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State of the program: Illinois Fighting Illini

2/20/2015

The end has arrived in our weeklong snapshot look at every Big Ten program. For the past week, we've examined the coaching, win-loss trends, personnel, and recruiting of every team in the league.

The last school up is Illinois.

2014 record: 6-7 (3-5 Big Ten, fifth in West Division)

Three-year record: 12-25

Coaching situation: Coach Tim Beckman, in his third season last fall after presiding over a nice turnaround at Toledo, appeared in a tenuous November spot before the Illini beat Penn State and Northwestern to gain bowl eligibility for the first time since 2011 under Ron Zook. The school rewarded Beckman with a contract extension, and he followed by retooling the defensive staff with the hire of Mike Phair as co-coordinator from the Tampa Bay Bucs. Offensively, Bill Cubit has earned respect as an offensive innovator. Beckman remains in search of a tight ends coach to replace Tim Salem.

Roster situation: There are bright spots, but not enough to turn in Illinois into an overnight contender in the weaker of the Big Ten divisions. Start at receiver, where Mike Dudek returns after an excellent freshman season alongside Geronimo Allison and Malik Turner. Quarterback Wes Lunt, whose first season at the helm was disrupted by injuries then ineffectiveness, will be counted on for production in 2015, as will multi-talented back Josh Ferguson. Defensively, the Illini lose key players at every level in safety Zane Petty, linebacker Earnest Thomas II, and nose tackle Austin Teitsma. But linebacker Mason Monheim is back with All-Big Ten potential to lead a solid core that includes defensive end Jihad Ward, T.J. Neal at middle linebacker, cornerback V'Angelo Bentley, and safety Taylor Barton to anchor the back.

Recruiting situation: The Illini were excited with the results this year, despite a class ranking of No. 64 nationally that ranked last in the Big Ten. To suggest that Illinois’ recruiting is in poor shape, though, is not an accurate indication of the work accomplished by Alex Golesh in coordinating the Illini efforts. Illinois added nine early enrollees and scored big by keeping home ESPN 300 offensive tackle Gabe Megginson, who turned down the likes of Michigan State and Nebraska. But he was the only player in state’s top 12 this year signed by Illinois. That must improve. Quarterback Jimmy Fitzgerald, homegrown in Champaign, stands tall in the pocket, and the Illini hit important areas in California, Texas, Florida and Georgia. A year ago, its 66th-ranked class included Ward out of junior college and all three top returning receivers.

Trajectory: After the Heart of Dallas Bowl loss to Louisiana Tech, in which the Illini were outplayed from the start, a sense exists that Beckman has reached a crossroads. The Illini have improved from two wins to four to six under Beckman, and won three times as many league games last season as in his first two seasons. Illinois beat Minnesota last season and played Wisconsin close on the road, but it lost to Purdue in Champaign -- the Boilermakers’ only Big Ten win of the past two seasons. Fact is, though, the two November wins might have saved Beckman’s job. He’s yet to produce a winning mark after Ron Zook was fired for getting there three times in seven seasons, including a Rose Bowl appearance.

Six junior-college transfers are set compete for jobs, an illustration of the urgency in place. So does Illinois sink from here or rise to challenge the top group in the West? It gets Wisconsin and Nebraska at home next season after a manageable non-conference slate that includes a winnable game at North Carolina. To push the needle up, the Illini need more cohesiveness on defense and leadership from Lunt.