CFN Preview 2013 - Illinois Fighting Illini
Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase
Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase
Posted May 1, 2013 2013 Preview - Illinois Fighting Illini

Illinois Fighting Illini

Preview 2013

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By Pete Fiutak

Head coach: Tim Beckman
2nd year: 2-10
5th year: 23-26
Returning Lettermen: 35
Off. 21, Def. 12, ST 2
Ten Best Illinois Players
1. LB Jonathan Brown, Sr.
2. QB Nathan Scheelhaase, Sr.
3. LB Mason Monheim, Soph.
4. WR Ryan Lankford, Sr.
5. RB Donovonn Young, Jr.
6. SS Earnest Thomas, Jr.
7. OG Michael Heitz, Jr.
8. P Justin DuVernois, Jr.
9. OT Simon Cvijanovic, Jr.
10. LB/DE Houston Bates, Jr.
2013 Schedule
8/31 Southern Illinois
9/7 Cincinnati
9/14 Washington
9/28 Miami University
10/5 at Nebraska
10/19 Wisconsin
10/26 Michigan State
11/2 at Penn State
11/9 at Indiana
11/16 Ohio State
11/23 at Purdue
11/30 Northwestern  
Illinois would've been among the most disappointing teams in America in 2012 – Auburn takes the prize with Arkansas and Texas in the team photo – if anyone actually expected anything out of the program.

And that's the problem.

It's not like there's no history to build off of with five national titles, a slew of hall-of-famers, a ton of NFL draft picks, and as many BCS bowl appearances in the post-bowl ‘n' bowl era as Iowa, Nebraska and Penn State, but there's no buzz. There's no excitement. There's no real interest. So when Tim Beckman comes in and gets absolutely no grace period whatsoever and there's no real hand-wringing, it's not a shock.

The program needs a kick in the pants. Ron Zook made things interesting with a few whopper recruiting classes, but the talent that came into Champaign set the bar high with a Rose Bowl appearance after the 2007 season only to set everything up for a massive fall. But everything is still in place and everything is still set up perfectly for this sleeping giant to finally wake up.

UCLA was front-and-center among the should-be-better football programs, and Jim Mora came in and changed things around right away. Illinois has the recruiting base, the media markets and the potential to make just as big a turnaround just as fast, and even though Champaign isn't exactly Westwood, the right coach and the right attitude – cough, Bobby Petrino, cough – could find a goldmine with Chicago, St. Louis, Indianapolis, and everywhere in between to work with, and a fan base desperate to jump on any sort of a positive bandwagon.

Why wasn't there any real interest when Ron Turner or Zook got their respective teams to a BCS game? They seemed like a bit of a fluke, and that's the concern under Beckman. Does he seem like the type of coach who can get into a recruit's living room and punch his weight with the Urban Meyers and Brady Hokes of the world? Can he turn Illinois into Wisconsin, or even Northwestern?

Beckman's 2012 team was a disaster in every way possible, doing nothing with a good group of talents left over by the Zook regime. There were rumors that this was Dave Doeren's job for the taking this offseason, and there are even more rumblings about this being a make-or-break year for Beckman after hanging on by the skin of his teeth, but the one major positive he has going for him is that one big problem with Illinois football: no expectations.

Considering Indiana is supposed to be much, much stronger this year, don't be stunned to see the Illini coming into the season ranked last in the Leaders, but that might be the biggest break Beckman has received so far.

The miserable offense of last season can't be any worse, and as long as the O line is better, there should be more pop and explosion. The defense of underachievers should be hungry, with the youth replacing the Zookers who hung around just long enough to go on to the next level.

There are positives. Nathan Scheelhaase is going into his fourth year as the starting quarterback for an attack loaded with veterans, and Jonathan Brown leads a promising linebacking corps that should be as active and athletic as any in the division. There's athleticism and upside across the board, and again, there's no expectation of anything big happening – this could be the team that sneaks up on everyone.

Illinois is due for a positive turnaround and a run of sustained success. This year will show whether or not Beckman will be the one who leads the charge when it finally happens.

What to watch for on offense: Can the offense do anything right? It's sort of a problem when your offense can't score, and after the power outage late in 2011 and the no-show 2012 campaign, it doesn't matter how it happens, the points have to come. How bad have things been? Since beating Indiana 41-20 on October 8, 2011, the Illini have gone 18 straight games against FBS teams without scoring more than 24 points. Worse than that, they failed to score more than 17 in 14 of those games. After finishing second-to-last in college football in both yards and scoring, the passing game has to connect on more downfield plays, and the running game needs room to move. Basically, the team needs playmakers, and it needs to find something that consistently works. It needs to score.

