We're moving right along in our "Know Thy Foe" series, which continues today as we preview the Illinois Fighting Illini.
With all the changes the Illini have gone through during the offseason, the Badgers might not recognize their opponents if it weren't for their distinctive orange-and-blue uniforms. Former Toledo head coach Tim Beckman takes over for Ron Zook, who guided the Illini to a 6-6 record in his final season in Champaign. Beckman takes over a program with plenty of talent left over, but must adjust his players to his own personal philosophies and guide his team through a schedule fraught with perilous road games, including their game at Wisconsin on Oct. 6.
Luckily, Sam Estes of OrangeandBlueNews.com is here to give BadgerBlitz.com a preview of the Illini. We're certainly grateful to Sam for providing his insight and giving us an early preview of the Illini.
Know Thy Foe: Illinois
1. How are the Illini shaping up as we move into 2012? What does Tim Beckman have to work with in his first season?
Sam Estes: The good news for Beckman is that he inherits a much better program than former coach Ron Zook received when he took over back in 2005. Zook left talent on the Illinois roster, and with 14 returning starters from a seven-win team last season, there's plenty to work with. That's not to say Beckman doesn't have his work cut out for him. The offensive line, a unit that was expected to be one of the strengths of the Illini offense last season, turned out to be, well, not very good. Beckman brought in two well-known assistants in Chris Beatty (from Vanderbilt) and Billy Gonzales (from LSU) to coordinate his offensive attack, which needs to be drastically better than it was in 2011. The defense, which to the surprise of many proved to be one of the best defensive units in the country last fall, should be stout once again.
2. What kind of offensive philosophy does Beckman bring to the Illini? How will Nathan Scheelhaase and others fit in with a new staff?
SE: Beckman brings an up-tempo spread scheme to Illinois. His main goal is to get the ball to his playmakers in space and let them create. The main problem will be identifying just who those playmakers are. Scheelhaase, who at this point in his career is a seasoned veteran, will be counted on to use his legs and his arm to move the Illini offense down the field. Look for Josh Ferguson, a sophomore running back from Joliet (Ill.) Catholic who was hampered by injuries last season, to make an impact this fall. Ferguson has the agility and straightaway speed the new Illinois offense needs, and will most likely be lined up in the backfield and sometimes at receiver. Another player to watch is junior wideout Darius Millines. Now out of the large shadow cast by A.J. Jenkins (1st round draft choice of the San Francisco 49ers), Millines is without question the team's best receiver heading into the 2012 season. I expect co-coordinators Beatty and Gonzales to do their best to get the ball in Millines' hands as much as possible.
3. Same question, but for the defense this time. How will the new coaching staff approach the Illini defense, and how much talent did Ron Zook leave in the cupboard?
SE: There is no reason why the Illinois defensive unit shouldn't pick up where it left off last fall. Illinois will employ a 4-2-5 scheme under the direction of new defensive coordinator Tim Banks, which isn't that different from the defense run by former coordinator Vic Koenning. After a breakout year that saw him lead the nation in sacks, Whitney Mercilus left Illinois a year early to take his crack at the NFL with the Houston Texas. Tavon Wilson, a safety who was picked by the Patriots in the second-round of the draft, is also gone. Other than that, Banks has a lot to work with. The front seven should be among the best in the league. Michael Buchanan (DE), Akeem Spence (DT) and Jonathan Brown (LB) will create problems for any opposing offense's rushing attack, and the unit also features a playmaking cornerback in senior Terry Hawthorne. All four players have the potential to be future early-round draft picks in the NFL. With that type of star power, the Illini defense should once again be near the top of the Big Ten.
4. What's the worst-case and best-case scenario for the Illini this year? Does having a new head coach temper those expectations, and which do you think is the more likely outcome?
SE: A worst-case scenario would be identical to last season's 6-6 regular season finish. On the flip side, if everything went perfectly, a best-case scenario would be a 10-win season. I don't think Beckman's arrival has tempered expectations at all, as most Illinois fans were ready for a change in leadership after an abysmal six-game losing streak to close out the 2011 regular season. With 14 returning starters, Beckman has the talent and veteran leadership to surprise some people. While I don't forecast a 10-win season, I think anything less than seven or eight wins will be considered a disappointment by most of the Illini faithful.
5. How are you feeling about the Wisconsin-Illinois game in early October? Will the Illini give the Badgers a good fight for the Leaders division?
SE: Illinois played the Badgers tight for one half last season in Champaign. Wisconsin will certainly enter the game as the favorite, and I would expect them to protect their home field and come away with a victory. While I don't predict the game will be a blowout, leaving Camp Randall with a 'W' has proven to be extremely difficult for visiting squads in recent years. Illinois, in my opinion, will be a middle-of-the-pack team in the Leaders division next fall, finishing behind the likes of Ohio State and Wisconsin, while giving a team such as Penn State a run for its money.
Thanks again to Sam for his insight on the Illini. For news on Illinois football and the Fighting Illini, visit OrangeandBlueNews.com, or follow Sam on Twitter (@FreeSAMples5).
For more Wisconsin Badgers news, notes and discussion, follow John on Twitter.