Tim Beckman’s teams have improved every year he’s been at Illinois. But an offseason fraught with negative headlines and a very difficult Big Ten schedule have raised questions about his long-term future with the Illini. A critical fourth season could go either direction for a team that has underachieved for the better part of a decade.
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Previewing Illinois’ Offense for 2015
It was supposed to be a smooth transition from four-year starter Nathan Scheelhaase to Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt. It didn’t turn out that way. When Lunt was healthy in 2014, he was effective. But injuries forced him to miss five games. Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit is happy to have Lunt back for his junior season. Lunt is in his third year working with Cubit at Illinois. He completed 64 percent of his passes in 2014 with 14 touchdown passes and just three interceptions.
“Physically, he looks better,” Cubit says. “He looks better in the pocket. He’s going to have to be real good for us to be good.”
Ask Cubit what is the strength of the offense, and he will quickly answer with a name: Josh Ferguson. The senior gained 735 yards and scored eight touchdowns on the ground in 2014. He had another 427 yards and two scores as a receiver.
Cubit’s job became more difficult on April 8. That’s when Mike Dudek, one of the top returning receivers in the Big Ten, suffered a torn ACL during a morning workout. He will be out until at least midseason. Geronimo Allison returns after finishing third on the team in 2014 with 41 catches. Cubit will need him to be a bigger part of the offense. He’ll need the same from sophomore Malik Turner.
Up front, depth is a big concern. Guard Ted Karras, the top returnee in 2015, missed the spring while recovering from surgery. He will be ready for training camp. The starting tackles appear set with Christian DiLauro and Austin Schmidt.
Previewing Illinois’ Defense for 2015
It has been awhile since Illinois had heated battles for starting spots at end and tackle. Back to the Ron Zook era. “Now we do,” coach Tim Beckman says. Senior end Jihad Ward is the best of an improving group. He is the leading returner in sacks (three) and tackles for a loss (8.5). Bad news for the Big Ten: Ward is better. Tackle Teko Powell is being counted on to anchor the middle. He missed the spring because of injury but is expected back.
The linebackers are growing up — in a good way. Having Mason Monheim back makes it easier for the coaches to sleep at night. T.J. Neal starts at middle linebacker. The Star position, a hybrid linebacker/safety, will be a training camp battle between James Crawford and Eric Finney.
V’Angelo Bentley returns at cornerback along with steady Eaton Spence. Taylor Barton is back at safety after finishing third on the team in tackles in 2014. Clayton Fejedelem made a late move in 2014 and will start at the other safety spot.
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Previewing Illinois’ Specialists for 2015
Coordinator Alex Golesh is looking for consistency on field goals. David Reisner and Taylor Zalewski split the duties in 2014 with mediocre results. They missed 8-of-17 field-goal tries. The team has huge shoes to fill at punter after the graduation of Justin DuVernois, who averaged 44 yards per attempt. Ryan Frain and Reisner will compete for the starting punting position.
It is a simple question with a complicated answer: What does Beckman need to do to continue as Illinois football coach? The coach enters his fourth season with a 12–25 overall record and a 4–20 mark in the Big Ten. No doubt the team has improved during Beckman’s tenure. But the bar was set low with a 2–10 mark his first year. The Illini won four in 2013 and six in 2014. The fans demand more.
The schedule doesn’t help. The Illini travel to North Carolina and Iowa, while hosting Big Ten powerhouses Ohio State, Wisconsin and Nebraska. Another bowl bid is doable, and six wins should keep Beckman at the school for at least another season.