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Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase
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There's an opening. It's a small one and it's closing very, very quickly, but it's there.
Head coach: Tim Beckman
4th year overall: 21-16
Off. 19, Def. 21, ST 2
Ten Best Illinois Players
1. LB Jonathan Brown, Jr.
2. DT Akeem Spence, Jr.
3. DE Michael Buchanan, Sr.
4. CB Terry Hawthorne, Sr.
5. QB Nathan Scheelhaase, Jr.
6. C Graham Pocic, Sr.
7. OG Hugh Thornton, Sr.
8. LB Houston Bates, Soph.
9. FS Steve Hull, Jr.
10. RB Josh Ferguson, RFr.
Sep. 1 Western Michigan
Sep. 8 at Arizona State
Sep. 15 Charleston Southern
Sep. 22 Louisiana Tech
Sep. 29 Penn State
Oct. 6 at Wisconsin
Oct. 13 at Michigan
Oct. 20 OPEN DATE
Oct. 27 Indiana
Nov. 3 at Ohio State
Nov. 10 Minnesota
Nov. 17 Purdue
Nov. 24 at Northwestern
Illinois doesn't have to win an 11-team conference to get to the Rose Bowl; it only has to win in a five-team race this season to have get to the Big Ten title game and the team is in place to do it.
Ohio State is ineligible to play in the championship and Indiana stinks. Penn State is still a hot mess and Purdue, while fine, is still Purdue. If Illinois has any thoughts about being good enough to win the Big Ten title it has to be good enough to beat the Hoosiers, Nittany Lions and Boilermakers. That leaves Wisconsin to get by, but Bucky isn't going to be the juggernaut it's been over the last few seasons. Basically, Illinois has a puncher's chance.
Unfortunately, the Illini have to try to get the job done while in a rebuilding process of its own. Ron Zook could recruit – someone with a brain needs to snap him up as a defensive coach and recruiting coordinator – but he couldn't seem to find any semblance of consistency and he didn't get enough out of the great prospects. Tim Beckman was able to turn around Toledo and make it a player again in the MAC, but he needs to come out rocking and rolling this season to take advantage of the down division and conference. But that's just a start.
More than just trying to sneak into the title game and be 2011 UCLA, Illinois and Beckman have to start creating a buzz again. The basketball team might get most of the interest and it's been hard to generate much of a Chicagoland buzz about the football side, even when it was making a run to the Rose Bowl, but this has the potential to be one of the true sleeping giant programs and Beckman has to show he can be the one to change around the culture.
Wisconsin was able to become a powerhouse with no recruiting base. Missouri – with head coach Gary Pinkel coming over from Toledo – was a basketball school that turned into a star. There's no reason that a school that sits in the middle of a Chicago-St. Louis-Indianapolis triangle shouldn't be able to pluck its share of good recruits from all three areas while also recruiting nationally like Zook did, and there's no reason Illinois can't be another Wisconsin or Missouri.
There's also no reason that Illinois football can't have the interest and the rabid fan base the basketball program has. And this year, there's no reason this team can't be deep in the hunt to win a five-team race to get to Indianapolis in early December.
Beckman isn't exactly walking into a heater, but he gets to start out with Nathan Scheelhaase going into his third year as the starting quarterback. He gets a fast group of skill players with the raw wheels and athleticism to hit home runs behind a nice-looking line.
He gets a defensive front four that should be among the best in the Big Ten even with Whitney Mercilus leaving early for the NFL. He gets a phenomenal group of ultra-athletic linebackers led by Jonathan Brown and potential breakout star Houston Bates. He also gets the three starting defensive backs from the best pass defense in the Big Ten last year.
Beckman has work to do on the special teams and he has to beef up the depth and hope that several key prospects can suddenly become major playmakers, but with the right breaks this could be a good enough team to win the Leaders.
And it needs to do it immediately before Ohio State wakes up and Penn State and Wisconsin have fully reloaded.
What to watch for on offense: The skill spots. The line will be fine with a little bit of time and tweaking, but the offense that went bye-bye over the second half of last season has to find some semblance of explosion and must come up with an identity early on. There are plenty of question marks at the skill positions for an attack that was so dreadful at times. Nathan Scheelhaase is a tremendous all-around playmaker, but he doesn't have the passing arm of backup Reilly O'Toole. The receiving corps has to find a No. 1 receiver after A.J. Jenkins left, and the backfield needs Josh Ferguson's great offseason to translate into a productive year. There will be lots and lots of reworking of the depth chart and the lineup, and as Beckman showed at Toledo, he's not afraid to get creative.
