Know Your Foe: Illinois

Even though ASU played Illinois in 2011 some aspect of the Sun Devils' opponent did change this season.'s Publisher Fletcher Page answered questions from Devils Digest's customers on the visitors from Champaign and the challenges they can pose on both sides of the ball.

The question that is front and center on everyone's minds right now is the health of quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. What is the latest on his injury and how limited do you expect him to be on Saturday?

Fletcher Page: "Nathan Scheelhaase was practicing today. He didn't look full speed, but it wasn't like he was hobbling or anything. The ankle looked stiff, but he was going through the QB drills. That's a good sign for Saturday, as Tim Beckman said Wednesday's practice would be the real test to see if he could play.

"But the new staff does not make comments regarding injury, so Arizona State will most likely be preparing for the Illini offense with and without Scheelhaase and there probably won't be official word on his status until Saturday."

What kind of improvement have you noticed from Scheelhaase in the off-season and has the new coaching staff kept the scheme similar to last year to suit his skills?

Fletcher Page: "I think Scheelhaase fits the new offensive scheme exceptionally well. His ability to both run and pass is critical because the best way to describe the new offense is multiple and up-tempo.

"He's perfect for option-read-type plays, but is an above average passer, too. Throwing the ball is probably what Scheelhaase made the biggest improvements on this offseason. It seems he had grown tired of hearing that he was a scrambler or better suited to run more often than throw. He worked on his arm strength and accuracy, and I get the feeling he relishes the chance to prove people who say he can't threw well wrong."

If his backup, Reilly O'Toole, ends up playing a significant amount of snaps on Saturday do you anticipate a dramatic drop-off? How different is his skill set?

Fletcher Page: "O'Toole's skill-set is vastly different than Scheelhaase's in that he's more of a pocket passer. While O'Toole can lower his head on occasions for some tough yards, he doesn't have explosive quickness or speed to effectively run the ball on more than a ‘this-is-a-surprise' type basis. The coaching staff maintains the offensive game plan going into Saturday won't change much if O'Toole has to play, but some of the options and reads will have to be thrown out if that is the case."

What has been the perception so far of first-year Head Coach Tim Beckman and his staff? How have they been an improvement over last year and what are some areas they may be lacking in compared to Ron Zook's staff?

Fletcher Page: "I didn't arrive on the scene here at Illinois until preseason camp, so I can't speak too much in the way of comparisons to last year's staff.

"I can say that Beckman and Company have instilled a new way and a new structure for the program. He's enforcing things like: players have to arrive 10 minutes before the schedule says they're to arrive. Shoes must be removed indoors. Old traditions, such as the walk down First Street on game days, have been re-kindled.

"In a football sense, Beckman has a defensive background, so it should be no surprise that that's the strength of his first squad. Credit the old regime; Beckman inherited a wealth of talent on that side of the ball. But the new staff has done a great job limiting the problems that can arise from a coaching transition. They did this by retaining defensive line coach Keith Gilmore and using some of the same schemes and plays from a year ago.

"The sample size is too small to say there's anything lacking. Recruiting has often been cited as one of Zook's biggest strengths, so if anything, that's one area Beckman will have to live up to his predecessor in."

One key matchup for Saturday is Illinois' physical defensive line versus a very talented stable of ASU running backs. Can you talk about the strengths of this front four and how effective have they generally been against the run?

Fletcher Page: "The Illinois defense has been exceptional against the run – last year and in the season opener against Western Michigan (minus-6 yards). The front seven doesn't really have a weakness. Junior defensive tackle Akeem Spence is one of the Big Ten's best at his position. At 6-1 and 305 pounds, he's the physically imposing player that a run defense can be based around.

"Defensive end Michael Buchanan and linebacker Jonathan Brown will also play on Sundays in the future. Talent like that leads to success, especially with Beckman spending most of his time overseeing the unit. And there's depth, too, with guys like Glenn Foster, Justin Staples and Tim Kynard on the line."

Illinois didn't appear to have an effective run block/running game in their opener against an inferior team. Was this a surprise or going into the season has this offensive line been deemed suspect in their run blocking?

Fletcher Page: "That was a surprise in the moment, but in hindsight it was predictable. The line spent all of preseason camp mixing and matching due to injuries all across the board.

