State of the Illini

A look at the current state of Illinois football heading into the spring and next season including an extended look back at the 2014 season and a position-by-position breakdown heading into both the spring and the 2015 season.

Illinois came up short against Louisiana Tech in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, but let’s take a closer look at where this team was, where it is, and where it could be next season under Tim Beckman.

One of the big hurdles Illinois had yet to clear at the beginning of the season was making it to a postseason game in any of Tim Beckman’s previous two years. One of the big goals this season was to play a game after November.

Optimism was high with former Oklahoma State quarterback Wes Lunt at the helm and several of Illinois’ key starters returning. More weapons at receiver, a more experienced duo at running back in Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young, many of the pieces were there to be successful.

Defensively, the Illini were forced to play a lot of young guys last year. So that experience was expected to pay dividends this year, especially with guys like Mason Monheim, T.J. Neal, V’Angelo Bentley, and more. Plus plenty of fans and media alike were buzzing about the arrival of the gargantuan Jihad Ward, who absolutely passed the eye test.

For the most part, the staff remained intact with the exception of the sudden departure of offensive line coach A.J. Ricker for Missouri just a few weeks before the season. Fortunately, Illinois quickly found a replacement in veteran coach Tom Brattan, formerly of Maryland.

Season In Review:

In a way, the season felt like it would be a “put up or shut up” type year for Beckman and his staff. After a 2-10 record his first season followed by a 4-8 mark the second year, including some pretty bad beatings on defense, Illinois fans and administration were growing tired of staying home in December and the perception around the program wasn’t the most positive.

The Illini’s start to the season left mixed feelings. Sure the team was 3-1 in non-conference play, but none of the wins, most of which required late rallies in the fourth quarter, really instilled much confidence in the program, and the loss involved a nearly 250-yard rushing performance from the Washington Huskies.

What ensued the next three weeks made matters even worse. Three straight losses at Nebraska, home against Purdue, and at Wisconsin all involved disastrous defensive performances and landed the Illini near the bottom of the rankings nationally in rush defense.

The Purdue loss especially hurt. Last season, Illinois’ lone Big Ten win came against the Boilermakers in West Lafayette, so of all the games on the schedule, that was marked as the most-winnable. However, the Illini struggled on offense as quarterback Wes Lunt played at less than 100% and was re-injured in the game. But the defense’s struggles really submarined the Illini effort in that one.

Following that game, several reports were surfacing that Tim Beckman’s job could be in jeopardy. A brutal loss against a terrible opponent in front of plenty of key alumni and former players left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.

The effort against Wisconsin was better. The Illini fell by 10 to the Badgers on the road, and reached a 3-4 record with matchups against a ranked Minnesota, a surging Ohio State, and tough defenses in Iowa and Penn State. The program was staring a very real possibility of going winless in Big Ten play right in the face.

But for whatever reason, after that Wisconsin game, the Illini started to get it and things started to click for the embattled team. On homecoming of all days, the Illini came out and stunned the then-ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers 28-24 at Memorial Stadium. The team wasn’t out of the woods yet, but the excitement and hope returned for a team that desperately needed something good to happen.

Despite the momentum of the Minnesota win, Illinois knew that Ohio State would be a tough test. The Buckeyes were playing some of their best football of the year down the stretch and the Illini were outmatched from the start, but battled the entire game regardless of the score. That in itself was a sign that the team had not given up. Regardless of the outcome, seeing that proved that the team still had life and more importantly determination.

Next up was Iowa, who in stretches had struggled this season. The Illini were in it for a while, but turnovers on offense and the inability to stop Iowa in the red zone proved too difficult to overcome and the light started to dim for Illinois.

The record was 4-6 with just two games left, and despite Penn State’s offensive struggles, the Nittany Lions’ defense had remained stout all season. But for once all season, the Illinois kicking game saved the day, as the Illini "out-uglied” Penn State 16-14, winning on a David Reisner field goal in the last seconds to hold onto that chance at a bowl game. The Illinois defense was probably the MVP of that game. The Illini were in Christian Hackenberg’s face all game, despite Penn State having two of its main starters back on the offensive line.

And honestly, it couldn’t have set up much better. One game, essentially make-or-break, against in-state rival Northwestern, also 5-7, where the winner would presumably get a bowl bid.

And rather than play reserved or careful football, the Illini came out and took control of the game from the start and manhandled the Wildcats 47-33, forcing four turnovers in the first half and sealing the game with a Mason Monheim pick-six. Reilly O’Toole rushed and passed for 147 yards (each) in that game

After it seemed like all hope had been lost just five games prior, Illinois would be heading to a bowl… or at least they did what they needed to to get there.

Yes, they got some help from Mississippi State passing up Michigan State in the playoff rankings, but after all of the hard work put in by the seniors just to get to that point, it would have been devastating to be left out of the bowl picture because of a contractual oversight by the Big Ten.

