Big Ten: Mike Svetina

We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the linebackers.

Illinois: The Illini lose an All-Big Ten player in Jonathan Brown but still have decent overall depth at linebacker. Mason Monheim started every game at middle linebacker in 2013, and Mike Svetina started all but one game at the star position. Both players return as juniors. Svetina will move into Brown's spot on the weak side, while the other position could be filled by T.J. Neal, who recorded 38 tackles last season. Ralph Cooper has logged significant reps as a reserve, and Eric Finney gives Illinois some flexibility after playing the star position (safety/outside linebacker).

Indiana: This becomes a more significant position under coordinator Brian Knorr, who plans to use a 3-4 alignment. Indiana should have enough depth to make the transition as it returns two full-time starters from 2013 -- David Cooper and T.J. Simmons -- as well as two part-time starters in Forisse Hardin and Clyde Newton, who started the final four games of his freshman season. Like Simmons and Newton, Marcus Oliver played a lot as a freshman and provides some depth. The key here will be converting all the experience into sharper, more consistent play.

Iowa: If you're of the mindset that Iowa always reloads at linebacker, you can rest easy this spring. If not, keep a very close eye on what happens as the Hawkeyes begin replacing one of the more productive linebacker groups in team history: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. There are high hopes for sophomore Reggie Spearman, who played in 10 games as a freshman last fall. Spearman, junior Travis Perry and senior Quinton Alston enter the spring as the front-runners to take over the top spots. The biggest challenge could be building depth behind them with Cole Fisher and others.

Maryland: The good news is the Terrapins return three productive starters from 2013 in Cole Farrand, L.A. Goree and Matt Robinson, who combined for 233 tackles, including 19 for loss. The bad news is Maryland loses its top playmaker at the position in Marcus Whitfield, who recorded nine sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss last season. But the overall picture is favorable, and the depth should be strong when Alex Twine and Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil return from their injuries. Young players such as Abner Logan (37 tackles in 2013) will push for more time.

Michigan: There are a lot of familiar faces in new positions as Michigan not only has shuffled the roles of its defensive assistant coaches, but also its top linebackers. Standout Jake Ryan moves from strong-side linebacker to the middle, while junior James Ross III moves from the weak side to the strong side and Desmond Morgan shifts from the middle to the weak side. Joe Bolden, who had 54 tackles last season, can play both outside and inside, and players such as Ben Gedeon, Royce Jenkins-Stone and Allen Gant add depth. The talent is there for a big year if the position switches pan out.

Michigan State: It won't be easy to replace the Big Ten's top linebacker tandem in Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, not to mention Rose Bowl hero Kyler Elsworth, but Michigan State has some promising options. Ed Davis appears ready to step in for Allen after recording four sacks as a sophomore. Junior Darien Harris and two redshirt freshmen, Shane Jones and Jon Reschke, will compete at middle linebacker. Returning starter Taiwan Jones is back at the star position, and Mylan Hicks should be in the rotation. Depth is a bit of a question mark here entering the spring.

Minnesota: The Gophers lose key pieces in all three areas of the defense, and linebacker is no exception as two starters (Aaron Hill and James Manuel) depart. Minnesota will lean on Damien Wilson, who started in 12 games at middle linebacker in his first season with the Gophers and recorded 78 tackles. Junior De'Vondre Campbell seems ready to claim a starting spot after backing up Manuel last season. There will be plenty of competition at the strong-side linebacker spot, as Nick Rallis, De'Niro Laster and others are in the mix. Jack Lynn is backing up Wilson at middle linebacker but could work his way into a starting spot on the outside with a good spring.

Nebraska: Optimism is building for the Blackshirts in 2014, thanks in large part to the returning linebackers. The three players who finished last season as the starters -- David Santos, Michael Rose and Zaire Anderson -- all are back, as Rose will lead the way in the middle. Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry also have starting experience and return for 2014. If younger players such as Marcus Newby develop this spring, Nebraska could have the Big Ten's deepest group of linebackers, a dramatic departure from the Huskers' first few years in the conference. Good things are happening here.

Northwestern: The top two playmakers return here in Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis, who combined for seven interceptions and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2014. Northwestern's challenge is replacing the leadership Damien Proby provided in the middle. Ellis has shifted from the strong side to the middle, and Northwestern has moved safety Jimmy Hall from safety to strong-side linebacker. Drew Smith and Hall will compete for the third starting spot throughout the offseason. Sophomores Jaylen Prater and Joseph Jones should provide some depth.

Ohio State: Coach Urban Meyer has made it clear that Ohio State needs more from the linebackers, so it's a huge offseason for this crew, which loses superstar Ryan Shazier. The Buckeyes return starters at the outside spots in Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry, although competition will continue throughout the spring and summer. Redshirt freshman Darron Lee surprisingly opened spring practice Tuesday working with Grant and Perry on the first-team defense. Camren Williams appeared in all 13 games as a reserve and will be part of the rotation, along with Trey Johnson. Meyer said last month that the incoming linebacker recruits won't redshirt, which means an opportunity for mid-year enrollee Raekwon McMillan.

Penn State: Linebacker U is looking for more bodies at the position after struggling with depth issues throughout 2013. The Lions lose leading tackler Glenn Carson but bring back two players, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman, who started most of the season. The new coaching staff is counting on Hull to become a star as a senior. Brandon Bell, who appeared in nine games and recorded 24 tackles as a freshman, will compete for a starting spot along with Gary Wooten. Penn State hopes Ben Kline can stay healthy as he provides some experience, and incoming freshman Troy Reeder could enter the rotation right away.

