Saturday, August 31, 2013

2013 Illinois Football Preview: Nowhere to Go But Up?

I'd just as soon as forget last year. The winless Big Ten season, the coaching debacles, the weird obsession with lasagna, and the mindless sideline dipping. The awful product on the field, where it seemed like crossing the 50 yard line was worth a gold star. Sure, you could chalk it up to a vastly undermanned roster that was decimated towards the end of Ron Zook's tenure, but the inability of the coaching staff to work together and put a cohesive effort on the field, and the apparent incompetence of Tim Beckman in nearly every game, means that questions remain heading into a brand new season as to whether this program will improve. Given that it's pretty much bottomed out at this point, the hope is that the answer is yes.

I first want to give Beckman some benefit of the doubt. Looking back through the posts I wrote on Illinois games last year, I clearly caved on Beckman early on. But with a new season about to begin and a full recruiting class (maybe a half of another from 2012 that can be credited to Beckman) on campus, perhaps it's time to give him a fresh slate to work with. True enough, he was left with a program in shambles. For all of Ron Zook's sterling reputation as a recruiter, even he in his last few years on the job couldn't recruit any top level talent to this dumpster fire. What was left were MAC recruits who jumped at a Big Ten offer, JUCO transfers, and players playing out of position with a lack of depth everywhere.

Beckman has recovered that somewhat on the recruiting trail. While he hasn't exactly blazed the trail like Zook did early in his tenure (remember landing Martez Wilson, Arrelious Benn, and other top recruits?), he did end the 2012 cycle well. He played a ton of freshmen last year, so expect those players to use that experience moving forward to play above the average sophomore level. His 2013 class was average, but it had a gem in QB Aaron Bailey. Bailey was a recruiting coup, a highly touted dual threat QB who has already impressed in camp. More than that, he went out and secured the transfer of Illinois native and former Oklahoma State QB Wes Lunt. For once, there is some good competition with younger talent at that position that can only help accelerate the development of the offense, even if neither plays QB this year.

The most important thing, though, was a staff overhaul in the offseason. Gone is the abhorrent co-offensive coordinator nightmare from last year with Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales, with former Western Michigan offensive coordinator Bill Cubit stepping in as the sole coordinator at that position. Cubit brings innovation, respect, and credibility to a position on the staff that has been starving for it for years. His role in the development of the young QB's, Nate Scheelhaase's senior season, and the overall functionality of an offense that was awful last year cannot be understated. I think that his presence alone will give Illinois 1-2 more wins this season.

I worry that Tim Banks still anchors a defensive unit that was nothing other than vanilla last year. The unit, which had been so strong under Vic Koenning in the previous administration, was torched on a weekly basis. I thought that Beckman (who was supposed to come from a defensive background) would either demote or fire Banks and bring in an experienced coordinator much like he did on the offensive side of the ball. Considering the talent lost on defense (Michael Buchanan, Akeem Spence, Glenn Foster, Terry Hawthorne, Justin Green, and Supo Sanni), Banks has his work cut out for him. If I could pick the weakest area of Illinois football right now - and really, there's a lot of them - it's the defense and it's coaching.

Bentley could be a star
Having said all that, I do have some confidence in the younger talent on the roster, especially on the back end of the roster. Both corner spots are manned by sophomores or freshmen, but the athleticism of players like V'Angelo Bentley, Eaton Spence, and Darius Mosely could help compensate for their lack of experience. Bentley is the most exciting prospect in my mind. He played in every game last year, comes from a top Ohio high school program, and has top level athleticism. He's a player to watch. The safeties are led by Taylor Barton, a redshirt freshman, and Earnest Thomas, a junior. Thomas is the best player in the secondary, totaling 69 tackles last year. He's an instinctive player who at 6'2 215 isn't afraid to drop into the box and play the run or rush the passer.

The sky is the limit for Monheim
The linebackers could actually be the best position on the roster. Anchored by Jonathan Brown, the unit has a great combination of experience and youth. Brown is probably the best player on the defense, and if he keeps it together and stays healthy he should turn in another good season. I'll include Houston Bates in this position group, as he occupies the LEO position in this defense that is primarily responsible for rushing the passer. Like Brown, he's a veteran who can be counted on for consistent production. Considering the youth on the offensive line, he's going to be needed. Opposite Bates is Mike Svetina, a guy with good size who can make plays in space. He could be pushed for his role by incoming JUCO player Eric Finney, so it seems that that particular spot is still somewhat up for grabs. Most exciting in this area, though, is the continued development of star-in-the-making Mason Monheim. Called the future face of the team, he started as a true freshman last year and totaled 86 tackles. He's the archetype middle linebacker and along with Brown provides a great anchor for the rest of the defense.

