Depending on how you view head coach Tim Beckman, Illinois showed that it just might be possible to take a leap back by taking a step forward.
By Pete Fiutak | @PeteFiutak
The Illini have struggled for years to become consistently relevant, going to a bowl game here and another one there, but without really throwing any sort of a scare into the rest of the Big Ten. The hiring of Beckman didn’t exactly do anything to change that.
And now Illinois is in a strange situation. To be fair, the program needed to be built up and needed time to start improving, and it’s been doing that under Beckman. All you can reasonably ask for is an improvement, and he has been two wins better in each season, starting out 2-10, taking four wins in 2013, and six wins with a bowl appearance last year. So in terms of the bottom-line record book, Illinois appears to be on the right track.
The 2015 recruiting class wasn’t at a Ron Zook level, but it was solid. The team has enough good parts in place to seem like there’s a little bit of hope to at least shoot for another bowl appearance. But …
Tim Beckman is Tim Beckman.
He’s not all that polished when it comes to the media – especially considering Illinois has to do a far better job of selling the Chicago market. Beckman is following the Zook experience, so it’s saying something that Illinois is even flakier now than it was a few years ago.
Simon Cvijonovic’s epic Twitter rant did more than just crush the idea of Beckman as a potential leader who could take Illinois to a whole other level, it started a flood that exposed several major problems throughout the athletic department. As a whole, Illinois athletics is in a period of potential major transition, so with all the concerns and all of the X factors and all of the negativity, is it even possible for the football team to put it all aside and come up with a positive season?
There’s one possibility in the storm that isn’t really being considered – maybe, just maybe, Beckman can make things more interesting with a big year.
Wes Lunt – when healthy – is as effective a quarterback as any in the Big Ten. Three starters are back on a decent line, the receiving corps should be terrific at some point this year when all the parts are 100%, and Josh Ferguson is a good back who could produce with more help up front.
The defensive side was a disaster last year, but there are playmakers in the secondary and seven starters are back.
Illinois is, at the very least, interesting. One way or another, Beckman or no Beckman, it’ll be even more of a story over the next year.
What You Need To Know About The Offense: Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit’s offense has to be more effective and more consistent. Everything depends on the health of Wes Lunt, who has the talent to be among the Big Ten’s best statistical quarterbacks when healthy. That’s never a sure thing, though. If and when Mike Dudek returns from a torn ACL, the receiving corps should be deadly when working with Lunt – 300 yards per game should be the norm. Now the rushing attack has to be better with the line needing to be stronger around three returning starters, and Josh Ferguson could turn into one of the league’s better all-around backs with a little more room.
What You Need To Know About The Defense: It was bad, but it returns experienced. The pass rush has to be stronger, but there were more plays behind the line and a few big plays made here and there. The secondary gets back V’Angelo Bentley at one corner and safeties Clayton Fejedelem and Taylor Barton, but it has to be far tighter. As bad as the pass defense was, the run D was more of a problem needing to get tougher against the more powerful ground attacks. LB Mason Monheim is a good hitter, but there aren’t enough of him, and the defensive tackles have to be far, far stronger.
What to watch for on offense: Can the Illini get more out of the running game? Wes Lunt will never take off and do anything on the ground, but the Illinois ground attack has to be far more consistent and far better. When it cranked out more than 200 yards – Texas State and Northwestern – the Illini won, and they’re 4-1 in the Tim Beckman era when hitting the mark. The line is full of veterans and has good promise and potential at tackle, but this isn’t a physical bunch and it hasn’t done much on a regular basis. With Josh Ferguson able to crank out yards, there’s no reason not to commit more to being balanced.
What to watch for on defense: Can the defensive front keep making things happen in the backfield? It’s no coincidence that Illinois did a better job of getting behind the line, and the results and wins started to come. The Illini cranked out 103 tackles for loss in Ron Zook’s final year, and they won seven games. The also won seven games in 2010 after coming up with 80 plays behind the line. When Tim Beckman took over, the defense struggled to be disruptive with just 66 tackles for loss in both 2012 and 2013. Last season, the D cranked out 82 with 14 in the win over Texas State and 11 in the upset over Minnesota. The two best playmakers were linebacker Earnest Thomas III and Austin Teitsma, but they’re both done. The pressure has to be ramped up even more.
The team will be far better if … the run defense is better. Even with all the improvements when it came to getting into the backfield, the run D still struggled way too much giving up over 3,100 rushing yards and 31 scores. On the year, Illinois allowed over five yards per pop, but it was under the mark in all six wins. The team is 0-16 under Tim Beckman when giving up five yards or more.
The schedule: The Illini aren’t pushing themselves early on against Kent State and Western Illinois, but they make up for it by going to North Carolina. The Middle Tennessee date might be a tough way to finish the non-conference slate.
– While the date with the Buckeyes is at home, having to face Ohio State and Penn State from the East is going to hurt the bowl chances.
