Our Big Ten preview series is back. Over the next few weeks, we’ll make our way through the Big Ten East and West from the bottom to the top.
Our countdown continues with the Illinois Fighting Illini. Our Ryan Fish breaks it all down.
2014 Record: 6-7 overall, 3-5 B1G
2015 WNUR Projected Record: 4-8 overall, 1-7 B1G
Key Returners: Wes Lunt (QB), Mike Dudek (WR), Josh Ferguson (RB), Mason Monheim (LB), V’Angelo Bentley (CB/KR)
Key Departures: Reilly O’Toole (QB), Michael Heitz (OL), Austin Teitsma (NT), Justin DuVernois (P)
The Illini made their first bowl game in three seasons last year, and coach Tim Beckman can thank his offense for that. Despite nagging injuries, the quarterback combination of transfer Wes Lunt and senior Reilly O’Toole proved to be effective enough in 2014 (2nd in B1G Passing Offense). Lunt will hold the reigns in 2015 with O’Toole now gone. Running back Josh Ferguson was a rushing and receiving threat out of the backfield, and should be a valuable offensive piece again this year. Most importantly, freshman wide-out Mike Dudek had a phenomenal 2014, catching 76 passes for over 1,000 yards and eight scores. Unfortunately for the Illini, Dudek tore his ACL during spring practice and is expected to be out until October. Lunt will have to rely on his secondary receivers in Ferguson and Geronimo Allison (who also had a stellar 2014) until Dudek returns. Beyond the talented starters on offense, however, lies a lot of inexperience. Illinois also has a relatively inexperienced offensive line that will need to step up in order to protect Lunt. If the Illini’s depth holds up on offense, they could put up some big numbers, particularly in the passing game. If it doesn’t, the offense line struggles or injuries become an issue once again, we could see some serious regression in 2015.
While the offense was the Illini’s saving grace a year ago, the defense left a lot to be desired. If Tim Beckman hopes to reach a second straight bowl game, the Illini need to improve under new co-defensive coordinator Mike Phair. Leading tackler and Lombardi Award Watch List member Mason Monheim returns to lead a linebacking corps that could make or break the defense, while safety Tyler Barton and cornerback V’Angelo Bentley are key returners in the secondary. Those guys are going to need a lot of help, however, if the defense hopes to turn things around this year. The unit ranked last in the B1G in total defense, rushing defense, pass defense efficiency and opponents’ first downs. They also struggled to put pressure on the quarterback; the Illini’s 23 sacks last season rank better than only Purdue and Northwestern. While the B1G had a few good running backs last year (if I remember correctly), Illinois may have helped pad some of their stats, surrendering nearly 240 yards per game on the ground and 31 rushing touchdowns. Even a marginal improvement in stopping the run could drastically change the course of the season for Beckman’s squad. This unit’s performance should be the most telling sign of how the Illini will fare in 2015.
SPECIAL TEAMS PREVIEW:
As bad as the defense was in Champaign last season, the special teams weren’t much better. Placekicking became an issue early and often, as Illini kickers converted only nine of their 17 field goal attempts last year (last in the B1G). That’s good for about 53 percent, and nearly 11 percent less than the next worst school. Distance was also an issue, as only one Illinois made field goal was from longer than 40 yards. Illini kickers also missed four extra points last season, more than any other conference school. In other words: that’s a lot of points left on the field. It remains unclear whether one of last year’s options–David Reisner or Taylor Zalewski–will take the majority of kicks, a committee approach is used again or if someone new steps up. More consistency in the kicking game, however, would benefit the offense. On a positive note, senior punter Justin DuVernois ranked third in the conference last season with a 44-yard average. Someone new will have to fill that role this season, most likely rising junior Luke Nelson.
Illinois wasn’t expected to make a bowl game in 2014, so defeating rival Northwestern in Evanston for a season-saving sixth win was a pleasant surprise for many. For others, it seemed to be a bit of a fluke. One thing is certain: the recent disappointing seasons in Champaign, along with emerging questions about the football program’s culture and treatment of its players, have casted some doubt on Tim Beckman. The Illini have the potential to win six games and get back to the postseason this year. If they fall short, however, Beckman may find himself on the hot seat come December. That may ultimately be the more likely scenario, as the Illini’s lack of depth may be too much to overcome.
Best case? Lunt improves from last season, stays consistent and avoids injury. Ferguson, Allison and others prove to be effective playmakers and perform well in Dudek’s absence. Dudek returns midseason and picks up where he left off last fall. The offensive line plays well and the defense improves under Phair. And Beckman? His seat cools down as he leads the Illini back to a bowl game after six or seven wins.
Worst case? Lunt is unable to improve or suffers another lingering injury. Ferguson is forced to take too much of the load offensively, while Dudek never returns to form. The defense remains a punching bag for the rest of the conference, and the Illini don’t make a bowl game. If all that happens, things could get very ugly.