Friday, January 17, 2014
Offseason to-do list: Illinois
By Brian Bennett
The offseason is in its early stages, and to get us through the long winter, we're taking a look at what each team must do in the months ahead before actual football returns to the field.
Up next in our series: Illinois
1. Get better up front on defense: The Fighting Illini ranked last in the Big Ten and 116th nationally in stopping the run, allowing 238.6 yards per game on the ground and an average of more than 5.5 yards per rush. Illinois was also second-to-last in the league in sacks generated. When you can't slow down an opposing running game or put pressure on the quarterback, that's bad news. It doesn't help that the best player in the front seven -- linebacker Jonathan Brown -- is graduating. Just about everybody else is back up front, though, and head coach Tim Beckman brought in a junior college transfer (Joe Fotu) and a high school player (Paul James III) as early enrollees to help bolster the defensive line. Illinois simply must get better in the trenches defensively, and that starts in the weight room this winter.
2. Develop weapons in the passing game: Under first-year coordinator Bill Cubit, the Illini had one of the best and most consistent passing attacks in the Big Ten. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is graduating, but Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt should be able to fill his shoes. The bigger question is at receiver, where the team's three starters at the end of the season -- Steve Hull, Miles Osei and Spencer Harris -- were all seniors, as was Ryan Lankford, who was one of Scheelhaase's top targets before getting hurt. The leading returning wideout is Martize Barr, who was underwhelming with 26 total catches after transferring in from junior college. Beckman brought in help at this position as well with juco transfers Tyrin Stone-Davis and Geronimo Allison, along with early enrollee Mike Dudek. All three will get a chance to play right away, and the Illini need them to pan out.
3. Build some excitement: Illinois wasn't all that far off from being a bowl team in 2013, and it was competitive in many games. That didn't do much to boost fan interest or create turnout at home games. The biggest threat to Beckman's long-term security is fan apathy. Beckman needs to continue to sell his vision for the program to Illini Nation, and the team has to show improvement -- especially defensively -- during the spring. Allowing more fan access to practices last season was a good idea and a good start. Ultimately, Beckman will have to show he can win Big Ten games to bring the fans back.