NCAA Football Preview - Illinois Fighting Illini

9:52 AM, Aug 20, 2013   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -

2012 SEASON IN REVIEW: Tim Beckman's first season in Champaign produced just two wins, and only one of which came against another Football Bowl Subdivision team.

Beckman, who previously coached at Toledo, inherited a young team from former coach Ron Zook and took plenty of lumps, going 0-8 in Big Ten play. In fact, out of 120 FBS squads, Illinois ranked 119th in scoring offense (16.67 ppg) and 93rd in scoring defense (32.08 ppg). Only one of the team's 10 losses was by a margin of less than 14 points. The high point, a season-opening 24-7 win over Western Michigan, was followed up a few weeks later by an ugly 52-24 home loss to Louisiana Tech. While there were plenty of lopsided losses for the Fighting Illini in 2012, their effort in the season-ending, 50-14 loss to Northwestern was particularly uninspiring.

2013 ANALYSIS:

OFFENSE: Dual-threat Nathan Scheelhaase has seen his production level off since bursting onto the scene as the starting quarterback in 2010. He suffered an ankle injury in the season opener against WMU last year and never quite seemed to recover, as he finished with only four passing touchdowns and four rushing scores. Riley O'Toole gained some experience filling in while Scheelhaase missed time in September, but head coach Tim Beckman dismissed any notion of a quarterback controversy at Big Ten Media Day.

"Nathan Scheelhaase is our starting quarterback right now," Beckman said. "He had an outstanding spring in Bill Cubit's new offense. Riley O'Toole had a good, good spring for us also. But he's got to take away some of those turnovers."

Scheelhaase still has a chance to become the first Illini quarterback to notch three bowl victories, but he'll need some help from his supporting cast. All told, nine starters return on offense, although from a pure talent perspective the coaching staff will need to get creative. Beckman plucked Bill Cubit away from Western Michigan to add some new wrinkles to the offense.

"Bill Cubit, I don't know if words could actually describe what I think he's meant to this staff since he's joined us in January," Beckman said. "He's got a great background of being a leader. He's got a great background of calling plays. Probably called a million plays plus in his career."

Ryan Lankford headlines the receiving corps after catching a team-high five TD passes a year ago, while fellow senior Corey Lewis nailed down the starting right tackle spot in the spring after spending the better part of the last three years recovering from five different knee surgeries.

DEFENSE: The defense returns only four starters, but two of those starters form what should be one of the league's stronger linebacking corps. Senior Jonathan Brown led the team with 9.5 tackles for loss despite missing the final three games with a shoulder injury. When healthy, Brown is as productive as any linebacker in the conference -- as he showed in 2011 when he earned All-Big Ten honors with 108 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss and six sacks. He is flanked on the weak side by Mason Monheim, who racked up a team-high 86 tackles last year as a freshman.

While the Fighting Illini appear to be set at linebacker, they are razor-thin along the defensive line, and even less experienced in the secondary. Junior Earnest Thomas (69 tackles) is slated to start at strong safety, but the defensive backfield figures to be tested early and often by opposing QBs.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Junior punter Justin DuVernois is a Ray Guy Award candidate who averaged 41.9 yards per punt in 2012, fourth-best in the Big Ten. It also marked an improvement of 3.6 yards per punt from his 2011 average, and the team is hopeful DuVernois continues to make strides as Illinois led the conference in net punting. Kicker Taylor Zalewski had a long field goal of 54 yards last season, although he converted only 4-of-7 attempts overall.

OUTLOOK: Illini fans certainly did not have many reasons to cheer in 2012, but on a positive note, many underclassmen gained valuable on-field experience. Coach Beckman is hoping that experience, and a little good fortune, will go a long way in 2013.

"We lost 400 snaps last year to injury on offense, and we lost 800-plus to injury on defense," Beckman said. "You see a healthy football team. You see a team that's very anxious and excited to progress."

Realistically, progress could be defined as four or five wins this season. The league schedule features the likes of Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Ohio State and Northwestern. The Illini will need to get a couple of wins under their belt before the first road game at Nebraska on Oct. 5. If not, 2013 could be another long season in Champaign.

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