Team countdown: No. 33 Illinois

Mike Huguenin
Yahoo Sports

Illinois finished 7-6 last season, the Illini's third winning record in five seasons.

It was the first time the Illini had had three winning records in five seasons since 1988-92. Still, it wasn't enough for coach Ron Zook to keep his job, mainly because the Illini started 6-0 before collapsing in the second half.

A lack of offense was the reason. While the defense had some of the best numbers in the nation, the offense couldn't throw and finished 91st overall.

The new coach is Tim Beckman, who was hired away from Toledo. Though Beckman has a defensive pedigree, including a two-season stretch as Ohio State's secondary coach under Jim Tressel, his three teams at Toledo were known for their offensive firepower. His defenses at Toledo, interestingly, were bad.

But he takes over a program that has good defensive talent, including two guys who could contend for All-America honors. It's what he and his staff do with the offense that will determine whether his first season is a success.

The particulars

Last season: 7-6 overall, 2-6 in Big Ten (5th in Big Ten Leaders)
Coach: Tim Beckman (1st season at Illinois; 21-16, 4th season overall)
Returning starters (minimum 7 starts last season): Offense (6) – WR Spencer Harris, T Michael Heitz, WR Darius Millines, C Graham Pocic, QB Nathan Scheelhaase, G Hugh Thornton. Defense (7) – LB Jonathan Brown, E Michael Buchanan, T Glenn Foster, CB Terry Hawthorne, SS Steve Hull, FS Suppo Sanni, T Akeem Spence. Special teams (1) – P Justin DuVernois.
Fast fact: The Illini have been to three bowls in the past five seasons; that’s as many postseason appearances as they had made in the previous 13 seasons.

Offense

Co-coordinators Billy Gonzales (most recently wide receivers coach at LSU) and Chris Beatty (wide

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Nathan Scheelhaase needs to become a better passer this season. (AP)

receiver coach at Vanderbilt; he also was Percy Harvin's high school coach in Virginia) have been given the task of overseeing Illinois' move from a pro-style offense to a version of the spread.

Junior QB Nathan Scheelhaase is more accomplished as a runner than as a passer, so expect the offense to be tailored to his strengths. Gonzales was at Florida when the Gators used a run-heavy version of the spread, so it will be interesting to see how Illinois coaches make use of Scheelhaase.

Scheelhaase has started all 26 games of his college career. He led the Illini with 624 rushing yards last season and has 11 rushing TDs in his career; he also has passed for 3,925 yards, 30 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. He passed for more than 200 yards just four times last season.

There are high hopes for the rushing attack. Along with Scheelhaase, coaches think TBs Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young can be productive. Ferguson has good speed, while Young is a bullish back.

The Illini return two starting receivers, but neither really is proven. Last season, the Illini completed 226 passes and A.J. Jenkins, who went in the first round in the 2012 NFL draft, caught 90 of them. Jenkins also had eight of the Illini's 14 TD receptions. Returnees Spencer Harris and Darius Millines had a combined 45 catches for 444 yards and two TDs, and one needs to step up as a go-to guy. Millines is extremely athletic, but remains a bit raw as a receiver; he quarterbacked a Florida high school team that was heavily run-oriented. Junior Ryan Lankford also will be in the mix, and some youngsters need to develop quickly.

TEs Jon Davis and Evan Wilson could be solid weapons. Davis, especially, has the necessary skills to become a 35-catch guy.

The line is headed by C Graham Pocic, who might be the best at his position in the Big Ten. G Hugh Thornton and T Michael Heitz also are returning starters up front. The other spots are questionable. Redshirt freshman Ted Karras, whose great uncle is Alex Karras, should grab the vacant starting spot at guard. The open tackle spot likely goes to sophomore Simon Cvijanovic, who started four times last season. When Beckman was at Toledo, his staff went hard after Cvijanovic, who played high school ball at Cleveland Benedictine.

Defense

The Illini's defense was magnificent last season, finishing seventh overall (286.2 yards per game), third against the pass (162.3 ypg) and 15th in points allowed (19.6 per game). The numbers are all the more impressive considering the offense was mediocre.

E Whitney Mercilus, who turned pro early after racking up 16 sacks, will be missed, but E Michael Buchanan and LB Jonathan Brown are stars in their own right and will be prime contenders for All-Big Ten honors and maybe even All-America acclaim.

Buchanan heads what should continue to be one of the league's best lines. He had 7.5 sacks, 13.5 tackles for loss and 64 tackles last season. Before, he was a great athlete playing strictly on his athleticism. Last season, he began to fully understand what playing end meant, and he should truly blossom this season.