– There can’t be too much complaining about the division schedule getting both Nebraska and Wisconsin at home. Throw in the road trip against Iowa in between the two, and the Illini will know where they stand right away.
– With the Ohio State game thrown into the mix, and coming after the Wisconsin game, Illinois has to play three road games in four weeks going to Penn State, Purdue and Minnesota.
– WATCH OUT FOR … Purdue. Coming off the road game at Penn State, and with Ohio State to follow, Illinois might have a hard time in early November against a Boilermaker team that’ll look at this game as a chance for a key win.
Best offensive player: Junior QB Wes Lunt. There might not be a more important player in the Big Ten – to a point. He’s a terrific talent with all the tools and smarts, but this isn’t really the sport for him since he gets hurt way too often. Immobile, he takes too many big shots and he’s always banged up. However, when he gets time to operate, he can crank out well over 300 yards on a regular basis and can keep the team in games. However, he has to somehow stay in upright and alive.
Best defensive player: Senior LB Mason Monheim. CB V’Angelo Bentley might be the team’s most dynamic defender, but he’s at his most dangerous when he gets the ball in his hands as a return man. Monheim is the one steady positive over the last few years as a double-digit tackler from the weakside. While he’s not used enough as a pass rusher or playmaker behind the line, he gets in on just about everything against the run. On this defense, he needs to.
Key player to a successful season: Redshirt freshman QB Chayce Crouch. Wes Lunt can’t be counted on for a full season. If he can somehow stay 100%, Illinois will be a different team. However, the coaching staff can’t count on that. Key backup Riley O’Toole is gone, and star prospect Aaron Bailey decided to transfer. That means the entire season – and, possibly, the Beckman era – could come down to whether or not the 6-4, 225-pound Crouch to be able to step in with no experience and make the machine go. If he’s not it, then it’s true freshman Jimmy Fitzgerald or Jeff George Jr. – that Jeff George.
The season will be a success if … Illinois wins seven games. If Illinois can keep on improving under Beckman, as it has over the first three seasons, then coming up with an extra victory would do it. Kent State, Western Illinois and Middle Tennessee have to be home wins for a decent base, and then there can’t be mistakes in winnable games against Purdue and Northwestern. It’s going to take an upset over a North Carolina here and/or an Iowa there, but the schedule isn’t a total bear.
Key game: Oct. 3 vs. Nebraska. Okay, Illinois, are you ready to show that you’re going to be a player in the Big Ten West race? Getting the Huskers in the Big Ten home opener should do it. However, bad things happen to the Illini when the two teams play, going 0-5-1 after coming up with a 9-6 win … in 1924. As Big Ten brothers, Nebraska has beaten Illinois 84 to 33 over the last two years.
2014 Fun Stats:
– Fourth Down Conversions: Opponents 14-of-26 (54%) – Illinois 5-of-13 (38%)
– Second Quarter Scoring: Opponents 130 – Illinois 63
– Time of Possession: Opponents 32:17 – Illinois 27:43
Players You Need To Know
1. LB Mason Monheim, Sr.
One of the keys to the defense over the last few seasons, the 6-1, 235-pound Monheim came up with 97 tackles two years and 86 stops as a freshman. As the main man for the defensive front, he came up with a team-high 111 tackles last year with two interceptions – taking one for a score against Northwestern. The one-time star recruit might not have the best range, but he has good straight line speed and can get behind the line, but he didn’t do enough last year to get to the quarterback. Even so, he’s a hitting machine making 15 stops against Iowa, 12 against Nebraska, and coming up with ten or more six times.
2. QB Wes Lunt, Jr.
Handed the keys to the high-octane Oklahoma State offense as a true freshman, Lunt was terrific right away with 436 yards and four scores with three picks against Arizona. The coaching staff was going to let the great young prospect sink or swim as he learned his way through the job, but he suffered a knee injury early on. He came back to throw for 324 yards in the win over TCU, but he was inconsistent and later had problems with an apparent concussion. The two-time Illinois state champion transferred over to the Illini, and now the 6-5, 225-pound veteran has to prove he can stay in one piece having had problems staying healthy since his junior year in high school. Last year he got hurt again with a knee problem keeping him out of the Nebraska game and later suffering a broken leg. Even so, he was great at times when he was able to stay on the field completing 64% of his throws for 1,763 yards and 14 touchdowns with three picks, cranking up 11 of his scoring throws in the first four games and hitting Purdue for 332 yards. While he might be a slow starter, the talent is undeniable, the size and arm are there, and he has 300-yard ability every time he steps on the field. However, with his resume of injuries, he can’t be counted on for a full season.
