Big Ten Preview – Illinois
Offense – Returning Starters – 7 ; Key Departures – WR A.J. Jenkins (first round pick, 49ers), OT Jeff Allen (second round pick, Chiefs), OG Jack Cornell.
New offensive coordinators Billy Gonzalez and Chris Beatty will be doing their best to institute head coach Tim Beckman’s familiar spread offense while increasing tempo and putting dual-threat quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase in the best position to succeed. Third-year starting quarterback Scheelhaase is an elusive runner but leaves something to be desired in the passing game. He is accurate enough to succeed in the spread but has lacked the arm strength to stretch the defense, and at times can hold the ball a count too long and take losses. Last year he leaned on A.J. Jenkins through a 6-0 start but locked in on the receiver too much over the second half of the season, contributing to an 0-6 slide that lost Ron Zook his job (thank God). In 2012 talented junior Darius Millines slides into Jenkins’ spot, but the offense is much more predicated on design and getting athletes in space. The best way to describe Beckman’s ideal offense is a combination of Florida’s offense under Urban Meyer and Mike Gundy’s current offense at Oklahoma State (he coached with both). Look for sophomore tight end Jon Davis (6-3, 240) to have a breakout year in an Aaron Hernandez role, and redshirt freshman running back Josh Ferguson to imitate tailback Chris Rainey with electric plays from the wing and slot.
Key – Illinois’ offensive line wasn’t great last year and lost at least one future NFL starter in Jeff Allen. Graham Pocic and Hugh Thornton have experience and talent, but the unit will need others to step up and gel for Illinois to become more consistent. Despite not having a wealth of receivers, Illinois has enough weapons to put points on the board with a stronger offensive line and an improved Nathan Scheelhaase.
Defense – Returning Starters – 7 ; Key Departures – DE, Whitney Mercilus (first round pick, Texans), DB, Tavon Wilson (second round pick, Patriots), LB, Ian Thomas.
Not many people outside Illinois realize that the Fighting Illini have one of the best defenses in the nation. They have two guys taken in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft, but still return a bevy of future NFL talent. Defensive lineman Michael Buchanan and Akeem Spence are both early picks in 2013 (if Spence decides to bolt), linebacker Jonathan Brown is one of the best playmaking linebackers in the country, and cornerback Terry Hawthorne is finally healthy enough to make an impact. The unit lost popular defensive coordinator Vic Koenning to North Carolina but replaced him with Tim Banks from Cincinnati, who favors a similar structure and downhill attack. This unit should once again be among the nation’s leaders in sacks and tackles for loss, and with Tim Beckman’s emphasis should make a jump in takeaway numbers. The defense could be heavily leaned on, especially early in the year, as the Illinois offense learns a new system as well as sorts out who should be starting amongst the offensive front and who will emerge as a playmaking wide receiver.
Key – Health in the secondary could derail Illinois. The Illini have had depth concerns at both corner and safety, and have had former injury concerns about Hawthorne, as well as starting safeties Suppo Sanni and Steve Hull.
And 1 – Illinois hired Tim Salem from Central Florida to fix the worst special teams unit in the country. (That isn’t hyperbole; besides kicker Derek Dimke, Illinois finished near the bottom in every special teams category: 118th out of 120 teams in punt return yardage, 120th out of 120 in kick return yardage, you get the drift.) Salem and Beckman have stated that all starters are available for Special Teams duty, and that combined with Salem’s schemes (which have to be better than Illinois’ last special teams coach…drumroll please…Ron Zook) could make a major difference in field position on both offense and defense.
Prediction – 7-5 (4-4)
- Big Ten Preview Dates -
Illinois – 8-7-12
Indiana – 8-8-12
Iowa – 8-9-12
Michigan – 8-10-12
Michigan State – 8-13-12
Northwestern – 8-16-12
Ohio State – 8-17-12
Penn State – 8-20-12
Purdue – 8-21-12
Wisconsin – 8-22-12