New coach Tim Beckman looks to get the Fighting Illini back on track in the Big Ten.
By: Steven Lassan | 5/21/12, 10:02 AM EDT
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Big Ten Leaders PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Tim Beckman, First Year | OFF. COORDINATOR: Chris Beatty, Billy Gonzales | DEF. COORDINATOR: Tim Banks
It’s yet another new offense for Nathan Scheelhaase. Recruited to play for Mike Locksley, the junior quarterback is now in his third system at Illinois. This time, he will have co-coordinators (Billy Gonzales and Chris Beatty) calling the plays. Scheelhaase saw his passing numbers climb and his rushing totals drop in 2011.
At running back, there’s nobody in the class of Rashard Mendenhall or Mikel Leshoure on the current roster. But the coaches are hopeful. Sophomore Donovonn Young, who wears No. 5 (the same as both Mendenhall and Leshoure), is coming off a solid rookie season (451 yards, six touchdowns). Young spent most of the spring sidelined by a foot injury. Josh Ferguson, his replacement at the top of the depth chart, played in only three games as a freshman.
The top three returning receivers — Spencer Harris, Darius Millines and Jon Davis — combined for 67 catches in 2011. The problem for new coach Tim Beckman is that A.J. Jenkins (90 catches) is out of eligibility. Millines, who missed four games because of an injury, has the best chance to replace Jenkins as the go-to receiver.
After being a strength of the team in 2010, the offensive line took some steps backward. Several steps backward. Illinois finished 102nd nationally in sacks allowed and didn’t have its usual success running the ball. Beckman made a popular call when he hired former Illini Luke Butkus as line coach. Three starters return, led by All-Big Ten candidate Graham Pocic at center and guard Hugh Thornton.
Tackle Akeem Spence and end Michael Buchanan eased Beckman’s mind by deciding to skip the NFL Draft. They will be joined on the defensive line by senior end Justin Staples and senior tackle Glenn Foster. The line helped the Illini finish seventh nationally in total defense. First-year coordinator Tim Banks believes the Illini can again be a top defense.
Illinois has produced four first-team All-Big Ten linebackers in the past six years. Junior Jonathan Brown, the team’s leading tackler in 2011, figures to join the list.
Cornerback Terry Hawthorne showed his big-play potential in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, taking a UCLA pass back 39 yards for a score. He could be a star in 2012. Justin Green will take over as the other starting corner. Safety remains a major concern. While Steve Hull is solid at one spot, Supo Sanni suffered an Achilles injury and missed most of the spring. Tommy Davis transferred from Northern Illinois with one season of eligibility remaining and could earn significant playing time in 2012.
Beckman spent considerable time in the spring working on the coverage and return units, which ranked among the worst in the nation in 2011. Incoming freshman Ryan Frain will have a chance to win the placekicking job in training camp. The coaches are giving a long look to sophomore punter Justin DuVernois, who changed his mechanics during the spring.
Early in his tenure, Beckman handed out orange bracelets to the players and staff. “One” was written in large letters along with “12-01-12.” That’s the date of the Big Ten title game at Indianapolis. “If you don’t have that goal, why do you play?” Beckman says.
If Illinois is ever going to break through in the Leaders Division, this would be the year. Ohio State is ineligible for the title. Wisconsin lost starting quarterback Russell Wilson and three-fifths of its powerhouse offensive line. And Penn State continues to try to recover from the Jerry Sandusky scandal.