What to watch for on defense: The Whitney Mercilus-less pass rush. The Illini lost the nation's top sacker when Mercilus left early for the NFL, but no one seems to be that worried. Michael Buchanan was supposed to be the breakout star that Mercilus became, but he had a strong year in his own right at one end. Akeem Spence deserves to be penciled in for all-conference defensive tackle honors right now, and there's speed and quickness at the other two spots and among the backups. The linebackers can fly into the backfield, too.
The team will be far better if … The special teams aren't so miserable. Beckman and special teams coach Tim Salem have a lot of work to do, but the call has gone out to immediately change around an area that consistently stunk under Zook. Six Illini games were decided by a touchdown or less, and with the way the offense died the lack of decent special teams play was a killer. Kicker Derek Dimke was among the nation's best kickers, but now he's gone. The punt return game was bad, but the kickoff return game was the worst in America. The punting stunk and the coverage teams were lousy. There's talent and ability, and now there's a coaching staff that appears ready to make the most of it.
The schedule: The schedule to start the Beckman era isn't quite as nice and breezy as he might like. Western Michigan and Louisiana Tech aren't the run-of-the-mill non-BCS teams – they could each win their respective conferences – while going to Arizona State will be a big early test. Fortunately, the trip to Tempe is the only road game until October, but the Illini can't afford to blow the Big Ten home opener to Penn State.
Getting Minnesota and the yearly date with Northwestern from the Legends isn't a bad deal, but this year the road trip to Michigan stinks. It's going to be that much tougher coming off a date at Wisconsin, while going to Ohio State to start November all but ends any dreams of winning the Leaders. Fortunately, the finishing kick isn't all that bad with Minnesota, Purdue, and the date in Evanston.
Best offensive player: Junior QB Nathan Scheelhaase. With great size, excellent mobility and two years of experience he should be ready to take another step up and become an even better leader and playmaker. However, he failed to get the offense moving over the second half of last season and he doesn't have a huge arm. Senior center Graham Pocic might turn out to be the team's best offensive player and the hope is for redshirt freshman running back Josh Ferguson to be a star, but it's Scheelhaase's show – unless Riley O'Toole and his big-time arm end up showing he can do more to get the attack rolling.
Best defensive player: Junior LB Jonathan Brown. The defensive line is full of stars with defensive tackle Akeem Spence and end Michael Buchanan two of the Big Ten's best, and corner Terry Hawthorne is a shutdown playmaker to work the secondary around, but Brown should be in for a special year. Consistent, he came up with ten tackles or more in six of his last seven regular season games and was a pass rusher and disruptive force in the backfield throughout. Can he be as much of a force in the middle after working on the weakside? Absolutely.
Key player to a successful season: Junior WR Spencer Harris, or junior Ryan Lankford, or junior Darius Millines. The Illini receiving corps is full of speed and talent, but it has to produce now that A.J. Jenkins is gone. Jenkins accounted for 40% of the team's catches, 53% of the yards and 57% of the touchdowns, while no other wide receiver caught more than one touchdown pass. Now it'll be up to Millines, Harris and Lankford to stretch the field and work with Scheelhaase to give the Illini more of a passing attack.
The season will be a success if … Illinois wins nine games. There can't be any gaffes against Western Michigan or Louisiana Tech, and beating Minnesota, Purdue, Indiana and Penn State at home have to be givens, but eight regular season victories and a bowl win should be within reach. Winning the Leaders might be a bit too much to ask for with road games at Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State in the middle of the season likely handing the Illini three key losses, but the team has too many positives not make it an interesting year.
Key game: Oct. 6 at Wisconsin. The Illini have lost six of the last seven games against the Badgers and haven't won in Madison since 2002, but coming away with a win this year might mean a Leaders title. With a trip at Michigan the week after and with a date at Ohio State at the beginning of November, a loss could be disastrous.
2011 Fun Stats:
- Kickoff return average: Opponents 22.8 yards – Illinois 15.7 yards
- Opponent 1st quarter scoring: 37 – Opponents 2nd quarter scoring: 93
- Punt return average: Opponents 7.0 yards – Illinois 2.9 yards
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