Tim Beckman has improved Illinois’ football record every season since becoming their head coach in 2012, but thanks to the fact that “improving” doesn’t necessarily mean being good and the fact that Beckman has apparently not made huge believers over his players and bosses, he finds himself squarely on the hot seat despite getting the Illini to a bowl game last year. As a matter of fact, it’s highly likely that the only reason Beckman is still the coach is because they made a bowl game. However, he needs more than just a bowl game to get the critics off his back. This seems like a situation that could really use some good vibrations.
When healthy, Wes Lunt is in the top half of quarterbacks in the conference. (You never want to have to use the “when healthy” qualifier, but it would seem misleading not to in some cases). Lunt missed five games due to injury last season, three of which came after fracturing his fibula against Purdue. However, when on the field Lunt was very good throwing 14 touchdowns and only three interceptions. He also completed 63.5% of his passes, which if he can stretch those stats over a full season then Illinois will probably end up being a tough team to beat.
The Illini passing attack did take a major hit in the spring though, when freshman standout receiver Mike Dudek tore his ACL. Dudek caught 76 passes for over 1,000 yards last season, but it’s unclear if he will even play this season. However, he ought to have a bright future for the orange and blue whenever he does make it back to the field. Geronimo Allison and Malik Turner will have to pick up the slack in Dudek’s absense, as well as Dudek’s likely replacement Justin Hardee. Allison caught 42 passes for over 600 yards in 2014, while Malik Turner turned 25 receptions into 256 yards last season.
Josh Ferguson gives the Illini a solid rushing option in the backfield, but there isn’t a whole lot of help behind them. Ferguson topped 700 rushing yards last season and rushed for eight touchdowns, but his ball security is something that needs to be improved upon. He put the ball on the ground seven times last season, and the other team came up with the ball four of those seven times. Junior Henry Enyenihi is likely to be Ferguson’s primary backup, but he had no carries in 2014, so it’s unclear how much of a factor he will be in the offense.
Now that we’ve established who’s going to actually move the ball, who’s going to clear the running lanes for these guys? The fact that there are three familiar faces returning up front is good news, but they return to a line that barely cracked the top-100 as a run blocking line and finished just outside the top-75 as a pass blocking line. Right guard Ted Karras leads the way with 31 career starts, and Joe Spencer has experience at both center and guard. Spencer is expected to start at center this season.
Mason Monheim and T.J. Neal are a stingy duo at linebacker for the Illini. Monheim and Neal had 6.5 tackles for loss apiece last season and had over 140 combined tackles. They also had three picks, six pass break-ups and five forced fumbles. Even without knowing who will fill the other linebacker slot alongside these guys, it’s safe to assume that linebacker will be the strongest unit on the defense, as long as the third guy isn’t just completely worthless.
The defensive line also returns several pieces from a unit that was decent in 2015. Jihad Ward had 8.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries at defensive end last season. Dawuane Smoot also returns at the “Leo” position, and Rob Bain should instill fear in the hearts of all interior offensive linemen at his defensive tackle position. Jarrod Clements is another one to watch. Clements will likely serve as Bain’s backup again this season, but he had six tackles for loss, two sacks and a forced fumble in that role last season.
Both cornerbacks also return for Illinois in 2015. V’Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence combined for two interceptions and eight pass break-ups. Those aren’t terrible numbers, but for two veteran corners they aren’t outstanding either. Bently and Spence are both seniors this year. Tyler Barton also returns to help out over the top at safety. Barton had 72 tackles in 2014.
This season will in all likelihood spell the end of the Tim Beckman era in Champaign. The non-conference schedule isn’t bad, but a trip to North Carolina won’t be easy and hosting Middle Tennessee isn’t the guaranteed win it sounds like. October also figures to be a potentially winless month with Nebraska and Wisconsin coming to Champaign and the Illini traveling to Penn State and Iowa. November is slightly friendlier with Purdue and Northwestern on the schedule, but with Ohio State and Minnesota sandwiched between those two games, 2-2 is closer to a ceiling than a floor. All in all, Illinois has the potential to surprise some people if Wes Lunt can stay healthy and continue to be productively efficient, but any early stumble could become a landslide for a program that already seems to be teetering on the edge with a beleaguered coach.