Purdue: Expect plenty of competition here as Purdue loses leading tackler Will Lucas and must get more consistent play from the group. Joe Gilliam started for most of the 2013 season and should occupy a top spot this fall. Sean Robinson also brings experience to the field, and Ryan Russell could fill more of a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role this season. Redshirt freshman Danny Ezechukwu is an intriguing prospect to watch this spring as he aims for a bigger role. Ezechukwu is just one of several younger players, including decorated incoming recruit Gelen Robinson, who have opportunities to make a splash.

Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights return a good deal of production here with Steve Longa and Kevin Snyder, who combined for 219 tackles, including 15 tackles for loss and five sacks. Quentin Gause also is back after racking up 53 tackles (8.5 for loss) in a mostly reserve role last season. Gause likely will claim the starting strong-side linebacker spot as Jamal Merrell departs. The starting spots are seemingly set, so Rutgers will look to build depth with Davon Jacobs, who had 30 tackles as a reserve last season, and L.J. Liston, both sophomores.

Wisconsin: Do-it-all linebacker Chris Borland is gone, along with Ethan Armstrong and Conor O'Neill, so Wisconsin must replace three of its top four tacklers from 2013. Derek Landisch and Joe Schobert can be penciled in as starters, along with Michael Caputo, who played mostly safety last season but should slide into one of the outside spots. Marcus Trotter brings experience to the rotation. The spotlight will be on younger linebackers such as Vince Biegel, who had 25 tackles last season, as well as dynamic sophomore Leon Jacobs and Alec James, a decorated recruit who redshirted in 2013.
Tags:

Purdue Boilermakers, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Penn State Nittany Lions, Big Ten Conference, Michigan State Spartans, Northwestern Wildcats, Indiana Hoosiers, Illinois Fighting Illini, Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan Wolverines, Wisconsin Badgers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Big Ten, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Maryland Terrapins, Damien Proby, Collin Ellis, Michael Trotter, Max Bullough, Jonathan Brown, Chi Chi Ariguzo, Mylan Hicks, Mike Hull, Jake Ryan, Ryan Russell, Joshua Perry, Derek Landisch, Jimmy Hall, Denicos Allen, Ralph Cooper, Curtis Grant, Darien Harris, Quinton Alston, Marcus Trotter, Joe Bolden, Royce Jenkins-Stone, Michael Rose, Joseph Jones, Camren Williams, Vince Biegel, Cole Fisher, Jack Lynn, Nyeem Wartman, Allen Gant, T.J. Neal, David Santos, Zaire Anderson, Joe Gilliam, David Cooper, Jon Reschke, Taiwan Jones, Ben Gedeon, Shane Jones, Brandon Bell, Nathan Gerry, Marcus Newby, Forisse Hardin, Mason Monheim, Mike Svetina, Eric Finney, Trey Johnson, Leon Jacobs, Reggie Spearman, Alec James, De'Vondre Campbell, De'Niro Laster, Damien Wilson, Josh Banderas, T.J. Simmons, Clyde Newton, Marcus Oliver, Ben Kline, Drew Smith, Nick Rallis, Troy Reeder, James Ross III, Joe Schobert, Raekwon McMillan, Gelen Robinson, Gary Wooten, Ed Davis, Travis Perry, Brian Knorr, Cole Farrand, Matt Robinson, Marcus Whitfield, Jaylen Prater, B1G spring positions 14, Darron Lee, L.A. Goree, Alex Twine, Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil, Abner Logan, Danny Ezechukwu, Steve Longa, Kevin Snyder, Quentin Gause, Jamal Merrell, Davon Jacobs, L.J. Liston

Illinois season preview

August, 21, 2013
8/21/13
10:30
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Can Tim Beckman turn around Illinois in his second year? That's one of the many questions surrounding the Illini heading into 2013:

ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI

Coach: Tim Beckman (23-26, 2-10)

2012 Record: 2-10 (0-8 Big Ten)

Key losses: WR Darius Millines, G/T Hugh Thornton, C Graham Pocic, DE Michael Buchanan, DT Akeem Spence, DT Glenn Foster, LB Ashante Williams, CB Terry Hawthorne, CB Justin Green, S Supo Sanni.

Key returnees: QB Nathan Scheelhaase, RB Donovonn Young, RB Josh Ferguson, WR Ryan Lankford, WR Spencer Harris, LG Michael Heitz, RG Ted Karras, RT Simon Cvijanovic, DE Tim Kynard, LB Mike Svetina, MLB Mason Monheim.

Newcomer to watch: Defensive lineman Paul James III was the only ESPN 300 recruit the Illini picked up last season, coming in at No. 200 out of Miami. Considering the heavy losses for Illinois on its defensive line, especially Buchanan, James could have the chance to play early. On a roster in need of a lot of retooling, getting him some early playing time could be key.

[+] EnlargeNathan Scheelhaase
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhNathan Scheelhaase returns for his fourth season as the Illini's quarterback.
Biggest games in 2013: For a team still trying to figure out its way out of the depths of the Big Ten, this season’s schedule will not help. Nonconference games against Cincinnati and Washington will be tough -- even if both are in the state of Illinois (Cincinnati in Champaign and Washington in Chicago). The Big Ten schedule isn’t too favorable for Illinois, either, with a tough opening stretch at Nebraska and then home against Wisconsin and Michigan State. By the middle of October, Illinois might know if it still has anything other than pride to play for.

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: There are a lot of them, but the overriding one is if the second season under Beckman will be better than the first. Theoretically it should be, considering Illinois returns a chunk of its offense, led by QB Scheelhaase. But its defense will have major retooling to do as only four starters return. Considering the potential strength at the top of the Leaders Division, it could be a rough season no matter what.

