and hung on to win last week against Middle Tennessee State 27-25.

The Illinois offense begins with quarterback Wes Lunt, who's completing 60% of his passes for 856 yards and six touchdowns on the season. His issue this season is the depleted Illinois receiver corps. Sophomore Mike Dudek is still sidelined while he recovers from a torn ACL suffered in April; he had planned to return for this game, but now it's unclear when he'll return. A redshirt is not out of the question. Senior Geronimo Allison is Lunt's leading receiver, catching 24 passes for 362 yards and a touchdown. Sophomore Marchie Murdock has caught 18 passes for 166 yards and two touchdowns while true freshman Desmond Cain has caught 15 passes for 101 yards. That's an awful lot of inexperience on the field, and that's led to drops and incorrect routes being run. It doesn't help that Illinois' top three tight ends have also been out with injuries.

Josh Ferguson is off to a good start with 331 yards and three touchdowns gained this season. True freshman Ke'Shawn Vaughn has emerged as a solid backup with 227 yards and two touchdowns. Last week, Vaughn rushed 13 times for 80 yards; look for him to become even more involved in the Illinois offense as the season goes on.  The offensive line is protecting the quarterback much better this season; last season, Illinois gave up 37 sacks - or about three a game.  Through four games in 2015, Illinois has given up just three sacks altogether.

Senior free safety Clayton Fejedelem has emerged this season as the surprise leader in tackles on the Illini defense.  Fejedelem transfered from NAIA St. Xavier to walk on at Illinois in 2013 and played sparingly as a reserve last season. Now he leads Illinois with 38 tackles.  Fellow safety Taylor Barton leads the Illini with three interceptions to become that playmaker they previously lacked; Illinois leads the Big Ten with six interceptions on the season. The dynamic linebacker duo of Mason Monheim and T.J. Neal continue to play well with 27 and 29 tackles respectively. Defensive end Jihad Ward has 17 tackles this season - nine for a loss.

This weekend, the most interesting matchup is how Illinois attacks the Nebraska secondary. You get the feeling that this game is a "get well" game for one of those two units - and that likely will decide who wins the game. Vegas odds have Nebraska as a clear favorite, though the advanced stats favor Illinois at this point. Who do you believe in, in this post-Tim Beckman era?

Below the line, you'll find the entire preseason preview of Illinois football.


Preseason Preview of 2015 Illinois Football

On paper, when you take the names away from Illinois football, things are looking promising: a team returning a four-star quarterback, a  premier running back, five out of the top six receivers, five offensive linemen that have started, and a defense with returning contributors at every position.  They've improved from two to four to six wins over the last three seasons.  Team on the upswing, right?

Well, this is Tim Beckman's Illinois, that one that never fails to find the banana peel.  The Tim Beckman who sent his staff to Penn State in the wake of the NCAA's sanctions like vultures, trying to pick off players questioning the future of that program. The Tim Beckman that's been accused by multiple former Illinois players of abuse and was sued by a former player at Toledo for negligence. The Tim Beckman who pleaded with the Illinois beat writers to be his PR staff.

Yeah, that Illinois...with Tim Beckman leading Dennis Dodd's coaching hot seat list. SB Nation's Bill Connelly points out that it's going to be tougher for Illinois to win with all of the negativity surrounding Beckman. And win they must.

The hope at Illinois starts with junior quarterback Wes Lunt (6'5" 225 lbs.)who, despite injuries, put up some decent numbers.  Or did he?  The season numbers look pretty good: he completed 63.5% of his passes for 1,763 yards, 14 touchdowns and just three interceptions. Yet this is the same quarterback who found himself being benched for Faux Pelini's favorite Irish pub/backup quarterbackReilly O'Toole, with lesser stats: 59% completion percentage, 1,344 yards, 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Why did that happen? It's one of those things you have to look deep into the numbers to get an answer for.  In last year's Illinois preview, I noted that in the first half of games, Lunt strugged, but then played like gangbusters after halftime to pull off comeback wins.  Eventually, Illinois settled on the more consistent O'Toole instead of the famine-then-feast Lunt last season.  But O'Toole's eligibility is over, so if Lunt continues to be plagued by injury and inconsistency (which is also why he transferred from Oklahoma State after his freshman season), someone else will have to step up. Enter redshirt freshman Chayce Crouch (6'4" 225 lbs.) who was the first quarterback offensive coordinator Bill Cubit recruited for Illinois.  Crouch has a little more mobility than Lunt, which allows him to be used more like O'Toole. Lunt will get the first call, but if injuries and inconsistency reemerge this season, look for Crouch to enter the picture.

