The Word: Bentley proved to be one of the most explosive players on the Illinois football team in 2013, making noise on special teams and starting at cornerback. His speed and moves led to two touchdowns and provided another threat for a score anytime a ball was kicked in the air. His play at corner could be described as mostly hit, with a few misses scattered in as he figured out his way as a first-year starter.
2013: 22 tackles, four for loss. one interception, one fumble recovery. 189 punt return yards (15.8 average), 663 kick return yards (21.4 average), two total touchdowns.
Expectation: The Illini need Bentley's playmaking on special teams, both for the threat to score and to set up the offense with good field position. He's not going to sneak up on opposing teams anymore, as Bentley' provides something on return units that no other player on the Illini roster can — a track record of success in that particular facet of the game. And with long-time leaders like Miles Osei and Ryan Lankford exiting, Bentley's not going to get by on athleticism alone. He'll be looked to as the voice of the group. He'll have to continue to improve his play as a full-time defender — there's a host of hungry, young corners that will be gunning to take his spot. For that reason, he's somewhat expendable on defense (compared to what he brings on returns), but experienced corners are worth their weight and then some. If he holds on to his starting job, it means he's improved and will be essential for turning around the unit's results.
Josh Ferguson - Tailback - 5-10, 195, Junior
The Word: I think most everybody thought Josh Ferguson could be useful if healthy. It was just impossible to gauge the height of his ceiling since we'd hardly seen him full-go or playing in an offense that had much of a clue of it was trying to be. In 2013, Ferguson's versatility became a tool for Bill Cubit's crazy scheming vision. He vaulted ahead of Donovonn Young on the depth chart early on and never looked back, growing into one of the team's best and most exciting weapons. Don't feel bad if you didn't see it coming. Apparently most defenses didn't either.
2013: He averaged 5.5 yards per rush and 10.7 per catch, totaling 1,314 yards and 11 touchdowns. He shredded the injury tag, too, seemingly getting stronger as the season wore on. He recorded four of his five highest-carry games in the last month of the season.
Expectation: Ferguson was electric in Year One of the Bill Cubit Experience. Credit Cubit for dreaming up new ways each week to get this dude the ball, but Ferguson, along with his teammates, was the one that executed. With Cubit and Ferguson together all offseason, the possibilities are fun to imagine. I don't want to say 1,000 yards rushing is the goal, because Ferguson is as likely to gain 100 yards in a game receiving as he is on handoffs. As long as his average per touch remains to the good, there's no telling how many yards and touchdowns he'll put up.
Wes Lunt - Quarterback - 6-5, 215, Redshirt Sophomore
The Word: All season long, everybody around the Illinois program spoke about the scout team quarterback torching the first-team defense. That guy was Lunt, sitting out due to transfer rules after starting as a true freshman at Oklahoma State. He enters spring as the favorite to win the starting job and is also a major reason for fans to reasonably believe a trip to a bowl game is possible.
2013: Sat out due to transfer. Threw for 1,108 yards, six touchdowns and seven interceptions in six games as a true freshman at Oklahoma State in 2012.
Expectation: It's hard to not get hyped about Lunt. Nathan Scheelhaase was a tremendous person and leader, which is, of course, extremely valuable aspects of the quarterback position. He didn't possess the physical tools Lunt has, though. He's got the prototypical body and carries himself like the No.1 guy in the locker room. If Cubit could do what he did with Scheelhaase, what can he do with Lunt? I know he has to beat out Aaron Bailey for the job, and that's going to be fun to track as well. But like I said — it's hard to temper the hype for Lunt.
Aaron Bailey - Quarterback - 6-2, 220, Sophomore
The Word: Bailey had the loudest four yards passing and 83 yards rushing of all time last season. OK, so maybe I'm stretching it just a bit, but his season totals seem low compared to how much interest and thought-energy was spent on him during his freshman year. You look at the numbers and it doesn't seems like much. Actually, it might make you wonder why he didn't do more. Every game, all game, we waited. And wanted. And wondered. He did his thing, learning on the fly and flashing wonderful potential, especially on the ground.
2013: Passing: 2 for 5 with four yards and a touchdown. Rushing: 20 carries for 83 yards and three scores.
Expectation: He's entering spring eyeing the starting position. Nobody would complain if he beat Wes Lunt out for the spot — not in the least, but it's going to be a tall order. What happens if he doesn't get the nod? Many would assume he'll be asked to change positions or seek a transfer. I hope neither of those options are considered. Even if he doesn't take the majority of the snaps, coordinator Bill Cubit has already established the foundation for using a two-QB system effectively. No matter what happens, Bailey is on the Essential List because he's the highest rated high school prospect Tim Beckman landed, and he's one the best athletes on the roster.
Taylor Zalewski - Kicker - 6-2, 220, Junior
The Word: Unpredictable swirling winds inside Memorial Stadium and all, Zalewski took to his full-time starting duties fairly well last season. There were some misses, but he converted at a 70 percent clip and was virtually automatic inside of 40 yards (10 for 12).
2013: 12 of 17, long of 51. 38-38 on extra points.
Expectation: So why is a kicker on the Essential List? Because the margin for error is such that a player entering his third season as a starter has to A) take of his duties and be dependable. B) Continue developing and grow into a player that impacts the game. Who knows how good the Illinois defense will be next season. And the offense has to replace quite a bit. At a minimum, Zalewski has to be steady and consistent. He needs to convert when called upon, and his track record on shorter kicks is where it needs to be. That alone will help take some pressure off his teammates to play perfect ball. His task in 2014 will be to extend his trustworthy range out a little bit further.
