Big Ten: Taylor Zalewski

Season report card: Illinois

January, 26, 2015
Jan 26
10:00
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There's an empty spot on refrigerators -- or trash cans -- in football offices around the Big Ten. Coaches can't wait to display, or dispose of, their season report cards. So let's get in on with it.

This week, we're grading each Big Ten team in the following areas: offense, defense, special teams, coaching and overall. Our red pens are ready, and the Illinois Fighting Illini are up first.

Offense: B

Spurred by a pass attack ranked second in the Big Ten, the offense again carried Illinois for much of the season. Quarterback Wes Lunt shined early and Reilly O'Toole came up big late. Despite a spotty run game, Josh Ferguson had another productive season and wideout Mikey Dudek emerged as a budding star during Big Ten play.

Defense: D-plus

Yes, D-plus is a real grade, and it applies to an Illini defense that struggled for most of the season but came up big in a home upset of Minnesota, forcing three turnovers, including V'Angelo Bentley's scoop and score in the fourth quarter. Still, the run defense suffered as Illinois allowed nearly 240 rushing yards per game for the second straight season. Significant improvement is needed here.

Special teams: C-minus

It was a year of extremes for the Illini in the kicking game. Punter Justin DuVernois averaged 44 yards per punt, with 20 punts of 50 yards or longer. Bentley averaged 10.2 yards on punt returns. But kickers Taylor Zalewski and David Reisner struggled and the coverage teams had some issues. The overall performance cost special-teams coach Tim Salem his job.

Coaching: C

As an opposing Big Ten assistant recently told me, offensive coordinator Bill Cubit is keeping Illinois' afloat. The veteran play-caller did a good job managing the offense this season. Coach Tim Beckman also deserves some credit for Illinois' late surge. Illinois won three of its final five games to make a bowl game.

Overall: C-

Illinois' victory total increased for the second consecutive season, and reaching a bowl game likely saved Beckman's job. It was a struggle to reach six wins, though, and the Illini struggled to compete against the better teams they faced. A good finish to the regular season and some returning offensive firepower provides hope for the future, but defense and special teams remain concerns.

Offseason to-do list: Illinois

January, 19, 2015
Jan 19
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The seemingly endless offseason is sadly upon us, so it's time for each Big Ten team to see what needs to be upgraded (yes, even you, Ohio State). During the next week or so we'll examine three items on each Big Ten team's to-do list before the 2015 season kicks off in September.

Illinois leads things off.

1. Establish a vision on defense: Tim Beckman's background is on defense, but his team has struggled to consistently stop anyone during his Illini tenure. Illinois has finished last in the Big Ten in rush defense in each of the past two seasons, allowing nearly 240 rush yards per game in both years. Beckman could hire a co-defensive coordinator to assist Tim Banks, who has been the sole coordinator since 2012. Whatever Beckman decides, his defense needs to have a clear vision and identity. There is some talent and experience there with players like Mason Monheim, Jihad Ward and V'Angelo Bentley, but a unit that can't stop the run in the Big Ten has no chance.

2. Get Wes Lunt healthy and on track: Lunt had 1,569 pass yards and 11 touchdowns in his first five games with the Illini, but he wasn't the same after returning from a broken leg. The sophomore quarterback had just one touchdown pass, struggled with his accuracy, and couldn't stretch the field in his final three appearances. It's important that Lunt gets back to 100 percent and re-establishes the rhythm he had in September. He's still the team's best quarterback option. Illinois' offense will be its strength with weapons like Mikey Dudek, Josh Ferguson, Geronimo Allison, and Malik Turner back in the fold. If Lunt recaptures his early form, the Illini will be tough to stop this fall.

