NCAA Football Preview - Illinois Fighting Illini

The team got off to a promising 3-1 start, which included wins over Cincinnati (45-17) and Miami-Ohio (50-14) sandwiched around a 10-point loss to Washington. Illinois went on the road for the first time on Oct. 5 and was dealt a 39-19 loss by Nebraska, which started a six-game slide that ultimately sunk the season.

The defense was victimized time and again during that stretch, allowing an average of 46 points. The Illini closed out their schedule with a 20-16 win at Purdue, followed by a 37-34 home loss to Northwestern.

2014 ANALYSIS:

OFFENSE: It won't be easy replacing record-setting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who racked up over 10,000 yards of total offense in his four-year career. Of the three candidates to replace Scheelhaase, Aaron Bailey is an interesting guy due to his superior athleticism and different element he can bring to the offense. But Wes Lunt, a transfer from Oklahoma State, is a steady option considering his strong arm and the fact that he made five starts for the Cowboys as a true freshman before injuries opened the door for somebody else.

Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, who coached Western Michigan from 2005-12, will likely lean on running back Josh Ferguson, who ran for 779 yards (5.5 ypc) and 7 touchdowns last year as a sophomore. Martize Barr is the leading returning receiver (26 rec, 246 yds, 1 TD) followed by tight end Jon Davis (25 rec, 208 yds, 2 TDs), although juco transfer Geronimo Allison and freshman Mike Dudek could see their way into the rotation.

DEFENSE: There is no where else to go but up for the defense after the Fighting Illini ranked 104th in the nation in scoring defense (35.4 ppg) and 110th in total yards allowed (481.5 per game). The good news is eight starters return on that side of the ball, with linebackers Mason Monheim and Earnest Thomas III anchoring the unit. Thomas is the team's top returning tackler with 101 tackles to go along with 7 pass breakups, followed by Monheim with 97 stops, including 6.5 for loss.

"(Monheim) started 10 football games for us as a true freshman (in 2012)," Beckman said at Big Ten media day. "He was weighing 215 and bench pressing 300 pounds. Now Mason Monheim's 235 pounds and he benches around 400 pounds."

Beckman will look to newcomers Paul James III, Joe Fotu and Jihad Ward to provide a spark along the defensive line.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Punter Justin DuVernois and placekicker Taylor Zalewski are both back for another go. Zalewski went 12-of-17 on field goals with a long of 51 yards last season, while DuVernois averaged 41.1 yards on 51 punts. DuVernois had 10 punts travel more than 50 yards and 13 land inside the 20, with only two touchbacks.

The team could use some more production in the return game, however, as Illinois ranked 10th in the Big Ten in kickoff return average (19.5 ypr).

OUTLOOK: Coach Beckman could be on the proverbial hot seat this year, considering the Illini have totaled only six wins over his two seasons at the helm. However, he is counting on growth from 15 returning starters.

"If you look at our depth chart from the end of last year, you take the two deep and you look at your offense, defense, and special teams, and that rounds up to 50 football players," Beckman said. "We have 40 of those guys back."

Ultimately, quarterback is the biggest question mark. If Bailey or Lunt seizes the job and steps up right away, the Illini could be somewhat of a dark horse in the Big Ten this season. If that does not happen and the team misses another bowl, Beckman's future in Champaign will likely come into question.

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