Forecast: Not good. With a tough schedule, a rebuilding roster and already some pressure to win and win now, Year 2 of the Beckman experience might look eerily like the first season.

If not for Scheelhaase, its offense would lack a lot of experience. And the defense is already filling a lot of holes left in the secondary and on the defensive line.

Beckman is attempting to change that. Hiring Bill Cubit, an experienced offensive mind with head coaching experience at Western Michigan, is a start. He should be able to help Scheelhaase improve, and the Illini have a good running back to work with in Young, a junior who started 10 games last season, averaging 4.4 yards a carry.

The other reasons for optimism in Champaign come from two junior college players who could make pushes to start: receiver Martize Barr and linebacker Eric Finney. Safety Zane Petty, another juco transfer, played Division I football before at Colorado State and could fill a need if he can move up the depth chart.

Illinois could also be strong at linebacker, led by Monheim, who led the Illini in tackles in 2012 with 86. Just a sophomore, he’ll be looked at to focus a young defensive group.

All of that said, for Illinois to have a successful season, it will need every possible thing to go right. If it doesn’t, the Illini will be watching bowl season from home again this winter.
You can't say Illinois linebacker Jonathan Brown had a bad season in 2012. He led his team with 9.5 tackles for loss and was named a Butkus Award semifinalist.

Still, last season is one Brown would mostly like to put in the trash folder.

"Last year was just a rough year all around," he told ESPN.com. "It was just one of those years, man."

[+] EnlargeIllinois' Jonathan Brown
Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY SportsJonathan Brown (45) was one of the top linebackers in the conference and just barely missed making the Top 25.
He suffered along with the Illini during a 2-10 season, and he suffered physically, too. Nicked up after the opener, he said he didn't start to get healthy again until the middle of the season. Then he incurred a shoulder injury that forced him to miss the final three games and sit out all of spring practice.

The good news is that Brown feels healthy now after rehabbing the shoulder all offseason.

"The whole rehab process was excellent," he said. "We didn't rush back into anything, and took our time. I feel like I've come back even a little bit stronger."

Brown has been participating in voluntary team workouts and testing his shoulder by hitting sleds in individual work. He says he will be fully cleared for all drills when preseason practice starts next month. When asked if he was anxious to hit somebody again, Brown replied, "Beyond anxious. Beyond."

A healthy Brown could do wonders for the Illini defense, which finished 11th in the Big Ten in points allowed (32.1 ppg) last season. This is a guy who had 108 tackles, six sacks, 19.5 tackles for loss and an interception as a sophomore in 2011. He was still learning the game then, and after a spring in which he spent extra time in the film room -- perhaps the lone benefit from his injury -- he feels older and wiser now.

"I'm expecting to do big things this year," he said. "I feel like I'm at a different level than I was last year and the year before because of my experience. That has put me in a position where I'm ready to excel from where I am now to another level."

But Brown said whatever numbers he puts up won't matter much if the team stinks again during his senior season. The linebacker spot is at least one reason for Illini optimism.

Injuries there allowed Mason Monheim and Mike Svetina to pile up a lot of playing as true freshmen. Those two are now a year older and will be joined by junior college transfer Eric Finney, who is expected to start at the Star linebacker position. Other young players like Houston Bates give defensive coordinator Tim Banks some good depth to work with.

Brown likes what he has seen out of that group and the defense as a whole so far.

"We've really come together," he said. "We're probably not as talented as we were last year, because last year we had a lot of good players. But it just didn't mesh quite right. This year, we've got a lot of guys who are hungry, a lot of guys willing to work. It's going to be exciting."

Brown says he needs to continue working on his lateral quickness, retraining his muscles after so long away from competitive football. But he's not going to hold anything back during fall camp or during his final season in Champaign. He hopes to make 2013 a much more memorable one.
Now that spring practice is solidly in the rearview mirror, we're examining the most indispensable players on each Big Ten team for the 2013 season.

By indispensable, we don't necessarily mean best. We mean the players who would be hardest to replace between now and the start of the season if they got hurt or suspended or had to go battle White Walkers north of The Wall. That could be because of their value to the team, or because of a lack of depth at their position.

We'll pick two players from each team, usually offense and defense, but not always. Let's turn now to the Illinois Fighting Illini.

Jonathan Brown, LB

Don't forget that Brown might never have been 100 percent healthy in 2012, when the Illini defense struggled mightily. He played in nine games but lacked the production he showed in a breakout sophomore campaign. Would Brown have made a huge difference in Illinois' final 2-10 record? Most likely not, since the team had so many other problems. But don't discount just how valuable a player he can be. This is a guy, after all, who had 108 tackles, six sacks and 19.5 TFLs in 2011. While Mason Monheim and Mike Svetina turned in promising campaigns as true freshman linebackers last year, defensive coordinator Chris Beatty would love to have a healthy Brown as a defensive difference maker in 2013.

Donovonn Young, RB

Frankly, it's a tough call finding two truly indispensable Illini because of how undistinguished most of the returning players are. That happens on a 2-10 team. We believe that the offense is better off with quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase starting, but that Reilly O'Toole or even freshman Aaron Bailey could handle the reins without him. Illinois will likely need Martize Barr and Miles Osei to stay healthy among a thin receiving corps, especially after the dismissal of Darius Millines. But Young is a guy who looks like a potential centerpiece of the offense, especially after he ran for 86 yards and three touchdowns in the spring game. He's a physical runner who could provide the punch in Bill Cubit's spread offense and improve a ground game that ranked last in the Big Ten in yards per carry last year. Josh Ferguson is a solid option at running back as well and brings a lot of speed to the table. But he's also been injury prone during his career, making Young look even more indispensable.