3. Make special teams a strength: Beckman said the special teams units he inherited at Illinois were "as bad as there was in this country, probably." The improvement hasn't been sufficient, as he fired special teams coach Tim Salem after the season. Illinois needs to identify a reliable kicker -- David Reisner and Taylor Zalewski combined to go 9-for-17 on field-goal attempts in 2014 -- and replace standout punter Justin DuVernois. The Illini boast one of the Big Ten's top returners in Bentley, but coverage teams need to be upgraded. Illinois simply isn't good enough elsewhere to have the kicking game hold it back.
The Big Ten went 8-5 in Week 2, and we learned some things in the process. Brace yourself; this won't be pretty.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsAmeer Abdullah's heroics helped Nebraska escape what would have been an embarrassing loss to McNeese State.
1. The Midwest misery index is at an all-time high: Don't completely count out the Big Ten from the College Football Playoff; we're a long, long way until the first Sunday in December, after all. But the road to getting a team in the four-team field became extremely difficult after a disappointing and dispiriting Week 2 showing by the conference. In the three marquee night games, Michigan State lost by 19 points to Oregon, Michigan got embarrassed in a 31-0 shutout at Notre Dame and Ohio State lost by 14 at home to an unranked Virginia Tech squad. Meanwhile, Nebraska needed Ameer Abdullah's heroics in the final minute just to squeak past FCS McNeese State, and Iowa had to pull off a huge comeback to escape at home against Ball State. Two other MAC teams took down Purdue and Northwestern (Central Michigan and Northern Illinois, respectively). This is as bad a weekend as the Big Ten has had since Week 2 in 2012, and the league was supposed to be improved this season. Instead, it took another savage beating in terms of national perception, with almost no opportunities to turn that around the rest of the regular season.

2. (Almost) anyone can win the mild, mild West: We knew the West Division would feature plenty of parity this season. But can anyone identify a favorite in this division now? Iowa could be 0-2 just as easily as it is 2-0 right now. Wisconsin has major passing game issues. Nebraska is dealing with injuries, barely beat an FCS team Saturday and still has the toughest schedule of any division contender. Minnesota actually had the best day of any West team in Week 2, and its defense looks legitimately strong. But the Gophers still have problems throwing the ball and are holding their breath that quarterback Mitch Leidner didn't get hurt late against Middle Tennessee. Illinois at least can score in bunches behind Wes Lunt and might have a puncher's chance. At this point, it seems you can count out Northwestern (0-2) and Purdue. But who knows how things will eventually shake out in a division that appears to lack any great teams.

3. Running games disappearing: We've talked a lot about poor quarterback play being a reason for the Big Ten's recent decline. But we've almost always been able to count on league teams lining up and pounding the ball on the ground, especially against supposedly weaker competition. That hasn't been the case for far too many league teams. Iowa, which figured to have one of the league's best offensive lines and rushing attacks, is averaging just 4.1 yards per carry and had 113 yards on 29 rush attempts versus Ball State. We underestimated the difficulties Ohio State would have with four new starters on its offensive line; the Buckeyes have done very little on the ground outside of quarterback J.T. Barrett's scrambles. Penn State has basically abandoned the run in its first two games, while Michigan's apparent gains in the rushing attack against overmatched Appalachian State in Week 1 proved a mirage in South Bend. Oregon mostly stuffed Michigan State's attempts to run the ball. Heck, even Wisconsin failed to have a running back gain more than 57 yards against FCS Western Illinois, and Melvin Gordon was held to 38 yards on 17 carries. Big Ten teams can't expect to win big games if their main calling card is bankrupt.

4. The best program in Illinois isn't in Champaign or Evanston: Nope, it's located in DeKalb, home of Northern Illinois. The Huskies went into Northwestern and won 23-15 on Saturday. That shouldn't come as a surprise, as NIU has won 48 games since the start of the 2010 season and showed Saturday that life without Jordan Lynch will be OK. As for Northwestern, the Wildcats never should have bought that monkey's paw before the Ohio State game last year. They're 1-9 since, with no end to the misery in sight. Illinois has more reason for optimism, especially given Lunt's potential at quarterback and some big-play ability. But the Illini have had to sweat out home wins over Youngstown State and Western Kentucky in the first two weeks. The top team in the Land of Lincoln plays in the MAC, a conference that came within one great Iowa comeback of notching three wins over the Big Ten on Saturday.

5. Field goals are an adventure: Iowa was 1-of-4 on field goals against Ball State, with none longer than 37 yards, and it almost cost the Hawkeyes the game. Ohio State's Sean Nuernberger missed both his field-goal attempts in the first half against Virginia Tech, while Illinois' Taylor Zalewski also went 0-for-2. Not that it would have changed the outcome, but Michigan's Matt Wile missed two attempts in the first half at Notre Dame, too. With the margin for error so small for many Big Ten teams, field-goal units need to improve significantly.
We've been previewing each position group in the Big Ten, and we've gone through every level of the offense and defense. But that's only two-thirds of the game. Don't forget special teams.

