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June 26, 2013

Beat writer knows best: Illinois

Quite simply, the Illinois Fighting Illini were a mess last year. The Illini scored just 16.7 points per game and allowed 32.1 to opposing teams in Tim Beckman's first year. In all they won just two games, including a 44-0 win over FCS Charleston Southern.

It was a disappointing season for a team that at the very least has produced several quality football players over the last few years. Beckman's first year was so bad that people have already started to put him on the proverbial 'hot seat', but his second year in Urbana-Champaign will determine just how warm his seat actually is. To preview the Illini, Doug Buschon of OrangeandBlueNews.com stops by to explain just what Illinois needs to do to turn the ship around and find some footing in Beckman's second year. His answers are included below.

I think it's an understatement to say that Tim Beckman's first year didn't go as planned, but what is it exactly that went wrong for the Illini last year? Was their 2-10 record a product of switching to a new coach or did their problems run deeper than that?

Doug Bucshon: You can't point to one factor when a season unravels like the 2012 Illinois campaign. It's a combination of many things, all of which eventually fall on the shoulders of head Coach Tim Beckman. The new staff and the veteran Illini players were clearly not on the same page from day one, and coordinators Chris Beatty [Editor's note: Beatty is now the wide receivers coach at Wisconsin] and Tim Banks (defense) often appeared to be putting square pegs into round holes - with disastrous results. Down-hill runner Donovonn Young was going east-west more often than not. Banks had pass rushing specialist Michael Buchanan, now in the NFL with the, dropping into coverage. Two examples why it just didn't jell.

There has also been a creeping depletion of talent on the Illinois roster over the last few years, particularly on offense where the Illini lacked playmakers and were inexperienced up front. Lack of depth at key positions haunted Illinois throughout the season. The most talented wide receiver, Darius Millines, couldn't stay healthy and is now gone from the team. There was talent and depth at tight end, but they were hardly utilized in the spread offense.

Everything just went wrong; penalties, turnovers, bad play calling, coaching blunders, big plays over the top of the defense. I could go on, but you get the picture.

The Illini return a lot of players from last season's offense, including quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. What should we expect to see out of the Illini on offense in 2013?

DB: I expect to see more of a quick-strike passing attack under new coordinator Bill Cubit, former head coach at Western Michigan. Scheelhaase could be in a battle for the starting spot with true freshman Aaron Bailey, a four-star recruiting from Bolingbrook (Ill.). But regardless of who plays quarterback, Cubit will want them to get the ball out of their hands quickly and keep the chains moving. The top receiving target should be JUCO transfer Martize Barr, a standout this spring.

The new offense is probably a better fit for junior running back Donovonn Young, who was a fish out of water in the shot gun offense from a year ago. Young is a downhill runner and will get a chance to be a true tailback with Scheelhaase under center more. Illinois is deep at running back; sophomores Dami Ayoola and Josh Ferguson will all get their share of carries. They will run behind an offensive line that looked bigger and much improved in the spring, led by tackle Corey Lewis and guard Ted Karras.

The Illini offense was anemic in 2012. They were dead last in the Big Ten in nearly every statistical category. Most of the offensive coaching staff has moved as a result. While there's no reason to think this team will be an offensive juggernaut, they will be better in 2013. Limiting the negative plays will be a key; the Illini don't have enough talent to recover from an inordinate number of turnovers, penalties, and missed assignments.

How about on defense? Where do you think the Illini will be strongest and weakest on that side of the ball this year?

DB: Illinois will have one of the top line-backing corps in the Big Ten, beginning with senior "Will" linebacker Jonathan Brown, a second team all-conference selection as a sophomore. Brown battled through and injury plagued junior season, but he should be 100 percent this fall and ready to return to form. His partner at the "Mike", sophomore Mason Monheim, was the leading freshman tackler in the Big Ten in 2012. Monheim is a classic Big Ten run stuffer who always seems to be around the football.

The rest of the defense will be young and inexperienced, however. Illinois lost seven starters from their defense including 3 NFL draft picks. Nothing was settled along the defensive line this spring, and incoming true freshmen could push for playing time by the time the Illini face Southern Illinois in their opener on Aug. 31. Based on early workouts, Trotwood-Madison (Ohio) end Jarrod Clements looks a real find.

Sophomores V'Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence both saw playing time a year ago at cornerback. They have good instincts, but lack size and ideal catch-up speed. The safety position could be solid with returning SS Earnest Thomas and JUCO transfer Zane Petty the most likely starters.

I know he's only entering his second year at Illinois, but is Beckman on the hot seat already? I know coaches usually get some kind of grace period after they're hired, but how long do you think the athletic department will give him to try and turn the program around?

DB: I think it's safe to say that Tim Beckman is on the hot seat, and I think he and his staff know what's expected this season. It's not necessarily only about wins and losses, though another 2-10 campaign won't get it done. This team has to be more competitive, and they have to create some excitement and reasons for fans to show up at Memorial Stadium. What constitutes "progress" is up to AD Mike Thomas, but if the program makes a turn in the right direction, then Beckman likely gets a third season to show what he can do with his own recruits.

Finally, what kind of season do you expect Illinois to have? What would you consider to be a "successful" season for the Illini?

DB: Success is a moving target, especially when a program has hit rock bottom. I expect the 2013 Illini to play harder and play smarter. But do they have enough talent? It's very important for this team to get off to a solid start. A loss to SIU to open the season would spell big, big trouble.

Based on what we saw in the spring, this Illinois team will compete. They're young and enthusiastic, and seem more bought in than last year's squad. They won't win the Big Ten Conference, but 4-5 wins is what I expect - and that should be considered a moderately successful season for the Illini. Six wins and a bowl game appearance would be a huge season.

Thanks again to Doug for giving his insight on the Illini.

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