Imagine you're at a party. There are lots of people, but you don't really know anyone. It's a work party, and since your boss directly invited you to his house, there's really no way you can refuse. So here you are, bored and lonely, counting as the seconds tick by. You begin to wonder around the house, trying not to be too obviously nosey, when you stumble upon an office filled with FIghting Illini memorabilia.
A framed #7 jersey signed by Juice Williams hangs on the wall, the floor is a mosaic tile rendering of the Chief Illiniwek logo, the desk is even in the shape of a Block I. There's a bust of Dick Butkus that sets on a shelf in the corner; for some reason you can't seem to maintain eye contact with it. Then all of sudden your boss walks in. "Are you a fan of the Illini?" he asks, wondering why you're sneaking around his house.
You can see the surprise on his face when you begin a discussion about the upcoming team. Who do you think the new quarterback will be? You think Beckman stays another year? What do you think of the new helmets and jerseys? He stammers for a second because he hasn't met a person who understands his love of the Illini like you have. "How do you know so much about them?" he asks.
"Why, I read the Illinois Cocktail Party Preview on OTE."
Oskee-wow-wow (Fight song, if you're at work, quiet your speakers)
About Last Season
The Good News...
We got to watch one of the greatest quarterbacks in Illinois history. Nathan Scheelhaase is the Illini's all-time leader in total offense with 10,634 yards, which puts him 7th in B1G history. He is one of only two B1G players to have ever amassed 8,000 yards passing and 2,000 yards rushing in a career. (The other one being the Illini's own Juice Williams.) The Scheelhaase Era needs to be taken with a grain of salt though because even if he did set offensive records, he didn't produce many wins. He had only seven B1G wins in four years. Scheelhaase, himself, was talented, but never was on the field with both the offensive linemen to protect him or the receivers to catch his passes; he was a jewel buried in the county dump.
Bonus Fact: Haase M.D. is the only Illinois quarterback to win back-to-back bowl games.
The Bad News...
Since the beginning of the 2011 season, the Illini have (oh God, I don't want to write this...) 3 B1G wins. ... I.. ..... /hangs head in shame
At one point, the Illini possessed a 20-game B1G losing streak until they beat Purdue. /depression sets in again
We ended the season by losing to Northwestern. ... /weeps
The Good News...
The offense is was the bright spot last year. New Offensive Coordinator Bill Cubit brought something new to the gameplan -- either magic, an actual offensive scheme, or Space Jam Special Stuff -- because the offense went from 296.7 yards per game (last in the B1G) in 2012 to 426.7 ypg (4th) in 2013. However, that was last year; now we must prepare for the future.
The top Illini priority this offseason is determining a new quarterback. That would mean a considerable drop-off in talent, but according to reports from the Illini faithful (they are rare, but they do exist) the current selection of signal-callers looks good. So what happens when one position has three worthy candidates?
First into the arena is senior Reilly O'Toole, a perennial backup who somehow avoided graduation for one more year. He's out of the Scheelhaase shadow, but already has to compete for his chance to start. There are two different 4-star sophomore quarterbacks who are ready and willing to take the starting role.
Aaron Bailey is the fleet-footed, out-of-the-pocket guy. He needs improvement in accuracy and long throws, but there is no doubt that he has the athletic prowess to make plays.
Transferring in from Oklahoma State, Wes Lunt returns to his home state. He's got a an arm-cannon that you B1G fans will know about by bowl season. Reports have spread that his passes hit receivers all over the practice field, in the endzone, down the sideline, and even when he's wearing a blindfold. I've even heard whispers that he sacrificed a badger to the football gods just so he can complete 4% more of his passes. Lots of hype to say the least.
The general feeling out of spring camp is that Lunt leads the pack, but it was O'Toole who really shined at the spring game. Coach Beckman and his coaching staff have decided to not announce the winner just yet, so the competition will stretch into the summer, most likely decided at Camp Rantoul, the home of Illini two-a-days.
The B1G has seen a QB tag team system in recent years. Indiana's Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson, or Northwestern's Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian combine to make offenses with multiple styles depending on who's under center. The Illini could create a similar schematic with Lunt and Bailey. Lunt in the pocket, Bailey everywhere else. There are lots of ways this competition could play out, and I personally am excited to watch.
Just for kicks, here's the quarterbacks showing off their real talents:
Bonus Fact: O'Toole went to high school at Wheaton Warrenville South, the same high school as Illini legend Red Grange.
One other feature for the upcoming Illinois offense is the return of the two top runningbacks: Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young, but it is Ferguson who will be doing most of the work. He had 141 carries last year for 779 yards (5.5 ypc) with 7 rushing touchdowns and 50 receptions for 535 yards (10.7 ypr) with 4 touchdowns. He is our best returning offensive player. If this team can improve on the offense of last year, Ferguson could be a 1,000 yard back this year and next -- he's only a junior.
The Bad News...
The wide receivers are the weakest position on the offense. I'm not saying that there are terrible players, but none of them have yet to prove themselves in any B1G competition. Four of our top five leaders in yards receiving are no longer on the team. The second best in receiving yards last year was Ferguson, a runningback and therefore, not a deep threat.
