- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Illinois is trying to build some sustained momentum after making a bowl game last season. Did the Illini make progress in the spring? Or did a slew of injuries hold them back?
Let's take a look at some of the key issues from spring drills in Champaign:
Reasons for optimism:
1. Wes Lunt: The junior quarterback played pretty well at the start of last season but then dealt with injuries and was eventually replaced by Reilly O'Toole. Fully healthy this spring and the unquestioned No. 1 guy, Lunt looked strong. He threw for 236 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions in the spring game, in which he only played the first half. Illini coaches say the former Oklahoma State transfer now has a mastery of Bill Cubit's offense and the confidence to run it.
2. Better defense up front?: The Illini's woeful run defense last year has been well documented. Many of the same players are back on the defensive line, but an extra year of experience has been useful. Defensive end Jihad Ward, who arrived on campus last summer as a junior college transfer, played up to his potential this spring while finishing with two sacks in the spring game. He'll be a huge key for the defense overall, but head coach Tim Beckman liked what he saw from the entire D-line.
"The way they're pursuing and coming off the football and attacking the quarterback with the pass rush has been outstanding," Beckman said. "I think they've made tremendous steps."
Reasons for concern:
1. Injuries: Fifteen players had to miss the spring game because of health reasons and Beckman noted that "they're name players." The most devastating injury occurred this spring when leading receiver Mike Dudek tore his ACL. The team is hopeful he can return in October, but there is no guarantee he'll regain his effectiveness until his junior year. Promising freshman running back Dre Brown, who appeared to win the backup job behind Josh Ferguson, tore his ACL in the second-to-last spring practice.
"It's part of the game," Beckman said. "We're going to have to be positive about it. We're going to have to fight back and get ourselves ready."
The Illini will really need more receivers to step up in Dudek's absence, and Geronimo Allison played like a No. 1 wideout in the spring game. Juco transfer Henry Enyenihi might now be Ferguson's backup after rushing for 87 yards in the spring game. Other important players like defensive lineman Teko Powell and offensive linemen Ted Karras need to be back at full strength in fall camp for this team to reach its potential.
2. Offensive line depth: Illinois feels pretty good about its starting offensive line, especially if and when Karras returns. But the second string group was spotty this spring, as Cubit noted that backup quarterback Chayce Crouch was running for his life at times this spring. The Illini will need that group to continue to come along, because as this offseason has shown them, injuries do happen.
Let's take a look at some of the key issues from spring drills in Champaign