The other end likely will be senior Glenn Staples, who has made four starts in the past two seasons. He has some pass rush ability, and he will need to take advantage of all the attention being paid to Buchanan on the other end of the line.

Ts Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster combined for 101 tackles, including 7.5 tackles for loss, last season.

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Michael Buchanan could contend for All-America mention this season. (Getty Images)

Spence, another who has all-league talent, had 69 tackles and holds up well against the run. As for depth, it is young and untested.

Brown, a junior, is the only returning starter at linebacker but he is a nice building block. He made plays all over the field last season, finishing with a team-leading 108 tackles, along with six sacks, 19.5 tackles for loss, four pass breakups, three quarterback hurries, an interception, a fumble return and a forced fumble. All that production came in his first season as a starter.

The Illini have switched to a 4-2-5 set, with a hybrid linebacker/safety spot. That should go to senior Ashante Williams, who started three games at outside linebacker last season despite a lack of size (5 feet 11/205 pounds); Williams was a safety in 2009 and '10, and has some pass-coverage skills.

The other starting linebacker will be sophomore Houston Bates, a physical run-stuffer from the New Orleans area. Bates runs well and should be a steady performer this fall.

CB Terry Hawthorne heads a secondary that returns three starters. He should be one of the better corners in the Big Ten this season; he had three picks and 11 pass breakups to go along with 60 tackles last fall. Senior Justin Green, who has started 18 times in the past two seasons, should be a fulltime starter at the other corner spot this fall. Depth is good, too.

Both projected starting safeties are upperclassmen, though senior FS Suppo Sanni has battled injuries throughout his career. Indeed, he missed most of spring practice after re-injuring his Achilles. When healthy, he adds a physical presence. Junior SS Steve Hull was signed as a wide receiver in 2009, but moved to safety two weeks before the start of the 2010 season. He was bothered by a bad back last season, but had 58 tackles, an interception and two pass breakups.

Special teams

Former K Derek Dimke had a big leg and will be missed. True freshman Ryan Frain, who chose the Illini over Georgia Tech, is expected to win the job.

P Justin DuVernois returns, but he was mediocre last season, averaging just 38.3 yards per attempt. He had a good spring, though.

The return units were horrible last season. The Illini averaged a meager 2.9 yards on 24 punt returns, a figure that ranked 118th nationally. That's bad, right? Well, the kickoff return unit was even worse, ranking last nationally at 15.7 yards per return.

Punt coverage was adequate but the kickoff coverage needs big improvement.

Schedule

Four of the first five games are at home, and it's definitely not an overly taxing first month. The one road game in that span is against rebuilding Arizona State. There are visits from two good non-Big Six schools (Western Michigan and Louisiana Tech), as well as a FCS team (Charleston Southern) and from Penn State.

October and early November are a different matter, with three tough road games (Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State).

After the road trip to Columbus, the schedule eases again: Minnesota, Purdue and at Northwestern.

All in all, it's a navigable schedule for a team with a new coach.

Overview

The Illini were strong defensively last season, though they wore down late in the season. This season's defense should again be tough, which puts the onus on Scheelhaase and the offense to produce.

The passing attack bears watching. The schedule isn't that daunting, lending hope that if the offense comes around, Illinois actually could finish as high as second in the Leaders Division. Third place seems more likely, but this is a team that can realistically hope to win eight games.

The recruiting side

Average recruiting ranking for past five years: 47th nationally
The buzz: Beckman had little to work with after taking over for Zook, but he utilized the connections he had built as coach at Toledo to gain 10 commitments in the final month before National Signing Day and finish with a class of 19 prospects. Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas RB Dami Ayoola was the big catch in the class, but also keep an eye on Birmingham (Mich.) Brother Rice RB Devin Church, who also could contend for early playing time in the Illini's backfield. – Josh Helmholdt, Rivals.com

Breakthrough player

TB Josh Ferguson. Ferguson had a promising 2011 freshman season cut short by a torn hamstring. He was granted a medical redshirt, and will enter this fall with four years of eligibility remaining. Look for Ferguson to emerge as a major factor in the Illini offense, lining up in the backfield and at slot receiver. During spring drills, Ferguson showed that he was completely recovered from the injury, establishing himself as the Illini's most explosive skill position player. He is a great fit for the spread offense that Beckman will employ at Illinois. – Doug Bucshon, OrangeandBlueNews.com

For more on Illinois throughout the season, check out OrangeandBlueNews.com

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