More indispensable:

Michigan
Wisconsin
Minnesota
Nebraska
Indiana
Michigan State
Ohio State
Iowa
Penn State
We've been taking a look at which Big Ten teams will be contenders and which will be pretenders in the 2013 season. Our series does not include Ohio State, Michigan or Nebraska -- three teams that, in our view, have earned the "contender" label entering the fall. For every other league team, we'll make a case for why they're contenders and pretenders and provide our final verdict.

The last installment in our series takes a look at Illinois.

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Why they're a contender: We can't lie: this a tough case to make for a team that went 2-10 last year and has lost 14 straight Big Ten games over the past two seasons. But we'll try. It was a rough first year for Tim Beckman, but you often see teams make big strides in a new coach's second year. Toledo went 5-7 the first year under Beckman and then improved to 8-5 -- with a 7-1 mark in the MAC -- in Year 2. Beckman shook up his staff in the offseason, and new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit should greatly enhance what was the worst offense in the conference in 2012. Nathan Scheelhaase is one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the Big Ten, and players like Josh Ferguson, Donovonn Young and junior college transfer Martize Barr should help him make plays. The Illini lost some key players on defense but found a promising linebacker duo last year in freshmen Mason Monheim and Mike Svetina, and more junior college players like Eric Finney and Abe Cajuste add some much needed experience. People seem to have forgotten about Jonathan Brown, but he's still one of the best linebackers in the league when healthy. Wisconsin, Ohio State and Northwestern all have to come to Champaign this year. One thing's for sure: the Illini won't have the pressure of preseason expectations.

Why they're a pretender: Did we mention that Illinois went 2-10 last year and has lost 14 straight conference games? Improvement should be expected, but to go from one of the worst major-conference teams to a Leaders Division contender in one year requires far too much of a logical leap. Besides, many of the best Illini players from 2012 -- Akeem Spence, Michael Buchanan, Hugh Thornton and Terry Hawthone -- were drafted last month. If Beckman couldn't win a conference game with four draft picks, this year could be scary. There are still major questions on the offensive and defensive lines, at the skill positions and in general overall depth. The Illini's crossover schedule from the Legends Division -- Nebraska, Michigan State and Northwestern -- is unforgiving, and a nonconference slate that includes Cincinnati and Washington could lead to a couple of early losses. Maybe an unexpected run like the 2001 Sugar Bowl season is in the cards, but it would be unexpected by everyone.

Verdict: Only the most optimistic Illini fan would say anything other than pretender.
The rosters are set for Illinois' Orange and Blue Spring Game, which will kick off at 8 p.m. CT Friday at Memorial Stadium.

Illinois' seniors on Tuesday night drafted the two teams, which you can see here. Because of depth issues, eight players -- Robbie Bain, Abe Cajuste, Tim Clary, Chase Haslett, Samuel Ogunkoya, David Reisner, Cameron Tucker and Sean White -- will play for both squads.

Not surprisingly, top quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase (blue) and Reilly O'Toole (orange) will match up in the game. The two have competed for the starting job throughout the spring and will continue to do so in fall camp.

At first blush, the Blue squad looks much, much stronger. Scheelhaase is joined by top running backs Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young and veteran receivers Spencer Harris and Ryan Lankford. The Orange also has the team's top two healthy linebackers in Mason Monheim and Mike Svetina -- Jonathan Brown (shoulder) will miss the game -- as well as Tim Kynard, the only returning starter on the defensive line.

The Orange team needs a big night from players like wide receiver Martize Barr, a junior-college transfer practicing with the first-team offense, and Miles Osei, a former quarterback now playing exclusively at receiver. Tight end Evan Wilson also will play for the Orange. The defense includes linebacker Houston Bates, linemen Teko Powell and Vontrell Williams, and cornerback Darius Mosely, a true freshman who enrolled early and has made an impact this spring. The Orange squad also has top specialists Justin DuVernois and Taylor Zalewski.

Several players will miss the game, including Brown and wide receiver Steve Hull, who was having a good spring before being slowed by a hamstring injury.

The game will feature a normal clock for the first three quarters and a running clock in the fourth quarter aside from the final two minutes. There will be no kickoffs or returns (kickoff or punt), and quarterbacks won't be live.
A year ago, Mason Monheim was in high school.

He's now among the leaders of an Illinois team desperately trying to get back on track for the 2013 season after a 2-10 clunker last fall. Ideally, Monheim could play behind several veterans for a few years, develop physically and mentally and then claim a leadership position. But a wave of injuries, combined with Monheim's emergence as a starting linebacker, have fast-tracked him to the forefront.

[+] EnlargeMason Monheim
AP Photo/Seth PerlmanIllinois LB Mason Monheim said he's trying to learn the nuances of the other defensive positions so that he can become a better leader.
The good news: Monheim is OK with taking the reins. The better news: he likes it.

"I feel more of a leadership role," Monheim recently told ESPN.com. "I'm really taking ahold of the defense. I'm trying to figure other people's positions so I can help them out, and know what they're doing to help me. I'm trying to be more vocal, just trying to bring that fire a little bit, to the group.

"It's a lot better and easier when there's a little fire underneath you."

Monheim said he's not fiery by nature but likes bringing energy to Illinois' spring workouts, whether it's critiquing a teammate or celebrating with them after big plays. Despite his young age, his teammates are responding to him well.