It can be hard to judge some of the new guys in the kicking game, as they often practice alone on separate fields and respond differently to pressure. So we'll give more weight to those who have already proved themselves in the league. Here's how we see the specialists shaping up:

Best of the best: Michigan State

Punter Mike Sadler is like an extension of the defense, so brilliant is he at pinning opponents near their own goal line (and he must be accounted for on trick plays). The vastly improved place-kicking game was a hidden reason for Michigan State's turnaround last year, and credit belongs to Michael Geiger, who missed only one field goal in 16 tries as a freshman. Macgarrett Kings Jr., who was suspended this spring, finished third in the Big Ten in punt returns a year ago. The kickoff return game needs work, but all in all, the Spartans are in great shape whenever ball meets foot.

Next up: Maryland

Only four returning FBS players made more field goals last year than Brad Craddock, who went 21-for-25. William Likely was one of the ACC's best kickoff and punt returners as a freshman. Nathan Renfro had some shaky moments at punter but is entering his third year as a starter. The Terps enter the Big Ten armed with strong special teams. Ohio State should also be very, very good if an adequate replacement for placekicker Drew Basil is found.

Sleeper: Illinois

It wasn't that long ago that the Illini special teams were embarrassingly bad. But things are improving. V'Angelo Bentley led the league with a 15.8-yard average on punt returns last year. Place-kicker Taylor Zalewski has battled with inconsistency but did make a 54-yarder last year; he'll face some competition from Navy transfer David Reisner and Ryan Frain this summer. Veteran punter Justin DuVernois has been solid.

Problem for a contender: Wisconsin

The Badgers have had major issues on field goals the past couple of seasons. Jack Russell needs to provide more than just easy opportunities for my dog puns, or else he could be on a short leash (ahem). Drew Meyer returns at punter, but Wisconsin finished ninth in the Big Ten in net punting average last season. The good news is that Kenzel Doe is a top-flight return man. But if the overall kicking game doesn't improve, it could cost the team a win or two.
We're taking snapshots of each position group with every Big Ten team entering the spring. The series wraps up with the specialists.

Illinois:The Illini might not be exceptional in the kicking game, but they're in better shape than they were when coach Tim Beckman arrived. Punter Justin DuVernois returns after a solid junior season, while Taylor Zalewski looks for a bit more consistency in his second full season as the placekicker. Zalewski made 12 of 17 field-goal attempts last fall. The return game is the real plus, as V'Angelo Bentley provides a major threat, especially on punt returns.

Indiana: Like Illinois, Indiana brings back a dynamic returner in Shane Wynn, who averaged 14 yards on punt run-backs despite limited work. Punter Erich Toth also is back for his third season as the starter. Toth placed 18 of 52 attempts inside the opponent's 20-yard line. IU suffers a big loss at kicker as Mitch Ewald, the team's career field goals and field-goal percentage leader, departs. Aaron Del Grosso and Griffin Oakes will compete at kicker, and Jake Shake (shake and bake!) could enter the mix this summer.

Iowa: Here's another Big Ten team that looks very strong on returns, as Iowa boasts the Big Ten's most dynamic tandem in Kevonte Martin-Manley (punts) and Jordan Cotton (kickoffs). Martin-Manley had two punt-return touchdowns in 2013. Punter Connor Kornbrath ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in average, but placed 27 of 65 attempts inside the opponent's 20. Iowa loses kicker Mike Meyer, a four-year starter. Junior Marshall Koehn seems likely to step up, but could be pushed by incoming freshman Mick Ellis and others.

Maryland: Notice a theme so far? Most Big Ten teams are strong in the return game, and Maryland is no exception. If Stefon Diggs returns at full strength from his leg injury, he'll be a dangerous man with punts and kickoffs in his hands. Will Likely performed extremely well in Diggs' spot, averaging 26 yards on kickoff returns and 12.8 yards on punt returns. Maryland brings back an excellent kicker in Brad Craddock (21-for-25 on field goals last year), and punter Nathan Renfro enters his third season as the starter.

Michigan: Matt Wile has done a bit of everything for Michigan, but could settle into the starting placekicker role this fall. Wile handled kicking duties late last season and also served as Michigan's punter after Will Hagerup was suspended for the season. Hagerup, the Big Ten's punter of the year in 2012, will reclaim the role if he can avoid off-field problems that have surfaced throughout his career. Wile then could focus on kicking, as Kenny Allen is the only other option there. Michigan is still waiting for big things from kick returner Dennis Norfleet and must find someone to handle punts. Top recruit Jabrill Peppers could help.

