The 2014 Fighting Illini campaign kicks off this Saturday as Illinois hosts FCS opponent, and 24th ranked Youngstown State.
The game provides a distinct connection for Illinois Coach Tim Beckman, as he was once a pupil of great Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel, who now serves as the President of Youngstown State. But on the field, the Penguins could prove to be a real threat to the Illini starting the season on a positive note.
The 2014 Illini will look vastly different from 2013, headlined by transfer sophomore QB Wes Lunt.
Lunt, a native of Rochester, Ill, is a strong armed and incredibly accurate thrower. While the weapons he will target will be relatively new faces from a year ago, the Illini passing game will continue to be a strength of this team going forward.
New faces in the receiving corps are highlighted by senior Martize Barr, who is the leading returning receiver, first year JuCo transfer Gerinomo (G-Mo) Allison, freshman Mike Dudek and Malik Turner. Given the Illini's lack of returning talent in the receiving game, many may question the Illini coaches raving about their two freshman, but reporters and scouts have also taken notice of the first year players and their ability to compete at a high level already.
Lunt (right at Oklahoma State) is the type of quarterback that is going to make a lot of the guys around him better, and Allison, Dudek, and Turner are all very underrated talents who should quickly make a name for themselves. Other names in the receiving game to keep an eye on include Tryin Stone-Davis, a JuCo sophomore who hasn't seen the football field in over a year, but once he gets his feet wet and gets back into football shape, he could ultimately develop into a top receiver in the Big Ten.
Also keep an eye on tight ends Jon Davis (6-3, 240 Sr) and Matt LaCosse (6-6, 245 Sr). Both are big targets for Lunt in the passing game and Offensive Coordinator Bill Cubit has raved about the progress they've made between last year and now.
The running back situation for Illinois is rather thin. Illinois returns dynamic playmaker Josh Ferguson, who finished in the top 10 in the Big Ten in receiving yards. Also back is the bigger, more physical back, Donovonn Young. While I'm sure Coach Beckman would like to have a little more depth in that area, the two should provide Illinois with a nice combination of backs to rotate in and out.
Going into the year, Ferguson figures to be the primary back, however, getting stronger was something the Illinois staff wanted Ferguson to focus on. As a sophomore, Ferguson was unable to complete several games, primarily in the Big Ten portion of the 2013 schedule. Having a healthy Young could prove to open up more opportunities for Illinois to utilize the highly skilled Ferguson even further in the passing game.
The Illini offense on paper leaves a lot to be desired, but Illinois committing to Wes Lunt was probably the best thing the program did in the past several years.
Illinois boasted a middle of the pack offense last year behind senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhasasee, but the talent of Wes Lunt and the higher skilled receivers should allow Illinois' offense to continue to take steps forward.
Also keep an eye on what the Illini staff does with highly skilled quarterback Aaron Bailey. While injuries weren't on his side, it was almost inevitable Illinois was going to commit to Lunt, but don't count out Bailey making an impact in another way. Coach Beckman maintains Bailey will be the team’s second string signal caller (along with senior Reilly O'Toole), Bailey is an elite athlete in the Illinois system who may find himself in another role as he gets healthy and the season goes on.
As a true freshman at Oklahoma State, Lunt ultimately lost his starting job because of injuries, and hasn't seen live college football action in almost two years. It's too early to say Lunt is injury prone and I’m not saying he will get hurt, however, the Illinois offensive line was one of the many areas of weakness last year, and if they can't keep Lunt upright in 2014, Bailey may see his time at quarterback increase. It’s just a minor situation to keep an eye on.
Coaches say their biggest concern on the right side, where right tackle is the last position up in the air at this point. Pat Flavin seems to be the favorite right now.
With little name recognition and so many new faces, it’s safe to say the Illinois offense is not turning heads or drawing headlines, but it’s my belief the Illinois offense has the potential to be one of the Big Ten’s best offenses. How successful this Illini offense is relies heavily on Lunt, but it also relies a lot on the development and adjustment of this inexperienced receiving group to Big Ten play.
The offensive line worries me, but I think it will be an improvement from last year, given each of the guys up front is a returning player.
When you talk about playmakers for Illinois, no one stands out more than V’Angelo Bentley (right). The defensive back turned himself into one of the Big Ten’s top returners, and coming back as a junior, not only will his playmaking skills be relied heavily on, his role on the defense will be leaned upon as well.
If Bentley can be the dynamic returner he was last year, solid starting field position on almost every drive is going to go a long ways for this offense. Nothing sparks a team like a solid special teams play, and Bentley can be the guy to provide that for Illinois.
There isn’t a question about it, the Illinois defense last year was absolutely horrific. From getting zero pressure on almost every quarterback they faced, to being unable to stop the run, and unable to stop the pass, top to bottom, Illinois’ defense was just not good.
But that is good news for the Illini. Why? Because there’s only one way to go from the very bottom of the Big Ten and almost the country, and that’s up.
One thing Coach Beckman and Defensive Coordinator Tim Banks (right) have been preaching since spring ball is depth. Depth. Depth. Depth. Football is a game of numbers. If you can run out three or four guys at a given position, you in some ways have the upper hand. Now talent definitely comes into play when talking about depth, and that is the biggest key for Illinois.
The Illini coaches say the depth they have on defense is as good as it’s been in the Tim Beckman era. From depth on the front seven to some decent depth in the secondary. Illinois will not be able to claim they don’t have the bodies.