Beckman gave credit where credit was due and focused much of his praise on the seniors and the way they took over the leadership of the team both on the field and in the locker room down the stretch. The opportunity for those seniors to go out one more time and for most of them, see the field for the first time in a bowl game.

The Bowl Game:

Getting to the bowl game was a victory in itself in some regards, but a win in the bowl game might have been just as important to the program moving forward. A win would have meant a final record over .500 (7-6), a victory in front of a key recruiting audience, and an experience for the seniors they would never forget.

And while Illinois didn’t win the game, the entire process of the bowl brought plenty of benefit, not just for the players, but for the program as a whole. The bowl, win or lose, meant fifteen extra practices, an invaluable bonus for a coaching staff looking to teach up a lot of young players. It meant an opportunity for Illinois fans in Dallas to see the team in their own backyard. Of Illinois’ allotment of 4,000 tickets for the game, pretty much the entire allotment was sold, and that weighs heavily with bowl committees in future years. It meant playing a quality opponent in Louisiana Tech that could provide the Illini with a litmus test of where they are as a program.

So yes, win or lose, just getting to the bowl game was a crucial milestone in itself. And the Illini did just about everything right once awarded the bid and seized every opportunity outside of winning. The younger players have a taste of playing in a bowl now, and if they stay hungry, that hopefully fuels them to get back there next year.

So.. About Next Year..

And that brings us to next year. First let’s start with some of the key departures and returning players that are going to need to be addressed:

Quarterback - Fortunately for Illinois, Wes Lunt got a lot of experience this past season, but O’Toole won the quarterback job mid-season, something no one really saw coming. How will Lunt respond and how much will he improve on the areas in which he struggled this season. Aaron Bailey, seldom used outside of a few drives here and there, finds himself in a similar situation next season. Illinois attempted to redshirt Bailey for a while this season, but felt as though they had to play him to provide some sort of spark. Current redshirt quarterback Chayce Crouch will be a redshirt freshman and will enter the mix as well. Crouch most resembles Reilly O’Toole in his skill set, which could make things interesting before too long. Will Lunt step up and win the job back? Or will he continue to struggle with some of the things that have plagued him in the past?

Running Back - The good news? Josh Ferguson is back for his senior season. One of the most dynamic playmakers on the Illinois roster has another year of eligibility and will likely get a majority of the touches at running back. However behind him, a slew of newcomers joins some other familiar names, and touches will be up for the taking this spring. Devin Church has seen some snaps at running back as well as slot receiver, so he will likely play a similar role as Ferguson. However with the departure of Donovonn Young, the power back role is wide open. True freshmen Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown both have a ton of potential and playmaking ability. Junior college transfer Henry Enyenihi is built like a linebacker, and doesn’t shy away from contact. If Brown is ready, it is possible that he gets on the field and forgoes a redshirt year, however if Enyenihi can shoulder the load as the power back, then Brown could take a redshirt season and be another year further along when he takes the field for the first time for Illinois.

Wide Receiver - Mike Dudek. Ok now that that’s out of the way, aside from the 1,000 yard receiver, the position is still pretty cut and dry. Geronimo Allison will be a senior, and Malik Turner proved toward the end of his freshman campaign that he has the skill and ability to make some impressive catches. Those two big bodies at receiver coupled with Dudek’s knack for repeatedly accomplishing the ridiculous gives Illinois a great starting three at receiver. Martize Barr will graduate this spring, but Justin Hardee will be a senior and has shown that he can make plays, however he has struggled this year with drops. Tyrin Stone-Davis, a physical freak, is still developing the nuances and fluidity required to be consistent at the position, but if he can start to put things together, he could provide some real matchup problems for defenses behind guys like Allison and Turner. Marchie Murdock and Dionte Taylor have both seen action this season, but it was limited. If those two can further develop, the depth will make the receiver position that much stronger. Ideally Illinois would like to redshirt guys like A.D. Miller and Sam Mays, but if they come in and perform well, it may be hard to keep a guy like Miller off the field.

Tight End - There’s no doubt Illinois will feel the impact of losing Matt LaCosse and Jon Davis, both long-time starters. But tight end is a very deep position, thanks in part to the past two recruiting classes. On the roster, Tyler White has played a substantial amount. Trevor Kantemann is still looking to get into the action more, but with plenty of eligibility left his time may come down the road.

However a couple of tight ends in the 2015 recruiting class, especially those arriving this winter, should be able to have an early impact. Andrew Davis, the top junior college tight end in the nation, is more of a hybrid between tight end and wide receiver. At 6’6” and 230 pounds, Davis has the frame and the wingspan to be a real threat in the receiving game, especially considering the size of some of the other receivers on the roster. Ainslie Johnson and Caleb Reams will both fill in the void left by Jon Davis’ departure, and Johnson, who comes from the JUCO ranks, may even allow Reams a redshirt year to improve his strength and conditioning prior to seeing game action.