"Center Graham Pocic legitimately spent time at all five spots in August, which gives you an idea what was going on with the unit. The starting five changed quite a bit throughout camp, and Pocic didn't even know he'd been listed as the No. 1 center the Monday of game week.

"In saying that, I don't think the line had enough time to gel together. And I think it could be an on-going struggle to find that cohesion for the next couple of weeks. Center Jake Feldmeyer is back from injury and tackle Simon Cvijanovic returns from a Week One suspension. If those two figure into the rotation – how will that help or hurt the chemistry? That remains to be answered.

"Talking technique, line coach Luke Butkus has said he wants to see his guys drive off the ball more. He said they spent too much time thinking Saturday and not enough time moving their feet and driving the line-of-scrimmage up field. That, Butkus, said will go a long way in improving the run game."

Can you name one player on each side of the ball that maybe doesn't get much notoriety as their teammates but one that ASU fans should be aware of for Saturday?

Fletcher Page: "On defense, I see safety Earnest Thomas being a player that may still be flying under the radar just a bit. He had an interception in the opener, but fans still want to know if injured safeties Supo Sanni and Steve Hull will be available to play this weekend.

"Not taking anything away from the importance of those two upperclassmen, but the sophomore Thomas appears more than capable of holding his own.

"Offensively speaking, tight end Eddie Villunas is a solid player and a senior leader. Much of the attention at his position has gone to Jon Davis – and deservedly so – but Villunas is a 6-4, 255-pound target in the passing game and is also adept at blocking."

ASU has two of Illinois' coaching staff members from last year, Ron West and Chip Long. How were both of them viewed in Champaign in terms of their coaching abilities and how much of a concern is there, even with a new Illinois staff that this tandem can considerably help in the game planning this week?

Fletcher Page: "Again, excuse me for not being able to comment much on what happened at Illinois in the past due to my freshness on the beat. But I will say any defensive coach from last year's team has to be looked at as a success – so coach Ron West has that going for him.

"And there's absolutely nothing wrong with current Illinois' tight ends group (Davis, Villunas, etc), so I don't think much could be said in the way of disparaging remarks about Chip Long, either.

"Quite frankly, I don't think those guys provide much of an advantage for ASU. Sure they can help point out general observations about the Illini personnel, but there is a new scheme, different terminology and a changed philosophy on both sides of the ball.

"I'm sure Illinois' coaches aren't pleased that Long and West just happened to end up at a school that's on the schedule. But I don't think it will matter once the ball is kicked off."

On paper Illinois will have to deal with some challenging elements this week with a contest starting at 9:30 p.m. CT and with a kickoff temperature of near triple digits. How much do you think this will affect the Illini and are they addressing this in their preparations?

Fletcher Page: "Yeah, the coaching staff actually began addressing the hydration issue three weeks ago. They've taken the usual steps with water and fluids in practice, but have also required players to carry bottles of water into every meeting. The coaches have actually been forcing the players to finish their drink before leaving the meeting room.

"The late start will be stark contrast to what Illinois is mostly accustomed to here in the Midwest – 11 a.m. or early afternoon kickoffs. Coach Beckman has scheduled a series of walkthroughs for Friday and Saturday morning/afternoon. He doesn't want the players to be sitting around the hotel all day before the game. Instead, he's going to have them up moving around and staying loose.

Fill on the blank: Illinois must do (fill in the blank) to win the game. If they don't do (fill in the blank) they stand to lose the game.

Fletcher Page: "Illinois must limit big plays (long scores and long third down conversions) on defense to win the game. The Illini defense played great against Western Michigan, but they were exposed on a handful seam passes and deeper routes. A few went for long gains and others were dropped by Broncos receivers. On a play-by-play basis, Illinois' defense is going to stack up with most any offense. But giving up long scores or plays on third down will lead to a loss. If Illinois doesn't protect the football on offense they stand to lose the game. Like I said, this defense can play and hold its own versus most any team. The offense doesn't need to try to do too much and make mistakes. If a play isn't there, a punt isn't a bad thing considering what the defense can do. Playing for field position and limiting turnovers will go a long way in winning the game."

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