"They're ready for that criticism," he said. "Everybody's trying to learn, whether you've been here for a few years or not."

Much of Monheim's education came between the lines on Saturdays last fall. The 6-foot-1, 230-pound Monheim started the final 10 games for Illinois and led all Big Ten freshmen in tackles with 86.

His tackles-per-game average of 7.2 tied for 15th in the league, while no other freshman ranked in the top 50. Monheim had six tackles for loss, including 1.5 sacks, to go along with two forced fumbles, an interception a fumble recovery and a pass breakup.

He earned freshman All-America honors from Phil Steele and made our All-Big Ten freshman team along with fellow Illini linebacker Mike Svetina.

"I guess I didn't expect to play so much, but I went in with an open mind," Monheim said. "I knew if I would get an opportunity, I'd make the best of it for the team. That's what happened."

Monheim, a two-time Division IV all-state selection from Orville High School in Ohio, likely would have played for Toledo if Illini coach Tim Beckman had remained the Rockets' head man. But days after taking his official visit to Toledo, Monheim learned Beckman had accepted the Illinois job.

Monheim, who had received several Mid-American Conference offers, jumped on the chance to follow Beckman to Champaign.

"When I came in [last] summer, I didn't know what to expect," Monheim said. "But it wasn't anything that I was scared or didn't believe in my abilities. I have a lot of great teammates. They made it easy on me."

Monheim's challenge this spring is to better understand his teammates' responsibilities so he can lead them this fall.

Illinois could have three defensive linemen selected in the NFL draft -- Michael Buchanan, Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster, who sparkled last week at pro day after not receiving a combine invite. The secondary loses cornerbacks Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green.

The biggest reasons for optimism can be found at linebacker, as both Monheim and Svetina return along with Jonathan Brown, a second-team All-Big Ten selection in 2011.

"We're more together as a group," Monheim said of Illinois' defense. "We're not focused on the individual abilities and talents. When you're together, nothing can break you."
Very little went right for Illinois under first-year coach Tim Beckman last year. After a 2-10 season, the Illini are ready to turn the page and look forward to 2013 when they hit the practice field Tuesday.

I recently caught up with Beckman to ask about the pressing issues his team faces this spring. Here is that Q&A:

[+] EnlargeTim Beckman
Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY SportsDespite a 2-10 record this past season and a slew of changes on his staff, Illinois' Tim Beckman is full of optimism heading into spring workouts.
You turned over half your staff from last year, with some voluntary departures and some not. What has that been like and how much transition are you going through right now?

Tim Beckman: Well, it's kind of crazy, because I saw a stat the other day where there's only, like, 22 staffs that haven't changed in college football, so it's been the norm. But I think with the professionalism that coaches have and the guys I've been able to hire into this new family, they're outstanding people. They're professionals, they've been coordinators, they've been head coaches, they've been in great programs. The transition has been good. I've been able to hire two Illini, which is huge, with [receivers coach Mike] Bellamy and [defensive line coach Greg] Colby.

So I think it's been a great transition. Our players have been really excited. With Mike Bellamy, he's been involved with this program for a year. So the kids were pumped when he was hired on staff, because they know him. And now he brings that Illinois flavor to the staff. All the other coaches, we've been working with each other. Jim Bridge was telling me the other day there are four or five other guys that he's been with at other places. So that's one of the unique things, because it's like a fraternity. These guys have worked with one another.

How much will the offense change with new coordinator Bill Cubit?

TB: Well, it's Bill's offense. It's what Bill was hired for. And that's how it's always been, really, with the coordinators. But I think the uniqueness that Bill has, in coaching against him, is that he's been able to adapt his offense based on personnel. He's had Jordan White, a great, great football player. He's had great wide receivers, and he's been able to move them around and adapt his offense to the guys that need to be getting the football.

After a year like last year, what do you do to keep the players' confidence up?

TB: We went back to a lot of competition, back to a lot of leadership building. We addressed the situation that occurred. I met, as I always do, with each one of the players for 10 minutes. That takes a good week. We did that in December. I asked them what their goals were, because we split up the season into four quarters -- winter workouts, spring practice, summer workouts and then the most important quarter, the season. And I had them set goals for themselves to attain each quarter. So they just wrote out their goals out for spring ball. And I also do the same thing for the team. "What do you want this team to be able to say they can do after each quarter?"

Our motto is win whatever is needed, and win the day. Whatever is needed today for us to become a better and closer football team.

What are your primary concerns for this spring?

TB: The scenario here is depth. There hasn't been depth. And when you get a young man injured, it hits you drastically because you just don't have that depth. We were able to get 10 young men here in January, five junior college players and five high school players. Junior college wise, there hasn't been a whole bunch here before. There might have been one or two. But we needed to add age to our football team, and that's what the junior college players help us do.

You've only seen the junior college guys in winter workouts so far, but what is your early impression of those guys?

TB: The first thing that I look at always is how have they been accountability wise. Because it's new. They get in here, and, bam, they're thrown into the fire right away. I'm proud, because they've all been very accountable. We haven't been late for things. Being in school and being a football player hasn't got their minds out of whack or anything like that. They've shown football wise that they can compete, but they've also shown that they're doing a very good job of being accountable on and off the football field.

How do you see the quarterback competition, where you've got a veteran starter in Nathan Scheelhaase but also a guy in Reilly O'Toole who's played a lot and a big-time recruit (Aaron Bailey) coming in?

