Beckman comes to Champaign after serving as the head coach of the Toledo Rockets, but having success in the Mid-American Conference and translating that into the Big Ten is a tall order.
The school and the fans are hungry for a winner. Beckman is walking into a university known as a basketball school and a football program stuck in mediocrity at the start of a rebuilding effort in a notoriously tough conference. You’re not in Toledo anymore, Mr. Beckman.
The 2011 season was a tale of two halves, starting off with a 6-0 start and a national ranking and then dropping six losses before salvaging the season, but not Zook’s job, with a win over UCLA in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl to finish 7-6.
Zook has the reputation of being a solid recruiter while lacking the chops to coach in the Big Ten. Surprisingly, the Illini saw four players drafted in the first 48 picks in last April’s draft, including two in the first round.
All-American defensive end Whitney Mercilus was taken by the Texans and wide receiver AJ Jenkins joins the defending NFC West champion 49ers. Offensive guard Jeff Allen and Tavon Wilson were drafted by the Chiefs and Patriots in the second round, respectively.
The team also loses Kicker Derek Dimke, no small loss when you consider the Illini struggled mightily on Special Teams last season, and they will have to improve without the quality leg of Dimke.
Last season’s squad was competitive in the second half of their season as they lost six games by a touchdown or less, but they lacked elite playmakers on both sides of the ball to overcome the talent gap with the Big Ten elite.
Returning to the fold this season is dynamic junior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who has shown glimpses in the past of his ability to be a leader in the huddle and a dual threat from the QB position. However, he has also shown growing pains and struggled with inconsistency, having to learn on the fly in one of the toughest conferences in America.
Scheelhaase will have a competent offensive line giving him protection, but he will have to find a new top target with the departure of Jenkins, who accounted for nearly 1,300 yards and eight of the 14 passing touchdowns on offense.
The Illini do not have a proven commodity at wide receiver yet and Scheelhaase will have to do more with less. The top two returning receiving options are Spencer Harris and Darius Millines, who combined for 46 receptions for 245 yards and two touchdowns. Jenkins will be missed like air conditioning on a 100 degree day in central Illinois unless these two do not step up immensely.
The running back position features two complementary backs that figure to duke it out in summer practice to determine who is a better fit in Beckham’s spread attack. Donovonn Young did not see much action last season as a freshman, but the 215-pound back did average more than five yards per carry and got in the end zone six times.
An intriguing name after the completion of spring ball was Naperville native and redshirt freshman Jason Ferguson. The 180-pound back figures to see a large workload and ideally would fit in this offense. Beckham had success with backs of his stature at Toledo, most recently with 185-pound scat-back Adonis Thomas, whose speed was integral to the spread offense. Ferguson will challenge Young for the lion’s share of carries, especially if the latter cannot correct the fumbling problems that plagued his freshman season.
On the other side of the ball, the Illini will not replace Whitney Mercilus with one person, but rather with a deep front four that should be one of the best in the conference. Led by junior Akeem Spence and senior Michael Buchanan, the Illini figure to harass opposing quarterbacks and penetrate backfields.
The front four is bolstered by the team’s athletic and quick linebacker core led by Jonathan Brown, who moves to the middle after starring at the weakside last season. Brown very well could be the team’s best player and a future high pick in the NFL draft, but not to be overshadowed is sophomore Houston Bates who will emerge as a top performer this fall.
The duo will be responsible for chasing down ball carriers, making plays in the backfield, and defending the pass. They carry a great deal of responsibility for a unit that should be among the conferences elite.
A unit that is already elite is the secondary. The Illini led the conference in pass defense last season and return three starters, including Terry Hawthorne. The former high school All-American athlete from East St. Louis is poised to have a breakout season that will remind many Illini fans of Vontae Davis.
The Illini defense has both talent and experience and will be counted on heavily in the early part of the schedule as the Illini searches for an identity and gets familiar with the new scheme.
The rate at which the offense can find a replacement for Jenkins and Scheelhaase’s adaptability to the spread offense will dictate whether the Illini have another six or seven win season or if they can be a leader in the Big Ten.
The bottom line is if the Illini want to challenge for the division crown and more, they must win the games they are supposed to win on the schedule. This means taking advantage of the mess in Penn State, sweeping the non-conference games and going undefeated at home. Road games at Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio State will be stiff tests, but if they pull an upset in any of the three, a big season could be in store for the new chief in Champaign.
Sep.1 Western Michigan
Sep. 8 at Arizona State
Sep. 15 Charleston Southern
Sep. 22 Louisiana Tech
Sep. 29 Penn State
Oct. 6 at Wisconsin
Oct. 13 at Michigan
Oct. 20 OPEN DATE
Oct. 27 Indiana
Nov. 3 at Ohio State
Nov. 10 Minnesota
Nov. 17 Purdue
Nov. 24 at Northwestern
Early prediction: 9-3
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