Justin DuVernois - Punter - 6-1, 190, Senior
The Word: DuVernois' average dropped slightly in 2013, but not enough to complain too much about the three-year starter. For the most part, the Florida native did his job and did it well. There were a few hand to the forehead moments though, short or shanked punts, that left some with a worrisome feeling when the punt team trotted out.
2013: 51 punts, average of 41.1 yards, long of 66, 13 inside the 20
Expectation: Again, like Taylor Zalewski, some might question why a specialist is on the Essential List. And like his kicking peer, it's because DuVernois is an experienced multi-year starter that must provide consistent play at a minimum to help his team. With Coach Tim Beckman entering a critical third season, senior players like DuVernois have to be steady and able to be counted on.
Darius Mosely - Cornerback - 5-11, 185, Sophomore
The Word: Mosely entered his first season at Illinois as the second-most anticipated recruit of the Beckman Era (behind only Aaron Bailey). He lived up to the hype, playing in every game and finishing 10th in tackles playing mostly from the nickel spot.
2013: 36 tackles, 0.5 for loss, one fumble recovered
Expectation: The Illinois defense has to be better and there's only one way for that to happen — guys like Mosely fulfill their potential and play lights out. Hey, no pressure, but Mosely is not a freshman any longer. He's a second-year dripping with athleticism and playmaking ability. It's no longer enough for him to just be out there and not make mistakes. He now has to impact the game. There's real potential for him to help on special teams and some still wonder what he could do if given the chance on offense. That might be putting too much on his plate at this point, so we'll just stick with him taking a step forward on defense to help change that unit's fortune.
Jaylen Dunlap - Cornerback - 6-1, 175, Sophomore
The Word: Raise your hand if you saw Dunlap emerging like he did as a freshman? Props to those you who forecasted that — you're in small company. Dunlap wasn't highly rated or heavily recruited coming out of high school, but he took fall camp by storm and kept the momentum throughout the season. Along with classmate Darius Mosely, Dunlap appeared in every game as a key reserve and nickel back.
2013: 26 tackles, one for loss, two passes defended, two pass breakups
Expectation: Dunlap should be gunning for a full-time starting gig this spring. He and Mosely pushed Eaton Spence and V'Angelo Bentley to brink last fall camp and stayed in the mix to start all season long. With a full year under his belt and in the midst of his first full offseason, Dunlap should be much better than the guy who showed so much raw potential last August. The jump players make from freshman year to sophomore is sometimes said to be the biggest. If that happens with this kid, he'll be starting.
Mason Monheim - Linebacker - 6-1, 235, Junior
The Word: It's hard to believe Monheim is already a rising junior, but that's where we are heading into this spring. He started as a freshman and played well as a sophomore, finishing third on the team in tackles.
2013: 97 tackles, 6.5 for loss, one sack, one fumble recovery.
Expectation: Jonathan Brown is no longer in the huddle, which means a lot of responsibility falls on Monheim to lead and produce even more. Now, Brown missed a handful of games due to injury over the past two years, so we've seen Monheim out there without his mentor before. Now that he's one of the bigger faces on this defense, Monheim has to do more. It would be hard to make more tackles, but we're talking about all the little things, helping others and leading by example in the locker room and weight room. Fortunately, that's something Monheim appears comfortable and ready to do.
Alex Hill - Offensive lineman - 6-3, 310, Senior
The Word: Hill emerged as a more than viable option at center and guard in 2013, splitting time as a starter at both positions. Hill is regarded as a "good guy," around the program, a great representative for the team and a leader in the locker room. He's engaged to Mariah Smith, a thrower on the Illinois track and field team.
2013: Started 12 games, nine at center, three at guard
Expectation: Hill is a senior offensive lineman with starting experience at multiple spots. It's hard to quantify just how much that's worth. It's probably best said like this — a lot. His time at center meant he had to make reads and calls, and younger linemen have routinely cited Hill as the they guy they go to when in need. Attributes like that don't go away. With one year left, expect much the same from the well-regarded Hill.
Simon Cvijanovic - Offensive lineman - 6-6, 310, Senior
The Word: The true definition of an anchor, Cvijanovic protected Nathan Scheelhaase in all but one game at left tackle. He went down with what looked to be a season-ending injury at Indiana, only to bounce back two weeks later, missing only one start.
2013: Started 11 games at left tackle
Expectation: Cvijanovic and Ted Karras are usually the guys cited as the best linemen Illinois has. Throwing in Alex Hill and Michael Heitz, the unit has plenty of experience and leadership. That has to mean something, especially considering these guys have been playing together for the better part of two or three seasons. Cvijanovic is an NFL prospect and plays the ever-important left tackle spot. He's been there-done this. He knows what has to be done.
Michael Heitz - Offensive linemen - 6-5, 305, Senior
The Word: Heitz is a versatile linemen that has 35 career starts and has practiced at every spot on the line. In 2013, he was most effective at left guard, but at times had to slide over to tackle.
2013: Started all 12 games, logging time at guard and tackle
Expectation: We could certainly call Heitz Mr. Utility. He's played enough minutes at enough spots to earn that distinction. Last season it became clear that guard is where he's best suited. He's just not quite quick enough to play tackle. It is nice, though, to have a player that can do it all if the need springs up and that's what Heitz provides. He's like a catch-all, that alleviates some pressure on the coaches who may hesitate to throw in young, less experienced players into the fire.
Ted Karras - Offensive lineman - 6-4, 300, Redshirt Junior
The Word: Karras has been a mainstay at right guard since 2012, when he assumed the starting job as a redshirt freshman. He's the seventh member of his family to play football in the Big Ten.
2013: Started 10 games at right guard.
Expectation: Karras has a nasty streak and and no-nonsense way of going about his football business. He's entering his third year as a starter and there's no questioning his effort and desire. He'll be counted on to once again man his spot, and his role as a leader and spokesman of the offense will surely continue to develop.