Summer checklist: Illinois Fighting Illini


We’re a week into July, so go ahead, you can get impatient. Spring practice is nearly three months in the rear view, and the open of preseason camps nationally arrives in less than a month. Let’s look ahead to August and identify two key areas in which each Big Ten team must make strides over these final weeks of the offseason.

First up is Illinois:

Clear the air of offseason turmoil: As an external investigation into the allegations of systemic mistreatment made by former offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic continues, trouble will loom for the Illini. And it threatens to poison the atmosphere inside Illinois’ locker room. Current and former players have spoken out in defense of coach Tim Beckman, but surely Cvijanovic has a group of sympathizers within the team. He was a leader and dependable teammate over the past several seasons. If Beckman has a shot to survive this situation beyond 2015, pending no more negative findings from the investigation, he needs his first winning season in this, his fourth year at Illinois. It starts with a togetherness among the team in August. Support from leaders like quarterback Wes Lunt, offensive guard Ted Karras and linebacker Mason Monheim would constitute a good start.

Devise a method to stop the run: The Illini won’t make notable improvement over 2014 unless the defense improves considerably under co-coordinators Tim Banks and Mike Phair. Phair, in particular as an offseason hire from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is tasked with improving the soft defensive front. Last season, Illinois allowed more than 100 yards rushing in every game and more than 295 yards on the ground in five of eight league games. Defensive tackle Austin Teitsma is gone up front, but the line played well at times in the spring. Jihad Ward is a dynamic player at defensive end, and junior tackle Robbie Bain -- back from spring knee surgery -- looks like a solid run-stopper. The Illini, in introducing Phair to replace the fired Greg Colby, touted the new coach for his ties to NFL defensive minds Lovie Smith and Rod Marinelli. If such connections help with a scheme at Illinois that can slow the run, Phair was a good hire.