And the Fighting Illini at least managed to have some sort of
positive identity, thanks to the arrival of offensive coordinator
Bill Cubit. His pass-first system turned the offense from a
3-and-out machine into one which averaged 426.7 yards and 29.7
points per game.
There might have been just one Big Ten win, which was one more than
Illinois had in 2012, but there was entertainment. There was also
quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase turning from a dink-and-dunk artist
into a 67 percent passer who threw for 3,272 yards and 21 scores.
"We fell short in a couple of football games, there's no question,"
Illini coach Tim Beckman said. "But I'm very proud of the way that
those seniors led this football team, and we'll continue to push
those younger players to push this football team further."
Plenty of pushing has to happen for Illinois to become a bowl team
next year. The offense has to replace folks like Scheelhaase and
wide receiver Steve Hull, who was arguably the nation's best
receiver in November.
The defense must improve from really awful to at least average. With
31 of the top 33 players on the depth chart back, it has to be
better, but after allowing opponents to gain 481.5 yards and score
35.4 ppg, it can't be worse.
"It didn't necessarily show in wins and losses, but what I saw every
day, with the guys I play with, the younger guys and their
development, it means the world to me," linebacker Jonathan Brown
While Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt could be a capable
replacement for Scheelhaase at quarterback, the roster still needs
an injection of speed, particularly on defense. Without that kind of
quickness in a conference trending more towards the spread, this
program will continue to languish around the bottom third.
GAME OF THE YEAR: Illinois 45, Cincinnati 17 — Sept. 7 was a
broiling hot day in east-central Illinois and the Fighting Illini
scorched a Bearcats team which went on to a nine-win season and a
bowl bid. Illinois collected 522 total yards and 27 first downs,
averaging nearly seven yards per play, and the defense produced key
stops to keep the momentum going. QB Nathan Scheelhaase spread 26
completions among 11 different receivers for 312 yards and four TDs
in a performance which proved the value of new offensive coordinator
Bill Cubit's spread attack. It's that win which coaches will sell to
recruits this winter as evidence this program can become successful.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: QB Nathan Scheelhaase — Many Internet "experts"
wanted the Illini to bench Scheelhaase after last year's 2-10
disaster. But without Scheelhaase, this team wouldn't have won a
decent FCS league. All the senior did was account for 3,543 total
yards and 25 TDs, becoming the all-time total offense leader in
school history and the No. 7 man in Big Ten history. While he did
toss 13 interceptions, some of them critical, Scheelhaase carried
this team from start to finish and provided leadership for a spate
of freshmen and sophomores.
FAST FORWARD: Finding a quarterback is job No. 1, followed closely
by improving the leaky defense. Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt and
rising sophomore Aaron Bailey should provide good play under center,
but the defense must make big improvements after allowing nearly 500
yards and more than 35 points per game. Some feel defensive
coordinator Tim Banks might be out of work soon, although no one's
hinted anything pro or con about that prospect. Perhaps the biggest
reason to retain Banks is that his possible departure would require
some players to learn their third new system in four years. While
the defense loses just two starters, one of them is its best player,
LB Jonathan Brown.
RECRUITING TRAIL: There are 14 known commitments so far, which isn't
terrible, but none of them are four or five-star players, which
isn't good for a program in need of star power. Some have dinged
coach Tim Beckman and his staff for recruiting at a level more
suited for the Mid-American Conference — Beckman's prior stop was
at Toledo — and this group won't quiet those whispers. The staff
has verbals from three wide receivers but no defensive linemen,
which seems odd for a program in need of play-makers on defense.
[to top of second column]
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It was a privilege to wear his
jersey and have his name on my back." — WR Miles Osei on
wearing Ryan Lankford's No. 12 on Senior Day. Lankford suffered
a season-ending shoulder injury in October.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
PLAYERS TO WATCH IN 2014:
RB Josh Ferguson — He had a breakout year in 2013, rushing 141
times for 779 yards and seven TDs while catching 50 passes for
535 yards and four more scores. Few backs in the country are as
versatile as Ferguson, who could be the centerpiece of next
year's offense, especially early in the season while the coaches
break in a new starting QB.
QB Wes Lunt — The Oklahoma State transfer is targeted by most
to be the replacement for Nathan Scheelhaase, even though
sophomore Aaron Bailey will have something to say about it. A
home-state product of longtime power Rochester High School, Lunt
has the arm and leadership qualities needed to keep this offense
on the right track.
LB Mason Monheim — After making several all-freshmen teams in
2011, Monheim had a good year statistically in 2012 with 97
stops, including 6.5 for a loss. But there weren't a whole lot
of impact plays by him or anyone else on the defense. As a team
leader next year, Monheim must produce more big plays for a
defense which sorely needs them.
PRO PROSPECTS as ranked by NFLDRAFTSCOUT.com:
LB Jonathan Brown (159th overall/No. 15 outside linebacker) — The leader of a young defense which really wasn't ready to play
at an FBS level, Brown notched a team-high 119 tackles,
including 15 for loss. Brown, who has the athletic skill to get
after the quarterback or cover receivers down the field, might
hear his name in the fourth or fifth round.
WR Ryan Lankford (409th overall/No. 46 wide receiver) — A
season-ending shoulder injury in October hurt his stats and
probably his draft stock. But Lankford averaged 20.5 yards on 15
catches, displaying the ability to run from defenders and make
the kind of big plays which should get him into someone's
training camp, even if he isn't drafted.
QB Nathan Scheelhaase (492nd overall/No. 28 quarterback) — Might be too small to get drafted, but Drew Brees and Russell
Wilson have become stars in spite of a lack of height.
Scheelhaase's athletic ability and his toughness can't be
questioned, though, and it could enable him to get a shot in
someone's training camp.
WR Steve Hull might have been the best receiver in the nation
in November. He had 46 receptions for 712 yards and six scores
in the month's five games. Hull finished the year with 59
catches, 993 yards and seven TDs.
QB Nathan Scheelhaase finished his senior year with three
school records. He amassed 10,634 career yards, breaking the
four-year old record of Juice Williams, posted a passing
efficiency mark of 140.7 this year and completed 66.7 percent of
his attempts in 2013.
PK Taylor Zalewski connected on a 51-yard field goal in the
second quarter against Northwestern, the second 50-plus field
goal of his career. Zalewski, who drilled a 54-yarder in
November of 2012 against Purdue, finished 12-of-17 on field
goals this year, hitting four field goals in the last two games.