The defensive line is another story. The unit has losses all over and represents the biggest question mark on the defense. Expect Zook holdovers Tim Kynard, Jake Howe, and Austin Teitsma to hold down the starting roles and use experience to their advantage. Like Beckman did all last year, though, his younger players will get playing time and push the upperclassmen all season. Also in the two-deep are sophomores Kenny Nelson and Teko Powell, along with redshirt freshman Robbie Bain. Nelson is perhaps the most intriguing prospect here, with 6'6, 250 frame perfect for a defensive end. If he puts it together, he'll get more playing time than expected. Regardless, though, this unit is a huge question mark entering the season.

On offense, the offensive line has some experience but some of the same question marks as the defensive line. Simon Cvijanovic, a junior, holds down the left tackle spot. He's bounced around some in his Illinois career and much like the rest of his offensive line teammates, needs to show some consistency and cohesiveness. The rest of the line sees Michael Heitz, Alex Hill, Ted Karras, and Corey Lewis, who returns from devastating knee injuries to give one last year a shot. The key for this line, though, might be the hiring of A.J. Ricker as the new offensive line coach. Ricker, who worked under new OC Cubit as well, will be able to help implement the new offensive schemes in order to keep the offensive line and the rest of the offense on the same page. We're not looking for anything particularly flashy here; just hold up a little and make the running game a strength.

The receivers, like this entire Illinois team, are talented but a question mark. The team lost Darius Millines, who was kicked off the team along with DE Darrius Caldwell. Ryan Lankford and Miles Osei (moved from QB full time now) are veterans who should be on the same page with Scheelhaase. Lankford's career has been up and down, so we'll see if he can string together some good performances and have at resurgent senior season. Spencer Harris and Steve Hull (moved from safety) provide more experience that could make implementing Cubit's offense much easier. The young guys, including stud JUCO transfer Martize Barr and Sophomore Justin Hardee, are athletic enough to make a push if the playmaking is there.

The passing game could rely on the tight ends, although how much they're going to be used in Cubit's offense remains to be seen. There's talent across the position group, especially if Cubit and Beckman give the versatile Jon Davis reps at the position. Evan Wilson and Matt LaCosse both have great size and give Scheelhaase (or whoever is in at QB) reliable targets to focus on or checkdown to if the play isn't there.

Running backs are a strength of the team. The starter figures to be Donovonn Young, a junior who gives Illinois a north/south running style that's perfect for a zone blocking scheme or even quick dives in a spread offense. He's been productive when given the opportunity, and he could have a huge breakout junior season much like Rashard Mendenhall did a few years back. He's complemented by Josh Ferguson, an electric playmaker who needs to get the ball in space and most importantly, stay healthy. The rotation is bolstered by sophomores Dami Ayoola and Jeremey Whitlow, along with exciting freshman prospect Kendrick Foster. It seems like running back has been a strength of this program over the last decade, and provided the offensive line holds true and the passing game creates enough opportunities in the running game, it should continue to be one.

It all still comes down to Nate
Finally, we're left with the QB's. It's crazy to think that Nathan Scheelhaase is a senior. He's had an up and down career and I really felt he struggled last year to stay consistent. It's clear that his arm isn't the strongest in the world, but with his mobility and intelligence should be able to initiate Cubit's offense enough to lead the rest of his teammates. His struggles weren't aided last year by terrible playcalling and completely random and strange substitutions for his backup, Reilly O'Toole. I expect Beckman to go to O'Toole to give him reps as well, but here's to hoping he learned his lesson and sticks with Scheelhaase on a more even level. It's hard to envision any serious reps for freshman Aaron Bailey, but even Cubit has said that he's too talented to keep off the field. Maybe it's sad to envision the most interesting storyline from this group as the future competition between Wes Lunt and Bailey, but if Scheelhaase comes out and plays like a 4 year starter should, the offense could surprise people.

Even with all the talk on the players (or lack thereof), the focus of the season will be on Beckman. He knows that his rope is getting shorter, and that AD Mike Thomas has already shown a willingness to make tough decisions for the better of the program. The problem is that Beckman is Thomas' guy, so the rope might have a bit more slack. Even so, if the team gets out to a terrible start, with coaching blunders all over and a lack of discipline or football intelligence represented in each game (like last year), I don't see how Beckman returns next year. This is make or break for him. All of his talk about competition, lasagna, accountability, and toughness fell on deaf ears last year as his team looked like an inexperienced pop warner team compared to the rest of the Big Ten. But alas, hope springs eternal, even for beleaguered and maligned coaches. With a fresh season, Beckman gets a fresh start. I hope he makes the most of it.