Michigan State: Special teams once again should be a strength for MSU, which returns All-Big Ten punter Mike Sadler, a Ray Guy award semifinalist who will contend for All-America honors in 2014. Kicker Michael Geiger also is back after connecting on 15 of 16 field-goal attempts as a true freshman. Macgarrett Kings Jr. and Andre Sims Jr. both put up good numbers on punt returns. Michigan State had by far the fewest kick returns (18) in the Big Ten last year and will look for a boost from R.J. Shelton and others.

Minnesota: After an above-average year on special teams in 2013, Minnesota again should be good in the third phase. Punter Peter Mortell didn't get as many accolades as Sadler or Purdue's Cody Webster, but he had an excellent sophomore season, averaging 43.3 yards per attempt with 15 of 50 yards or longer. Marcus Jones is a major threat on returns after bringing back both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns last fall. Redshirt freshman kickers Ryan Santoso and Andrew Harte will compete as the Gophers lose Chris Hawthorne.

Nebraska: The Huskers are looking for some upgrades on special teams, particularly on punt returns, as Nebraska ranked 123rd in the FBS last fall. Primary returner Jordan Westerkamp is back, but he'll face some competition. Nebraska brings back punter Sam Foltz, who had a solid freshman season, averaging 41.6 yards per boot. Mauro Bondi is set to step in at kicker as Pat Smith departs. If Bondi struggles, incoming freshman Kris Brown could get a look this summer. Kenny Bell, who led the Big Ten in kick return average (26.5 yards per return), is back.

Northwestern: The Wildcats lose a huge piece in Jeff Budzien, named the Big Ten's top kicker in each of his final two seasons. Hunter Niswander can handle both kickoffs and punts but seems likely to slide into Budzien's spot. Northwestern's punting was a mess in 2013, ranking 118th nationally in net average (33.2 ypp). Brandon Williams departs and Chris Gradone or Niswander will take over. The big news is Northwestern brings back Venric Mark , an All-America punt returner in 2012. Primary kick returner Matt Harris is back after a solid freshman season.

Ohio State: Aussie, Aussie, Aussie. Indeed, the Aussie is back at punter as Cameron Johnston returns after an excellent debut season (I refuse to call a 21-year-old a freshman). Ohio State hopes for similar results from another first-year specialist in kicker Sean Nuernberger, an early enrollee expected to step in for the departing Drew Basil. Sophomore Dontre Wilson will continue to have a big role on returns after handling kickoffs last year. Ohio State must replace Corey Brown on punt returns and could look to redshirt freshman Jalin Marshall or true freshmen Curtis Samuel and Johnnie Dixon.

Penn State: The kicking game continues to be an area of concern.Sam Ficken owns the team record for consecutive field goals (15) and started strong last season but ended with just 15 of 23 conversions, including four misses inside 40 yards. Penn State needs a new punter after losing Alex Butterworth, and will turn to Chris Gulla. Jesse Della Valle did a good job on punt returns, but Penn State needs a boost on kickoffs after finishing last in the league (19.1 yards per return). The Lions could stick with Geno Lewis or look for a newcomer such as De'Andre Thompkins to emerge. PSU also must shore up its coverage units.

Purdue: As if the Boilers didn't have enough to address on offense and defense, the kicking game needs attention. Punter Cody Webster finished his spectacular career with All-America honors, and the Boilers finished second nationally in net punting (41.7 yards per punt). Incoming freshman Austin McGehee will take over for Webster. Paul Griggs and Thomas Meadows continue to work at kicker, as Griggs made only 50 percent of his attempts (6 of 12) last season. The kick return game is strong with Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert, but Purdue must replace punt returner Ricardo Allen. B.J. Knauf could be a good fit there.

Rutgers: The kicking game historically is a strength for Rutgers, which has a knack for blocking kicks and pulling off fakes. Rutgers loses a productive piece in punter Nick Marsh, who also handled kickoffs. The Scarlet Knights will turn to Joseph Roth as their replacement. Kicker Kyle Federico finished the season well, particularly in the Pinstripe Bowl, and returns for his junior season. Rutgers has a major weapon on returns in Janarion Grant, who brought back both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown during his freshman season.