TB: As in any position, there's competition. Nathan will go in as the guy, being the starter. Somebody's got to beat him out. But Nathan's won a lot of football games here. We had a tough year, no question, but that's not going to be on Nathan's shoulders. He was getting sacked too many times. All those things you can't have your quarterback doing, getting hit. We've got to get better at protecting our quarterback, and we've got to be able to get the ball out quicker and do those types of things so our quarterback can be successful.

[+] EnlargeSteve Hull
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsSteve Hull will be trading in delivering hits for making catches on offense this spring.
You talked often last year about the lack of depth at the offensive skill positions. How has that come along?

TB: It's getting better. Those young men we played with last year have moved up in age. We've taken Steve Hull and moved him to offense, so that adds age and depth to that position. Wide receivers and DBs are the big concern here. And we've been able to add freshmen and junior college players to those positions.

Why did you move Hull to receiver?

TB: He's had some issues with injury. We felt that Steve, for his fifth year, would be better suited to play on the offensive side of the ball to take out maybe some of the direct collisions he was getting as a safety. And he's been great with it. He loves it, and he's emerged as being one of the big vocal leaders on the team.

The offensive line really struggled last year, and you lost two senior starters in Graham Pocic and Hugh Thornton. How does that position group look going into spring?

TB: Losing the two senior starters, they were dinged up a little bit during the season, so we had to move some players around. But we also had three, really four, players that got a lot of playing time last year. So they should be a year better. I like the philosophy that coach Bridge brings in here as our offensive line coach and what coach Cubit does with the running game. Our offensive line has done a great job these last three months -- and [strength coaches] Aaron Hillman and Dave Andrews get a lot of credit for it -- of getting stronger, getting bigger and doing those things you need to do to be a Big Ten offensive lineman.

You played a lot of freshmen on defense last year, like Monheim and Mike Svetina. Do you expect them to be much farther along this spring because of that experience?

TB: No question. They're not going to be freshmen that are 18 years old out there starting in the Big Ten. They're going to have a year's experience. We played Teko Powell on the defensive line last year so he could gather experience. V'Angelo Bentley played a bunch last year as a true freshman, so he got a bunch of experience. Now these players that were just brought in in January, plus the redshirt freshmen, are going to have to step up and be involved in the front and in the back end. You had a guy like a Jake Howe, who was playing very good and then broke his hand and was out for the year. You have Austin Teitsma, who got quite a few reps last year. Darius Caldwell. Houston Bates, who got hurt last year. Jonathan Brown. We've got to get those guys back and healthy.

You mentioned concerns about depth in the secondary. What young players do you expect to step up there?

TB: I think Eaton Spence has done a good job for us. V'Angelo Bentley has done a good job. The two freshmen we brought in have done a good job in winter workouts. I haven't seen them on the football field, but they've been doing their change of direction stuff very well. A young man named Taylor Barton, a true freshman, has done a good job. Eric Finney, who came in from junior college, LaKeith Walls, B.J. Bello, Jevaris Little -- these are names who have worked extremely hard this season. They're not names a bunch of people know because they've not played yet, other than Spence and Bentley. But these guys have definitely improved.

Have you started identifying leaders on this team yet?

TB: Well, we have really been pushing it. We've been meeting on it. We've been talking about it as a team and then as individual classes, and then our honor council. We've had a guest speaker come in every Monday and talk about leadership, from military people to a gold medal winner in the wheelchair marathon. So we've really built that in. I've seen players from young and old step up in winter workouts, step up and be leaders. Steve Hull has emerged as a guy who definitely does an outstanding job of leading this football team. Mason Monheim, who was a freshman, he's jumped up and taken control. Earnest Thomas. Guys that probably weren't as much leaders last year that might not be seniors have jumped up and tried to lead this football team well.

We've got 62 players who are freshmen and sophomores, so there's a big number of guys who have been here three or less years because of redshirts. So we've got to be able to all be leaders in this program, and that's what we're stressing.

Not surprisingly, the fan base was really down on last year. What can you do to create some more optimism?

TB: I opened up the Friday practices again to the community. This is the University of Illinois. It's our state, our team. We talk about it, and that's the truth. I want to get the community involved in this program. I've always wanted to do that and we're going to do it even more. We're going up to Chicago for a practice. Of course, we've got a game in Chicago at Soldier Field, which is an outstanding opportunity for Illini Nation and those things. We're moving forward.

Nobody was happy with last year. I mean no one. I haven't been involved in that type of year. So we have to move forward and we have to take this program forward. And that's what we asked this football team and this coaching staff to do.

B1G postseason position rankings: LB

February, 19, 2013
2/19/13
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It's time for another installment of our postseason position rankings, and today we're looking at one of the strongest groups in the Big Ten in 2012: the linebackers.

Just about every team boasted one standout linebacker last season, and many had multiple ones. That makes this list one of the tougher ones to date, and there's not a whole lot of separation between teams, especially in the middle. Star power matters, but depth is also important.

You can see how we ranked the linebackers entering the season here. Here's how we see things now:

1. Penn State (Preseason ranking: 2): We ranked the Nittany Lions second in the preseason, not knowing for sure how Michael Mauti would bounce back from his latest knee injury. Well, we picked him as our Big Ten defensive player of the year. Gerald Hodges was his usual brilliant self, especially when he switched into beast mode during league play. And the guy nobody talks about, Glenn Carson, also had a very solid season. Linebacker U., indeed.

2. Wisconsin (Preseason: 3): Mike Taylor and Chris Borland were so good and so consistent that we may have begun to take them for granted. Taylor collected 123 tackles, while Borland had 104, and the two combined for 25 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. The unsung member of the trio, Ethan Armstrong, added 93 stops. Once again, the linebackers were the strength of a very good Badgers defense.

