- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Illinois didn't exactly have a huge breakthrough season in 2014, but you'd have to call it progress. The Illini made their first bowl game under Tim Beckman, although a loss to Louisiana Tech in the Heart of Dallas Bowl left them at 6-7 for the year.
Still, there's finally some reason for optimism in the offseason for Beckman's program. Can they build on this small amount of momentum? A lot of it is going to come down to defense. Fixing that side of the ball will be a big focus during spring practice.
Schedule: Illinois opens spring drills on Saturday; that workout and the one on Sunday are both open to the public. The Illini will pause for spring break between March 21 and March 30 and have three scheduled April practices -- April 3, 10 and 16 -- that are open to the public. The spring game will be held April 18.
What’s new? Beckman hired a new co-defensive coordinator in Mike Phair, who also will oversee the defensive line. It has not yet been specified whether Phair or incumbent defensive coordinator Tim Banks will call plays. Beckman also parted ways with special teams coach Tim Salem in the offseason; a replacement has yet to be officially named.
Biggest question: Can the defense figure out a way to stop the run? The Illini fielded one of the worst rush defenses in the FBS last season, allowing nearly 240 yards per game on the line. So it's no coincidence that Beckman made a change with his defensive line coach, and he hopes that Phair -- who last coached in the NFL with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- has some answers up front. There is some hope with the talent on hand. Jihad Ward played pretty well in his first year after transferring from junior college and has a chance to develop into a force as a senior. Kenny Nelson and Paul James will compete at the other defensive end, and while some defensive tackles are injured this spring, depth is much better. "Defensive line-wise, we really haven't had battles," Beckman said. "And now we do."
Three things we want to see:
1. Wes Lunt taking charge: Lunt had some good games last year in his first season since transferring from Oklahoma State, but he was also hampered by injuries. With Reilly O'Toole graduated and Aaron Bailey transferring, he's the only experienced quarterback on the roster, and it's time for him to play up to his vast potential and take full control of the offense, beginning this spring. "We're looking for a lot of the leadership capabilities of being a starting quarterback in the Big Ten," Beckman said, "and we'll try to put him in those situations."
2. Offensive line depth emerge: With only 10 bodies right now on the offensive line, Beckman said depth on that unit is "probably the biggest concern" this spring. The tackle spot is especially thin, though the healthy return of Ted Karras this summer will help a great deal. The starters should be fine, but you never want to be scrambling for depth at this position.
3. More offensive playmakers step forward: Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit has a great foundation with Lunt, receiver Mikey Dudek (who eclipsed 1,000 yards as a true freshman) and senior running back Josh Ferguson. But more playmakers are needed, particularly to back up Ferguson. Junior college transfer Henry Enyenihi and early enrollee Dre Brown could help at tailback. The Illini could use some more consistency at receiver next to Dudek from guys such as Geronimo Allison and Malik Turner.