The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 68 Illinois.
Previewing Illinois' Offense for 2014:
Second-year offensive coordinator Bill Cubit wasn’t ready to name a starting quarterback in the spring. He wanted to watch the three challengers compete for the job. But it was clear to those who watched the battle that there wasn’t much of one. Barring injury before the opener against Youngstown State, Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt gets the call.
There are big hopes at Illinois for Lunt. He has a rocket arm and a quick release. The coaches also rave about his decision-making.
Lunt will rely plenty on running back Josh Ferguson. The dual-threat back led the team in rushing with 779 yards, averaging a robust 5.5 per carry. He was also second on the team in catches.
By far, receiver was the biggest area of concern for the offensive coaches going into the spring. They have to replace three key departed players. Geronimo Allison, Martize Barr, Justin Hardee and Mike Dudek all pushed for playing time with solid results. Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse are threats at tight end.
With four starters back, the coaches are hoping the offensive line will be a strength. Guard Michael Heitz enters his fourth year as a starter. Tackle Austin Schmidt could turn into a star.
Previewing Illinois' Defense for 2014:
Sacks. Fumbles. Interceptions. Areas in which defensive coordinator Tim Banks wants to see a lot of improvement.
The Illini had just 15 sacks in 2013. This from a school that has twice had individual players (Simeon Rice and Whitney Mercilus) exceed that number by themselves in a season.
Teko Powell and “Chunky” Clements figure to see heavy minutes at tackle. Kenny Nelson and Dawuane Smoot get the first shot at end.
Two players return at linebacker with starting experience, led by two-year regular Mason Monheim. While not in the J Leman mold as a playmaker, Monheim often puts himself in position to make the tackle. In an effort to add speed, the Illini moved Earnest Thomas from safety to outside linebacker.
“We need to be more aggressive,” Banks says. “When the ball is in the air, go attack it. Make them earn everything they get. Make them throw through smaller windows.”
V’Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence patrol at corner.
Overall, the defense returns eight starters and slew of backups from last year. But the unit struggled to make stops, so is that a good thing? “We like to think it’s a good thing,” Banks says. “We expect to be better.”
Previewing Illinois' Specialists for 2014:
Illinois welcomes back both starting punter Justin DuVernois and placekicker Taylor Zalewski. DuVernois finished 59th nationally in punting average with 41.1 yards. Zalewski connected on 12-of-17 field goals but only hit two longer than 40 yards. The return game got a boost from Bentley. He brought back both a punt and kickoff for touchdowns in 2013.
The third year has usually been the charm for Illinois head coaches. Mike White, John Mackovic, Lou Tepper, Ron Turner and Ron Zook all reached bowls in their third seasons. Now, it’s Tim Beckman’s turn to try to keep the streak going. While the school hasn’t issued an ultimatum, a bowl bid would help secure Beckman’s future. The non-conference schedule is set up for success, with winnable home games against Youngstown State, Western Kentucky and Texas State. Take those three, and the Illini are halfway to a postseason berth.
The offense should continue to pile up yards and points, and the defense can’t be much worse. If Banks’ guys climb 20 spots or so in national defensive rankings, it will translate to more wins. Beckman’s short-term goal is to solidify his position as head coach. Competing for a division title is down the road.