What to watch for on defense: Enough finesse; it's time to get tough. Illinois hasn't had any problem finding defensive talent, and the pass rushing linemen have flowed through Champaign, but where's the attitude? Where's the nastiness? Outside of a Jonathan Brown knee to the nads against Northwestern two years ago, there hasn't been any sort of fire, toughness or big play moments to change games around. Once again, this is a quick and athletic defense that will rely more around swarming to the ball than lining up and punching someone in the mouth, but there are just enough young, promising players returning, especially in the back seven, to start making more of a difference. Teams need to know that playing Illinois is going to be a fight, but that only comes with success. After being so soft last year against the run, that might take some time.

The team will be far better if … the passing game starts to work. There weren't any big plays, averaging a paltry 9.1 yards per completion, and forget about touchdowns. The offense exploded for five touchdown passes in the win over Charleston Southern, and hit one touchdown pass in the other five games to start the season, and then everything fizzled with just one touchdown pass against Indiana the lone scoring throw over the last six games.

The schedule: The Illini will have to own Champaign and need to come up with a few splashy non-conference wins to have any real hope of going bowling. Southern Illinois and Miami University are the only games Illinois will be the sure-thing favorite even though Cincinnati is coming to Memorial Stadium and Washington will play in Soldier Field. A 3-1 start would do wonders considering the conference slate starts out with a few slugs in the gut.

If playing defending Legends champion Nebraska in Lincoln wasn't a tough enough way to start, after a week off it's a home date with Big Ten champion Wisconsin followed up with Michigan State and a trip to Penn State. Fortunately, getting the Badgers and Ohio State at home could help, but going on the road for the winnable games against Indiana and Purdue will be a problem. The Northwestern game in the regular season finale could be for a bowl.

Best offensive player: Senior QB Nathan Scheelhaase – maybe. He has to fight to keep his job after a down year, and he has to show he can start leading the offense to consistent points and good drives. While he hasn't gotten any help, he didn't make enough things happen down field and failed to change momentum around on his own. With his experience, outside of injuries, there's no reason he should throw just four touchdown passes and eight interceptions again.

Best defensive player: Senior LB Jonathan Brown. Everything started out fine with three sacks in the first four games, and he got in on plenty of tackles doing what he could after a phenomenal 2011. But he got banged up against Ohio State and that was it, missing the final three games and finishing with a disappointing 59 tackles. Back and ready to go, he should be one of the Big Ten's best all-around defenders, and with so many big losses, he needs to be a steady and spectacular force.

Key player to a successful season: Junior NT Jake Howe. The Illini didn't shine on the defensive front with two NFL bodies in Glenn Foster and Akeem Spence inside. However, the run defense wasn't bad and it's going to be a key part of the puzzle to get big seasons out of junior Austin Teitsma, big redshirt freshman Vontrell Williams, and Howe, who has yet to show much outside of his play on special teams. At 6-3 and 295 pounds, Howe isn't big, but he's a feisty option on the nose who'll bring the effort play in and play out.

The season will be a success if … the Illini go back to a bowl game. There has to be some sign that the program is improving. As bad as things got under Zook, Illinois still went bowling in 2011 and won in the post-season. Going from 7-6 to 2-10 is a massive drop-off, and while there aren't many sure-thing wins, beating Southern Illinois, Miami University, Indiana, Purdue and coming up with a few upsets over Northwestern and Penn State-like teams isn't much to ask for.

Key game: Sept. 7 vs. Cincinnati. Positive momentum could mean everything to the young team. Last year, the Illini started out with a nice-looking win over Western Michigan, and then the wheels came off in a brutal blowout loss to Arizona State. A 44-0 win over Charleston Southern was a mirage as the last shining moment. This year, beating a Cincinnati team that might be good enough to win the Big East could do wonders before going into the home date against Washington. A loss would probably set the tone for another disappointing season.

2012 Fun Stats:
- Penalties: Illinois 71 for 595 yards – Opponents 58 for 475 yards
- Sacks: Opponents 39 for 249 yards – Illinois 21 for 137 yards
- Third Quarter Scoring: Opponents 121 – Illinois 49

- 2013 Illinois Preview | 2013 Illinois Offense
- 2013 Illinois Defense | 2013 Illinois Depth Chart