Martize Barr, Geronimo Allison, and freshmen Mikey Dudek are the three best receivers on paper. Barr had 9.5 yards per reception last year (average Illini ypr was 11.4), Allison is a JUCO transfer with some promise, and Dudek has been the biggest surprise of the freshmen class. He's small and fast, and I'm 92.3% sure that he'll be the slot receiver when the games begin. What you have after that is somewhat of a mystery.
Silver lining: senior tight-ends Jon Davis and Matt LaCoss return, and that's at least worthy of a mention on an Illinois preview article. They're underrated B1G TE's in my humble opinion, although they ain't Devin Funchess, either.
Side note: I realize that most of this "Bad News" section is not all that bad, but seriously, I think the Illini offense is going to be fine for the most part.
Side note #2: I'm now well over a 1,000 words into the Illini preview and I haven't even begun covering the defense. If you have actually read this far: Thank you for reading. I bet you never thought you'd read this much about Illinois. If you just scrolled straight down after reading the first paragraph and only stopped to read this part because it was in italics: Shame on you. At least say something nice about the Illini in the comments -- it's the least you can do.
The Good News...
It's tough to talk up the Illini defense, especially the 2013 version, but the 2014 edition isn't completely hopeless -- they return almost every player on the defensive side of the ball. Bill Connelly over at FootballStudyHall.com recently showed that returning defensive players add more to a team than a returning offensive player, so therefore I can deduct that the Illini will be improving from last year, which is a relief.
One other improvement will be the JUCO players that Beckman brought in. Among them is 4-star D-lineman Jihad Ward, one of the top 5 JUCO's in the nation, and even though he hasn't yet touched NCAA-sanctioned grass for the Illini, he already figures to be in the starting lineup on Saturdays. JUCO players aren't exactly the best way to build a program, but they do fill immediate gaps, and the way the D-line played last year -- allowed 5.58 yards per rush, the worst in the B1G -- they'll need all the help they can get.
The Bad News...
A lot of the 2013 team is returning. I know this was also my Good News, but when the returning defense was the second worst in the B1G, how much improvement will be needed before it's even an average level defense? It's the rushing defense that was truly horrendous, ranked 119th out of 125 in college football. Let me tell you, there is nothing more frustrating than watching a game where running backs get 6 yards play after play.
This is the most important improvement that needs to be made. You can have a good offense, but if the opposition controls the ball and scores at will, it doesn't really matter how good your offense is. This was proven by the Illini and Hoosiers last season, both had above average offenses and bad defenses, both missed out on playing in a bowl game.
The 2012 Illini finished last in the B1G when it came to punt return yards (1.56 yards per return), but last year finished 3rd (12.95 ypr). There is a strong emphasis on special teams with the Beckman regime, but it was also helped out by one young man, V'Angelo Bentley, who will only be a junior in 2014. There has not been a return man like him in Urbana-Champaign in a long time. The downside of punt returns is that your defense has to make them happen, and the Illini aren't exactly great at the three-and-out.
Sophomore field goal kicker Taylor Zalewski made 70.6% (12/17) of his attempts in 2013 with his longest being a 51 yarder in the game against Northwestern. Three of his missed field goals were against non-con foes, and the two he missed during B1G play were greater than 40 yards. Now that he's a year older and more experienced, hopefully see that percentage made rise a little more.
The coaches will really be covered tomorrow, but I thought it might be important to at least give you a quick summary of that situation.
Tim Beckman has one B1G win. The Fighting Beckmans have a single B1G win. Let me say it one more time: Beckman has lost all but one B1G game. One of the biggest story lines this year will be what happens to Beckman after the season ends. It seems that it's Bowl Game or Bust if Beckman wants to keep his job. But before you grab your pitchfork, realize this: Ron Zook left the program in shambles; Beckman inherited a bleak future. The Illini fan base are watching to see how he has rebuilt the program, but has he rebuilt enough?
Come back tomorrow to hear more, when I post: Illinois's Smartest Guys in the Room: In Defense of Tim Beckman Addition.
On the Schedule
The 2014 schedule is way more manageable than 2013.
The non-con part is reasonable with a 3-1 start as the likely outcome. Youngstown, W. Kentucky, and Texas State are veritable wins. A win in Seattle (the Washington game is being played at CenturyLink Field) would be a surprise, but not so much that it would shake the foundations of the earth.
Our road games in conference are tough (except Northwestern), and, in case you missed it, the Ohio State game is in primetime, and everyone thinks this is the worst possible primetime matchup. (It may be, but I want to watch it and bask in the primetime light reflecting off the Buckeyes.)
The B1G home games may give the Illini fan a reasonably optimistic outlook. We should be favored over Purdue, which isn't saying a lot, but oh well, you take what you can get. A win over Penn State, Minnesota, or Iowa would be the type of minor upset that could make or break the season for Tim Beckman & Co.
If I were an Illini fan, and I am, the one game that you have to be at is the game against Iowa. The Hawkeyes have not played in Memorial Stadium since 2008. With a preceding bye week, the Illini could find themselves with a decent chance to upend the B1G standings.
If You're Talking to an Illini Fan..
Harold "Red" Grange aka the Galloping Ghost, Dick Butkus, Ray Nitschke, 2007, 2007, early Ron Zook-recruiting, Bill Cubit, 2007, the Future, and Kam's,
NFL Jeff George, Lou Tepper, late Ron Zook-recruiting, Tim Beckman sideline antics, Northwestern, 2012, and Kam's.