Wisconsin: The kicking game has held back Wisconsin in the past, so it's definitely an area to watch during the offseason. Kicker Jack Russell converted 9 of 13 field-goal attempts after taking over for Kyle French. He'll try to hold off incoming freshman Rafael Gaglianone. Andrew Endicott, who handled kickoffs last fall, also returns. Wisconsin is looking for more from punter Drew Meyer, who averaged just 38.6 yards per attempt in 2013. Top returner Kenzel Doe is back and should handle both punts and kickoffs, although Wisconsin could look to others for help, such as newcomers Serge Trezy and Natrell Jamerson.

More position breakdowns

Season report card: Illinois

December, 24, 2013
12/24/13
2:30
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We're handing out grades to each Big Ten team for its regular-season performance on offense, defense, special teams and overall play. For Illinois (4-8, 1-7) this serves as a final grade, as there's no bowl game in sight. But at least the marks are higher than they were last year in Champaign.

Here you go, Illini:

Offense: B-plus

There's a reason Bill Cubit just got a two-year contract extension and a nice raise. In one year, he transformed what had been a moribund unit into a legitimate scoring attack.

[+] EnlargeNathan Scheelhaase
Michael Hickey/Getty ImagesNathan Scheelhaase led the Big Ten in passing yards in 2013.
Cubit engineered a spread offense that averaged 29.7 points and over 426 yards per game. The Illini finished second in the league in passing yardage, and revived quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase led the Big Ten in passing yards by a wide margin with 3,272, to go along with 21 touchdowns. After injuries threatened to decimate the receiving corps, senior Steve Hull emerged late in the year to post huge stats in his final few games. The spread and quick passing game also covered some of the deficiencies of the offensive line, which did a much better job protecting Scheelhaase this season.

The running game was less successful, as Illinois finished just 10th in the league in rushing. But Josh Ferguson showed some big-time playmaking skills on his way to 779 yards and five touchdowns. For the most part, Illinois fielded a better-than-respectable offense for the majority of the season.

Defense: F

Thank goodness for Indiana. If not for the Hoosiers, Illinois would have had the worst defense in the Big Ten. It was still awful, yielding 481 yards and 35.4 points per game. The Illini had the worst rushing defense of any FBS AQ team in the country, giving up more than 238 yards per game on the ground. So, yeah, it was bad, especially in games like the 56-32 loss to Wisconsin, the 60-35 loss to Ohio State and the 52-35 loss to Indiana.

Linebacker Jonathan Brown was one of the few defensive standouts, with 119 total tackles and 15 tackles for loss. But Illinois just wasn't strong enough up front and couldn't slow down opposing passing games. Head coach Tim Beckman plans to keep the defensive staff intact, including coordinator Tim Banks, in hopes that a still very young unit will improve as it matures. He'd better be right about that.

Special teams: C

The kicking game was mostly a disaster in Beckman's first year, so it's notable that special teams improved to a mediocre level in 2013. V'Angelo Bentley helped solve some of the kick return woes that plagued the team the past couple of seasons. Justin DuVernois was solid at punter. Taylor Zalewski went 12-of-17 on field goals, though he did have a 54-yarder in the desperately-needed win over Purdue.

Overall: D-plus

Illinois definitely showed minor improvement in the second season under Beckman. The Illini doubled their win total, notched their first Big Ten victory after an embarrassing 20-game losing streak and at least fielded a competent, at times explosive, offense. But the defense actually got worse, and after a 3-1 start that included an upset of Cincinnati, Illinois finished 1-7. If the team makes one more play at Penn State and against Northwestern in the finale, the season not only looks much different but we're talking about a bowl game for Illinois. But the program just isn't there yet.

More report cards

Indiana
Northwestern
Ohio State
Nebraska
Penn State

Michigan
Minnesota
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

Top returners

QB Nathan Scheelhaase, RB Donovonn Young, RB Josh Ferguson, WR Ryan Lankford, TE Jon Davis, LB Jonathan Brown, LB Mason Monheim, DE Tim Kynard, P Justin DuVernois

Key losses

C Graham Pocic, G Hugh Thornton, DE Michael Buchanan, DT Akeem Spence, DL Glenn Foster, CB Terry Hawthorne, CB Justin Green

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)

Spring answers

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.

Fall questions

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.
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.
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.

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