2014 Illinois Preview: What You Need To Know
Illinois S Earnest Thomas
Illinois S Earnest Thomas
Posted May 29, 2014

Preview 2014 - What You Need To Know About Illinois (Getty Images)

2014 Illinois Preview

What You Need To Know...

- 2014 Illinois Preview 
2014 Depth Chart & Unit Rankings To Come This Summer

What You Need To Know About The Offense: The offense worked – it wasn't the problem. The passing game was dangerous, Josh Ferguson and the ground game were solid, and the firepower was there – it just wasn't a consistent attack. Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit has some great pieces to work with, but it just might take a little while before it all comes together. The line isn't full of all-stars, but there's enough experience to be fine. Pass protection will be important with – potentially – Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt slinging it around. Who will he throw to? That's the biggest question mark with all of the top wide receivers gone. Ferguson is a terrific receiver out of the backfield, and the tight ends are okay, but some downfield threats have to emerge.

What You Need To Know About The Defense: Utterly disastrous, the Illini defense finished 116th in the nation against the run, allowed 481.5 yards per game overall, and got absolutely torched by anyone who tried to throw the ball. There was little pass rush, few takeaways – the D picked off just three passes – and failure after failure against the better offenses, allowing 37 points or more in six of the final eight games. The secondary should be stronger with an experienced group that took its lumps last season, and there are a few nice prospects up front, but the line needs to be stronger in the interior and the linebackers can't make so many plays down the field.

Players You Need To Know
1. SS Earnest Thomas, Sr.
The secondary might have been a disaster, but Thomas tried to do his part finishing second on the team with 101 tackles and leading the way with seven broken up passes and three forced fumbles. At 6-2 and 210 pounds he has terrific size and the hitting ability to provide a big pop whenever he gets around the ball. For good and bad for the defense, he gets in on everything against the run, making ten stops or more in five of the final eight games including 22 over a two game stretch against Nebraska and Wisconsin. However, that's mostly because he had to come up with stops on running backs in the open field.

2. LB Mason Monheim, Jr.
Jonathan Brown was the star linebacker of the show last season, but Monheim made his share of plays in the middle finishing third on the team with 97 tackles with a sack and 6.5 tackles for loss. The 6-1, 235-pound veteran led the team with 86 stops in 2012 getting all over the field and making every play that comes his way with 14 tackles against Michigan State and 12 against Washington. The one-time star recruit might not have the best range, but he has good straight line speed and can get behind the line.

3. QB Wes Lunt, Soph.
Handed the keys to the high-octane Oklahoma State offense as a true freshman, Lunt was terrific right away with 436 yards and four scores with three picks against Arizona. The coaching staff was going to let the great young prospect sink or swim as he learned his way through the job, but he suffered a knee injury early on. He came back to throw for 324 yards in the win over TCU, but taking the good with the bad, he threw three picks in a loss to Kansas State and later had problems with an apparent concussion. The tools are all there to be special at 215 pounds on his 6-5 frame with a next-level arm and a great attitude. The two-time Illinois state champion transferred over to the Illini, and now he has to prove he can stay in one piece having had problems staying healthy since his junior year in high school. If he's given time to work, though, he could be the type of passer who elevates the entire program.

4. RB Josh Ferguson, Jr.
It took a little while for his career to get going, but after showing promise in 2012 rushing for 312 yards, he became the main man for the attack last season running for 779 yards and seven scores averaging 5.5 yards per pop. At his best on the move, he can make plays out of the backfield as a receiver, finishing second on the team with 50 catches for 535 yards and four touchdowns. The 5-10, 195-pounder isn't huge, but he's quick through the hole and was effective handling the ball around 15 times a game, closing out with 115 yards against Purdue and 110 yards and two scores against Northwestern. He doesn't have to carry the offensive load by himself, but as long as he stays healthy, he has the talent and ability to change games when he gets into the open field.

5. CB V'Angelo Bentley, Jr.
It was a tough season in a lot of ways for the 5-10, 190-pound speedster, but he won his share of battles making 22 tackles with a pick and four tackles for loss while also serving as a star punt returner – averaging 15.8 yards per try with a score – and coming up with 21.4 yards per kickoff return with a touchdown. With decent size and warp wheels, he has next-level ability and talent, but he has to be better at locking down on one side of the field, can't get caught looking into the backfield, and has to come up with more picks and broken up passes.

6. QB Reilly O'Toole, Sr.
He waited his turn behind Nathan Scheelhaase, and now he might have to work as a No. 1A type of quarterback again. Stepping in when needed over the last few years, he did a great job on short-range passes in 2012 and last year saw time here and there over the first half of the season completing 12-of-16 throws for 141 yards with a touchdown and a pick while rushing for 34 yards. Great this offseason, he's pushing hard for the starting job with 6-4, 220-pound size, experience and excellent mobility. The 2012 Gatorade Illinois Player of the Year has all the tools and the smarts, but he needs a shot to truly make the offense his.

7. DE Paul James, Fr.
Is he the pass rusher the defense has been looking for? After losing Houston Bates, the hope was for the freshman to come in and be a part of the rotation right away. A star this spring, the Miami native blew into the backfield on a regular basis showing off his top-level quickness and great speed. One of the team's top recruits in 2013, he had to sit out a year, but now he's ready to roar with 6-4, 240-pound size and the talent to be a pass rushing specialist right out of the box.

8. OT Simon Cvijanovic, Sr.
The offensive line and pass protection have been a problem for the last few seasons, and now it has to be far better to keep Wes Lunt upright. That starts with Cvijanovic, a veteran who spent 2012 working at right tackle and almost all of last year on the left side. At 6-6 and 310 pounds he has a big frame that's tough to get around, and he has just enough quickness to potentially be better against the speed rushers.

9. P Justin DuVernois, Sr.
One of the biggest positives over the last few seasons, the punting game has been terrific with DuVernois providing great boom to his kicks averaging 42 yards per kick with 19 put inside the 20 two years ago. Last year, he was almost as strong averaging 41.1 yards per boot with 13 put inside the 20. Also a top kickoff man, he has the leg to force touchback after touchback. With his experience and potential to be a weapon who bails the team out of jams, he should be on the short list for All-Big Ten honors.

10. TE Jon Davis, Sr.
With all of the top receivers gone, it'll be up to Davis and fellow tight end Matt LaCosse to become bigger parts of the offense. LaCosse caught 20 passes for 237 yards and three scores, while Davis – who's more like a big wide receiver – came up with 25 grabs for 208 yards and two scores highlighted by a five-catch game against Indiana. He bulked up to get to 240 pounds on his 6-3 frame, and he has the athleticism and upside to become a star with more of a focus on getting him the ball.

- 2014 Illinois Preview