- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI
2012 record: 2-10
2012 conference record: 0-8 (sixth in Leaders division)
Returning starters: Offense: 9; defense: 4; special teams: 2
2012 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Donovonn Young* (571 yards)
Passing: Nathan Scheelhaase* (1,361 yards)
Receiving: Ryan Lankford* (469 yards)
Tackles: Mason Monheim* (86)
Sacks: Michael Buchanan (4.5)
Interceptions: Steve Hull* (2)
1. Juco impact: Embattled coach Tim Beckman needs a quick fix after a 2-10 season and brought in a sizable group of junior college players during the winter. Several jucos made an immediate impact this spring, including wide receiver Martize Barr and Eric Finney, who Beckman said locked up a starting job at the Star (safety/outside linebacker) position. Defensive tackle Abe Cajuste will be in the rotation up front, and Dallas Hinkhouse gives the Illini another option at offensive tackle.
2. Offensive playmakers emerging: Bill Cubit's offense gives Illinois a chance to be much more explosive in 2013, especially in the passing game. The Illini needed more playmakers to emerge at both receiver and running back this spring and saw some encouraging results. Miles Osei and Steve Hull, both of whom converted to receiver from other positions, showed flashes, and Justin Hardee had a big performance in the spring game (6 receptions, 104 yards). Ryan Lankford certainly has the experience to be a No. 1 receiver. At running back, Donovonn Young looked good in the spring game with three rushing touchdowns, and Josh Ferguson provides a nice counterpunch with his speed.
3. O-line coming together: When a unit struggles as much as Illinois' offense did in 2012, the first place you look is up front. An offensive line that featured one NFL draft pick (Hugh Thornton) and another potential pro (Graham Pocic) significantly underachieved, although injuries and youth played a role. The group needed to take important steps this spring, and Beckman sounded pleased with the results. Tackle Corey Lewis, recently granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, performed well and put himself in position to start. Simon Cvijanovic, Michael Heitz and Alex Hill all benefited from game experience last fall and should provide a more solid front in 2013.
1. Mind games on offense: Cubit was more concerned about quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole picking up the offense this spring than which one separated himself in the competition. After all, Illinois will be running its third different offense in as many years, which will test both quarterbacks from the neck up. Scheelhaase came out of the spring with the lead, and he'll try to create some space between himself and O'Toole this season. Cubit wants to throw quick passes -- and a lot of them -- and Illinois' aerial game remains a work in progress entering the summer.
2. Special teams: The kicking game has been a major area of concern at Illinois for several years, and it will once again be in the spotlight when fall camp kicks off. Kicker Nick Immekus, who connected on 4 of 5 field goal attempts last season, left the team before spring practice. Taylor Zalewski, who made 4 of 7 attempts last fall, has the inside track for the starting job but must show consistency as he competes with Ryan Frain and Brennen VanMieghem (great name). Illinois should be strong at punter but needs a major spark in the return game after finishing 118th nationally in punt returns and 107th in kickoff returns in 2012.
3. Filling gaps on defense: Repairing the offense is priority No. 1, but Illinois also needs to fill spots throughout the defense, especially up front and in the secondary. Illinois had three defenders selected in the NFL draft -- linemen Akeem Spence and Michael Buchanan, and cornerback Terry Hawthorne -- and loses other key contributors like lineman Glenn Foster and cornerback Justin Green. Tim Kynard is the team's only lineman with significant experience, so building depth up front will be critical. Cornerback is another position to watch, as freshman Darius Mosely stood out this spring. The linebacking corps could be very good if Jonathan Brown returns from injury at top form.
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