3. Michigan State (Preseason: 1): Max Bullough was a first-team All-Big Ten performer who led the Spartans with 111 tackles. Denicos Allen didn't match his 2011 numbers but still managed 10 tackles for loss and three sacks. Sophomore Taiwan Jones surpassed Chris Norman late in the year to give the unit even more depth. This group may have lacked the truly huge, game-changing plays, but it's hard to ask for much more than what it provided all season.

4. Michigan (Preseason: 5): The Wolverines linebacking crew became the backbone of the defense in 2012. Jake Ryan turned into a star with his flair for the big play; he piled up 16 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles. Kenny Demens and Desmond Morgan were both solid, underrated players, and freshmen James Ross III and Joe Bolden helped give this group outstanding depth.

5. Northwestern (Preseason: 11): The Wildcats made the biggest jump from the preseason rankings, as all three starters (Damien Proby, David Nwabuisi and Chi Chi Ariguzo) collected at least 91 tackles. Ariguzo developed into a big-time playmaker, with 10.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions and four fumble recoveries. Proby and Nwabuisi were almost criminally underrated.

6. Ohio State (Preseason: 4): The Buckeyes had the most interesting stories at linebacker. Ryan Shazier emerged as a destructive force of nature, especially in the second half of the season. Zach Boren switched from fullback to linebacker midseason and made a surprisingly smooth transition. Etienne Sabino broke his leg but came back to finish the year. Storm Klein returned from a suspension to contribute a little. There were some weak spots and shaky moments here, but Shazier's sheer strength helped hold this group together.

7. Iowa (Preseason: 8): Stats alone would tell you that the Hawkeyes had one of the best linebacking corps around. First-year starter Anthony Hitchens was one of the top tacklers in the nation with 124 stops, while James Morris (113) and Christian Kirksey (95) also ranked among the league leaders in that category. But tackle numbers alone don't tell the whole story, and Iowa lacked the kind of high-impact plays from its linebackers that teams above it on this list produced.

8. Nebraska (Preseason: 7): The Huskers had their issues on defense, but it was hard to fault the play of Will Compton, who led the team with 110 tackles and three fumble recoveries. Alonzo Whaley, Sean Fisher and David Santos ably filled out the rest of the group, but Nebraska had trouble finding the right combination of speed and experience at linebacker.

9. Minnesota: (Preseason: 10): The Gophers were young in a lot of spots but not at linebacker, where experienced veterans like Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper led the way. Aaron Hill rounded out what was a solid, if unspectacular, corps that helped Minnesota make great strides on defense.

10. Illinois (Preseason: 6): Injuries were one reason why Jonathan Brown didn't blossom into the superstar we expected to see. He had 9.5 tackles for loss but played in only nine games. It says something about both the Illini linebackers and the defense as a whole that true freshman Mason Monheim led the team with 86 tackles. He and fellow first-year player Mike Svetina at least give Illinois some reason for optimism.

11. Purdue (Preseason: 9): Dwayne Beckford was kicked off the team in August, and things didn't get a whole lot better from there. Will Lucas led the group with 66 tackles, but it was a sign of Purdue's problems at linebacker that converted quarterback Sean Robinson started here. Improving the linebacker play should be a top priority for new head coach Darrell Hazell.

12. Indiana (Preseason: 12): Junior-college import David Cooper stepped right in and made an immediate impact, recording 86 tackles and nine behind the line of scrimmage. But the Hoosiers struggled to find consistent play elsewhere at the position. It's no coincidence that Kevin Wilson's latest recruiting class includes several potential linebackers.

Season report card: Illinois

December, 18, 2012
12/18/12
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Before players can take part in bowls -- or go home if their team is not in the postseason -- they must first finish their final exams. Here on the blog, we're passing out final grades for the regular season for each Big Ten team -- offense, defense, special teams and overall -- before the league kicks off its bowl season later this month.

First up, the Illinois Fighting Illini.

Offense: F

Illinois finished second-to-last in the FBS in total offense and in scoring at 16.7 points per game, a number that seems high when compared to the team's output in Big Ten play: a putrid 11.8 points per contest. The offensive line was a disaster, and neither quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase nor Reilly O'Toole could consistently move the chains. Moving to a spread system under new coach Tim Beckman, the Illini had nothing to hang their hats on with a weak running and weak passing game. The team was held to seven points or fewer in three Big Ten games. The leading rusher was Donovonn Young with 571 yards in 12 games, while Ryan Lankford's 469 receiving yards were most on the squad. Illinois also had more interceptions and lost fumbles than it did offensive touchdowns. Just a near total failure here.

Defense: D-minus

There were some top-flight playmakers on this side of the ball with guys like Michael Buchanan, Akeem Spence and Jonathan Brown. Unfortunately, it didn't translate into results, as the Illini surrendered more than 32 points per game, fielded the worst pass efficiency defense in the Big Ten and yielded more than 190 rushing yards per contest. Injuries depleted the unit during the course of the season, and there were embarrassing performances like the 45-14 loss to Arizona State, the 52-24 defeat to Louisiana Tech and the 50-14 season-ending setback at rival Northwestern. At least true freshmen linebackers Mason Monheim and Mike Svetina showed promise.

Special teams: D-plus

The absence of Ron Zook didn't end the Illinois problems on special teams. The Illini were once again one of the worst punt- and kickoff-return units in the country. They made only eight of their 12 field goal tries. On the plus side, they did lead the Big Ten in punting, as Justin DuVernois had a solid year (and was asked to punt a lot). Still, a team that struggled to move the ball on offense didn't do many things to help itself with field position.