And when talking about who they are going to roll onto the field to defend, the list is unimpressive. Highlighted by linebacker Mason Monheim and defensive back Earnest Thomas, Illinois will try to make huge strides as they look to make a return to respectability in the Big Ten.
Monheim (left) has been regarded as an undersized for a middle linebacker, however, you’re hard pressed find someone who works harder than him. With his size being a major question with him entering his junior season, the young man has made huge strides. A second-team freshman All-American in 2012, Monheim has transformed his body to a more typical linebacker build, and has actually shifted from the middle linebacker spot to an outside backer position, a move the Illinois defensive coaches will showcase T.J. Neal. Neal is a redshirt sophomore Banks raves about the strides he’s made and the improvements to his body. It’s the belief Neal is poised to succeed Jonathan Brown in a big way.
A couple other names in the linebacking corp, are Carroll Phillips and DeJazz Woods. Phillips is a JuCo transfer who was originally committed to play at Cincinnati but reneged on that commitment when Banks departed his position as Bearcats defensive coordinator for Illinois. Now the two reunite, and make no mistake about it, Phillips is a pure football player. Coming from the football factory of Miami Central High School in Miami, FL, Miami Central has produced many football players to go pro including Willis McGahee, Antonio Brown and Najeh Davenport. Most recently they’ve produced division I athletes Joe Yarby, a freshman running back at Miami (FL), Dalvin Cook, a freshman running back at Florida State and Davonta Freeman, a running back who was a big part of the Florida State national title run last year.
Woods has been noted by Coach Beckman as maybe the defensive player to make the biggest strides in his three year tenure at Illinois. Woods has physically matured and as well as athletically. I don’t know what to expect from him but I think a nice season could be in store for the senior.
Other than Wes Lunt, there’s few guys I am willing to commit to as having an immediate impact for the Illini this year, but the lone other guy I’d put in that category is Carroll Phillips. I think he is poised for a big year and will be a big key to Illinois rebuilding their defense.
Up front, the Illini actually look a lot better. A monster of a young man, Jihad Ward comes to a defense in need of athleticism. At 6-6 and 295 pounds, Ward has been working on the interior and at defensive end, and when he committed to Illinois, it was even discussed, maybe he’d go to the O-line. So the kid has atheticism and should be another to make an immediate impact for Coach Banks and this defensive line.
What Banks has been preaching since spring ball and now as we get set to start this 2014 campaign, Illinois without a doubt has depth up front now. Freshman Paul James, Duwuane Smoot, Teko Powell, Austin Teitsma, Joe Fotu (who will also double as a fullback on offense) and Kenny Nelson will all rotate up front. Now if you don’t know any of those names, there’s nothing wrong with that. The names to watch are Smoot, Powell and James, however, the key for all of them is to get to the quarterback. I mentioned it earlier, and the thing about the Illini defense that stood out to me last year was the lack of pressure they got to the backfield. In my opinion, I think Illinois has to see a better push up front, and I don’t think it could get much worse than what they were last year, so improvement has to be imminent right? How much improvement is the big question for the Illini.
The big and nagging question for me is the Illinois secondary. Of all the improvements Illinois made in the spring and summer workouts, I still am not feeling good about the secondary. Bentley and Eaton Spence are very good looking cornerbacks, even Darius Mosely could be OK, but there is not a lot of depth, and Illinois will have their hands full trying to cover Big Ten receivers this year. Earnest Thomas will likely lead the secondary, as he is the leading returning tackler. The first stringers look very strong for Illinois, but if injuries bespell the Illini, this secondary could be in bigger trouble than it already is.
However, on the brightside, each of these corners and safeties have at least a year of experience after being thrown into the fire last year. Improvement from this group not only likely, but it is imperative. If improvement is realized, the Illini offense is going to have an immense amount of pressure on them, just like last year.
Where the Illini secondary should find some relief is from the guys up front. Football games are won in the trenches, and if Illinois can get pressure on the quarterbacks, these corners and safeties aren’t going to have to cover four or five receivers for five or better seconds of a play. It’s kind of the Rex Ryan philosophy of defense. If you can get pressure by only bringing four or five guys, it makes your secondary so much better, no matter the talent level back there. I think the same holds true for Illinois.
We’ve (I’ve) established Illinois should improve this year, but how much are we in for?
I’ve optimistically thought Illinois could win eight games, which might even get them into the top-25 in the Big Ten. There’s two games I look at the Illinois schedule at the end of the year that ultimately show us how good this team really is. The Illini host Iowa on November 15 and then Penn State on November 22. The Hawkeyes and Nittany Lions are both going to be exceptional this year, and despite playing Penn State within a touchdown last year in Happy Valley, Penn State is sure to improve under first year head coach James Franklin.
The beauty of these two games for Illinois is they get them at home. If Illinois could pull off a couple nice, maybe [improbable] wins, say on the road at Washington or on the road at Nebraska, at Wisconsin or at Ohio State, they’d really have the fan base excited, and a sellout for two huge games that could vault the Illini into a respectable bowl game.
If Illinois can pull off one of two over Iowa or Penn State, I say this is a successful 2014 campaign. I’m saying six wins minimum for the Illini, and optimistically eight. I think Wes Lunt plus improvement on defense is enough to get Illinois a couple more Big Ten wins which puts them into a bowl game.