The best friend any quarterback can have is a good running back, and senior Josh Ferguson (5'10" 195 lbs.) is an underrated back by most accounts. His rushing totals weren't as good in 2014 (735 yards, 8 touchdowns) as they were in 2013 (779 yards, 7 touchdowns), but he did establish himself as a solid outlet in the passing game (50 catches for 427 yards last season).  Phil Steele named Ferguson to his third team all-B1G preseason team. But with backup Donovonn Young gone, it's unclear who'll be the understudy in 2015: junior Henry Enyenihi (5'11" 210 lbs.), freshman Ke'Shawn Vaughn (5'10" 200 lbs.), or sophomore Kendrick Foster (5'9" 200 lbs.).  We know it won't be freshman Dre Brown, who tore his ACL this spring.  Vaughn probably has the biggest upside of the three potential backups.

Five of last season's top six pass receivers return in 2014, which should help out whomever is quarterback. But sophomore Mike Dudek (5'11" 185 lbs.) tore his ACL this spring, and when he returns isn't known.  Last month, Dudek told the Champaign News-Gazette that he feels "awesome," and behind-the-scenes, he's hoping to be able to play no later than the Nebraska game. Fast and with great hands, Dudek caught 76 passes for 1,038 yards and six touchdowns as a true freshman. Senior Geronimo Allison (6'4" 195 lbs.) is a preseason second team all-B1G selection by Phil Steele; last season as a junior college transfer, he caught 42 passes for 605 yards and five touchdowns. Against the Huskers, he caught five passes for 105 yards, including a 58 yard touchdown pass in the second quarter. Sophomore Malik Turner (6'3" 205 lbs.) caught 25 passes for 256 passes - mostly against non-conference opponents - as a safety valve to help spring Dudek and Allison on deeper routes.

Last year's Illinois offensive line struggled, especially down the stretch after Simon Cvijanovic and Ted Karras suffered season-ending injuries.  Cvijanovic is now gone (and letting everyone know about it), but Karras is back for his senior season. The 6'4" 310 lb. senior right guard is a second team all-B1G preseason honoree by Phil Steele and a three-year starter.  Junior Austin Schmidt (6'6" 295 lbs.) started the final four games last season at left tackle in relief of Cvijanovic, but he'll need to improve greatly this season. Junior Joe Spencer (6'4" 300 lbs.) will move inside to center this season after starting as a freshman and sophomore at right guard.  Illinois would love to redshirt four-star freshman Gabe Megginson (6'5" 300 lbs.) this season...but does Beckman have that luxury?

On defense, the Illini weren't as bad in 2015 as they were in 2014.  That doesn't mean they were anywhere near good, but rather that they went from awful to merely subpar.  And for much of the season, porous at stopping the run - especially against Nebraska, who rushed for 458 yards on the night. Knowing that the defense needs help, Beckman hired Tampa Bay assistant Mike Phair to split the defensive coordinator role with incumbent Tim Banks. Up front, the Illini return three starters, the best being senior defensive end Jihad Ward (6'6" 295 lbs.), who had 51 tackles last season. Junior hybrid defensive end/linebacker (LEO) Dawuane Smoot (6'3" 270 lbs.) had a good spring and is expected to be an impact player this fall.

Senior Mason Monheim (6'1" 235 lbs.) and junior T.J. Neal return at linebacker and are the strongest pairing on defense. Monheim is a three year starter and Phil Steele's only first team preseason all-B1G honoree on the Illinois roster. He might not be the best in coverage, but he's a sure tackler. Neal is a third team preseason all-B1G selection by Steele who puts up big numbers at middle linebacker; the only issue is that it's been too far downfield at times.  Junior Mike Svetina (6'2" 235 lbs.) missed last season with a broken foot, but will return to back up Monheim and Neal; he started 16 games as a true freshman and sophomore.

In the secondary, Illinois needs to replace two of the three biggest contributors this season and not a lot of candidates to improve. Senior strong safety Taylor Barton (6'1" 215 lbs.) broke the century mark in tackles - mostly downfield corralling running backs missed up front.  Only one tackle for loss, one interception and two pass breakups don't reflect much playmaking. Senior cornerback V'Angelo Bentley (5'10" 195 lbs.) is better known for his skill returning kicks (815 yards last season on kickoff and punt returns, with a 67 yard long kickoff return) than his coverage skills (one interception, two pass breakups). Senior cornerback Eaton Spence (6'0" 185 lbs.) is a little better (one interception and six pass breakups), but that's still not much to build on, unless the defensive line and linebackers improves dramatically.

Illinois has all the signs of a program that's headed for another coaching change, barring some sort of major turnaround.  If the lines are better, Wes Lunt stays healthier and more consistent and Mike Dudek can play sooner rather than later, then a turnaround isn't impossible.  We know how good Josh Ferguson can be, and the linebackers could be OK as well.  But that's an awful lot of "ifs" for a coach on the hot seat.