3. CB V’Angelo Bentley, Sr.
A superstar punt returner over the last few seasons, he averaged 15.8 yards per try with a score two years ago and 10.25 yards per try last year. Now the 5-10, 190-pound speedster has to do even more as a defender. He improved last season with 46 tackles, but he didn’t come up with enough stops when the ball was in the air. While he was able to return an interception for a score against Texas State, and he came up with the key fumble return for a score against Minnesota, he only came up with two broken up passes overall. With decent size and warp wheels, he has next-level ability and talent, but he has to be better at locking down on one side of the field, can’t get caught looking into the backfield, and has to generate more picks and broken up passes.
4. WR Mike Dudek, Soph.
A terrific surprise as a freshman, the 5-11, 185-pound Dudek showed off terrific quickness and great hands with a team-leading 76 catches for 1,038 yards and six touchdowns, highlighted by an eight-grab, 200-yard day against Purdue and with 11 catches against Penn State. There’s one big problem though – he suffered a torn ACL this offseason. If happened just early enough to potentially allow him to return midway through the season, but can he get his quickness back? The Illini have other receiver options, but he showed that he’s the No. 1 target to consistently rely on.
5. DE Jihad Ward, Sr.
A star JUCO transfer, the 6-6, 295-pounder from Philadelphia showed off good all-around ability in his first season making 51 tackles with three sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss, forcing two fumbles and recovering four fumbles. While he’s built like a defensive tackle, he’s a true 3-4 end with great athleticism for his size and the bulk to hold up more against the power teams – at least that’s the hope. Athletic enough to be used as a wide receiver in high school, the skill set is there to turn it loose and be far more of a factor.
6. RB Josh Ferguson, Sr.
It took a little while for his career to get going, but after showing promise in 2012 rushing for 312 yards, he became the main man for the attack in 2013 running for 779 yards and seven scores averaging 5.5 yards per pop. Last season he became a better all-around playmaker leading the team with 735 rushing yards and eight scores – averaging over five yards per carry – and coming up with 50 grabs for the second straight year. The 5-10, 195-pounder isn’t huge, and he’s not a workhorse, but he’s quick through the hole and was effective handling the ball around 15 times a game, highlighted by 190 yards and two scores against Texas State. He doesn’t have to carry the offensive load by himself, but as long as he stays healthy, he has the talent and ability to change games when he gets into the open field.
7. WR Geronimo Allison, Sr.
The JUCO transfer from Tampa lit it up for Iowa Western CC, and now he has to be the No. 1 guy for a while with Mike Dudek hurt and trying to come back. At 6-4 and 195 pounds, he’s a tall, athletic receiver who big play potential and deep ball ability averaging 14.6 yards per catch making 41 grabs for 598 yards and five scores. He rolled up six catches for 160 yards and two scores against Washington, and came up with five grabs for 118 yards and a touchdown against Nebraska, but he disappeared at times over the second half of the year – he can’t do that this year.
8. FS Taylor Barton, Jr.
Third on the team in tackles, the 6-1, 215-pound veteran has great size and can pop making 100 stops. He came up with a 77-yard interception return for a touchdown against WKU, but he was at his best as the last line of defense to help bail out a leaky defensive front making 14 tackles against Texas State, 12 against Iowa, and with double-digit stops four times on the year. The Orlando native is a strong, tough baller who knows how to pop – now he has to make more plays when the ball is in the air.
9. LB T.J. Neal, Jr.
The 6-1, 235-pounder is built for the inside with a strong, compact frame and nice quickness. He looks like a fullback, and he barrels like one when he gets after the ball. Very smart, he knows what he’s doing, but now that he’s a veteran he has to come up with more stops at the point of attack – he made too many tackles down the field. Quick enough to be decent in pass coverage, he’s mostly needed to stop the run making 98 tackles last season with 12 against Minnesota and ten against both Nebraska and Washington.
10. OT Austin Schmidt, Jr.
The line needs more from the line, but it has its left tackle with the return of the 6-6, 295-pound Schmidt. Just okay in pass protection, he needs to be a rock to keep the immobile Wes Lunt upright, but he’s a good talent with a solid frame and the feet to grow into more of a factor. There’s a chance he becomes the anchor over the next few years – at least that’s the hope.
|Sept. 5||Kent State|
|Sept. 12||Western Illinois|
|Sept. 19||at North Carolina|
|Sept. 26||Middle Tennessee|
|Oct. 10||at Iowa|
|Oct. 17||OPEN DATE|
|Oct. 31||at Penn State|
|Nov. 7||at Purdue|
|Nov. 14||Ohio State|
|Nov. 21||at Minnesota|
|Ten Best Illinois Players|
|1. LB Mason Monheim, Sr.|
|2. QB Wes Lunt, Jr.|
|3. CB V’Angelo Bentley, Sr.|
|4. WR Mike Dudek, Soph.|
|5. DE Jihad Ward, Sr.|
|6. RB Josh Ferguson, Sr.|
|7. WR Geronimo Allison, Sr.|
|8. FS Taylor Barton, Jr.|
|9. LB T.J. Neal, Jr.|
|10. OT Austin Schmidt, Jr.|