Overall: F

Sorry to be harsh with the grades, but there just wasn't much of anything to like about Beckman's first year in Champaign. Illinois beat just one FBS team -- Western Michigan, which later fired its coach. After that season opening win, the Illini went 1-10 with the only victory over an FCS opponent (Charleston Southern). Only one of those losses came by fewer than two touchdowns (20-17 against Purdue). Attendance plummeted and many fans have already lost faith in Beckman, who said at one point that he had lost 22 pounds during the trying season. Beckman is seeking some immediate help by signing several junior-college transfers. He has to upgrade just about every facet of this team, and there likely will be a staff shakeup. He and Illinois fans everywhere will have to hope the 2012 season represented rock bottom for the program.
The Big Ten doesn't name an official all-freshman team, but that won't stop us from coming up with our own.

There were many impressive debuts this year in the league, and several players showed off promising potential. Here is our 2012 all-freshman squad, captained by freshman of the year Deion Barnes:

Offense

QB: Joel Stave, Wisconsin*
RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin*
RB: Imani Cross, Nebraska
WR: Aaron Burbridge, Michigan State
TE: Kyle Carter, Penn State*
TE: Devin Funchess, Michigan
TE: Dan Vitale, Northwestern
OL: Jack Allen, Michigan State*
OL: Jason Spriggs, Indiana
OL: Donovan Smith, Penn State*
OL: Austin Blythe, Iowa*
OL: Dan Feeney, Indiana

Defense

DL: Deion Barnes, Penn State*
DL: Adolphus Washington, Ohio State
DL: Noah Spence, Ohio State
DL: Dean Lowry, Northwesterm
LB: Mason Monheim, Illinois
LB: Joe Bolden, Michigan
LB: Mike Svetina, Illinois
LB: James Ross, Michigan
DB: Nick VanHoose, Northwestern*
DB: Frankie Williams, Purdue*
DB: RJ Williamson, Michigan State*

Specialists

K: Taylor Zalewski, Illinois*
P: Drew Meyer, Wisconsin*
KR: Dennis Norfleet, Michigan
All-purpose: Josh Ferguson, Illinois*

* -- redshirt freshman

As you can see, we got creative again -- we had a 3-4 defense for our ESPN.com All-Big Ten team, and now we have a revolutionary 4-4-3 setup on our all-freshman defense. Why? Well, the pool for newbie defensive backs in this league was very shallow, so we preferred to recognize an extra linebacker instead of forcing the issue at DB. ... You might also notice our 12-man, three-TE offense. We believe the young tight ends in this league are extremely promising, and we didn't even include Penn State's Jesse James. Outside of Burbridge, there wasn't much production from freshman receivers. ... We left off some pretty good young offensive linemen who just missed the cut, including Minnesota's Josh Campion and Illinois' Ted Karras. ... Stave gets the nod over the Gophers' Philip Nelson even though he missed the final month with a broken collarbone. Nelson had a great game against Purdue but had some poor statistical outings down the stretch. ... Carter was the only freshman who also made our All-Big Ten team. ... Gordon showed what a high ceiling he has with his 200-plus yard performance in the Big Ten title game. He could be an absolute superstar.

Big Ten Tuesday personnel roundup

November, 6, 2012
11/06/12
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Some more personnel nuggets from around the league ...
  • Illinois LB Jonathan Brown (shoulder) is out for Saturday's game against Minnesota, coach Tim Beckman confirmed. Brown sustained the injury last Saturday at Ohio State and is "week to week," according to Beckman. Freshman Mike Svetina will step in for Brown, an All-Big Ten player in 2011 who is tied for the team lead in tackles (59) and leads the team in tackles for loss (9.5). He also has a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
  • Minnesota WR A.J. Barker (ankle) is doubtful for the Illinois game, according to coach Jerry Kill. Barker, the Gophers' top receiver (30 catches, 577 yards, 7 TDs), tried to play last week against Michigan but tweaked the injury in pregame warm-ups. He won't practice today. "Unless a miracle takes place, I don't look for him to play," Kill said. Another Gophers WR, Derrick Engel, is questionable for the Illinois game after injuring his hamstring against Michigan.
  • Penn State DT Jordan Hill (knee) and TE Kyle Carter (foot) are both day-to-day for this week's game at Nebraska, coach Bill O'Brien said. Carter sat out last week at Purdue, while Hill sustained a nasty-looking injury that turned out to be just a sprain. Decisions on both men will be made later in the week, while RB Curtis Dukes (head) is out for the Nebraska game. O'Brien also said Penn State's running back competition continues this week after Zach Zwinak shined in the Purdue game, while Bill Belton was a nonfactor.
  • Iowa likely will be without RB Mark Weisman (groin) for the second straight game Saturday against Purdue. Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz isn't overly optimistic about having Weisman, noting that the sophomore couldn't do anything in Sunday's workout. Weisman has logged countless hours in the training room trying to get back on the field, but as Ferentz noted, "Nature has to take its course."
  • Purdue WR O.J. Ross (toe) likely will play this week against Illinois, coach Danny Hope said, while RB/KR Raheem Mostert (knee) and DT Brandon Taylor (ankle) are doubtful. Senior DT Kawann Short (ankle) expects to play after seeing fewer snaps in the Penn State game.
  • Ohio State coach Urban Meyer says there's a better than 50 percent chance LB Etienne Sabino (leg) returns following the open week at Wisconsin. Sabino, who broke his leg Oct. 6 against Nebraska, recently met with the training staff. "We need him," Meyer said.

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