Offensive Line - Alex Hill, graduated. Simon Cvijanovic, graduated. Michael Heitz, graduated. Ted Karras, still out with a knee injury. That’s what a majority the offensive line from this year’s starting group will look like this spring. Several players had to step into starting roles toward the end of the year in response to injuries and departures. Joe Spencer found himself the starting center but also played some at guard. Chris O’Connor came on strong late, but an injury derailed a solid backup effort. Austin Schmidt at tackle was on some days and off others. Pat Flavin spent time at left tackle, but still needed to add weight to his frame. Christian DiLauro really stepped up down the stretch and did well at right tackle.

Of all the positions on the roster, offensive line might be one of the most beneficial to redshirt if at all possible (that should be proven by Nick Allegretti and Peter Cvijanovic this coming season). Illinois welcomes a talented and deep incoming offensive line recruiting class that is a mix of both high school and junior college prospects. As good as Gabe Megginson is, he, Adam Solomon, and Zeke Martin will hopefully be able to take a redshirt season to adjust to the college level and prepare themselves for four years of play. Junior college prospects Zach Heath, Connor Brennan, and Jordan Fagan are all good candidates to play early, especially if Heath’s minor shoulder injury heals quickly.

Defensive Line - This position may involve the most uncertainty heading into next year. Austin Teitsma and Jake Howe will have graduated, meaning the two long-time starters/contributors will need to be replaced. Will Teko Powell get healthy and stay healthy, or will that foot injury continue to bother him? Will Carroll Phillips bounce back from his injury to be the pass rushing force everyone was looking for this year. Will Jarrod Clements cement himself as an interior defensive lineman and take hold of the three technique DT spot? Did Rob Bain’s performance near the end of the season earn him a seat at the table in the DT rotation? How will Kenny Nelson bounce back and figure into the rotation? Will Jihad Ward continue to develop the way he did down the stretch and have a potential All-B1G season? After a year of redshirting, will Tito Odenigbo work his way into the mix? Can Joe Fotu have more than just flashes and turn into a reliable multi-down defensive lineman? Will Paul James ever get it together?

Here’s what we do know: Jihad Ward improved drastically between the beginning and the end of the season. He played both on the inside and outside along the line and was a nightmare for OL from either location. With any sort of presence inside, Ward is poised for another big year. The Illini have some solid players at the end positions, but with so much uncertainty still at the tackle spots, the concern is hard to ignore for the defensive line. This spring will tell a lot as far as confidence level in the position moving into the fall.

Linebacker - Once guys get healthy, this position has a chance to make the biggest jump from this season to next just from the return of injured players and increased depth. Losing Mike Svetina wasn’t a backbreaker, but it definitely took away an important weapon at linebacker and forced TJ Neal and Mason Monheim to take a lot more snaps. The only loss to graduation for the otherwise young corps is Ralph Cooper. B.J. Bello spent most of the season injured, and his return will give Illinois further athleticism at the position. Redshirt freshmen Austin Roberts and Henry McGrew enter the mix, and Tre Watson is poised to back up TJ Neal at his position. 2015 commits Julian Jones and Justice Williams likely redshirt, but should be in the mix following a year in the weight room.

Monheim is the unquestioned leader of the defense, however he has sometimes struggled in pass coverage against quicker opponents. Monheim is a real run-stuffer, but might be rotated in and out with other linebackers based on opponents and personnel sets. Still, it is likely that no one knows and understands the defense better than Monheim, and compared to his shortcomings, that is still extremely valuable. If TJ Neal can take the next step and continue to play with intensity and aggressiveness, he will only further improve and have an impact. Lakeith Walls showed toward the end of the year he has the ability to contribute in the pass rush and has carved out a nice niche there.

LEO and STAR - Illinois will absolutely feel the effects of Earnest Thomas’ graduation. One of the key cogs of the defense in 2014, Thomas was an impact player game in, game out. James Crawford and Eric Finney are primed to fill in at the position. Zeph Grimes is listed at the position as well, however he has most often been utilized as a special teams ace in coverage. The LEO position also loses a consistent starter in Dejazz Woods. After being the backup to begin the year, Woods came on strong near the end and played well, however he is now graduating. Fortunately, Dawuane Smoot proved on several occasions that he possesses deceptive athleticism for a big guy and can also deliver a big hit. Smoot is likely to take control of the LEO position with Carroll Phillips an option in certain situations. Illinois may still add a JUCO player at the LEO position in the 2015 class, however what is currently on the roster, though not deep, is talented.

Defensive Backs (CB and S) - This has been a young group for a long time, but now that it is coming of age, much more will be expected from a crew with a lot of starts under its belt. Zane Petty was a fixture at free safety the last two years, but his graduation means someone else will need to fill in his place. Jevaris Little got some looks at the position here and there. Taylor Barton seems to have a firm grip on the strong safety position, but with Illinois rotating, players like Clayton Fejedelem, who played very well when called upon, should also see ample playing time. Darwyn Kelly, who will be a redshirt sophomore next season, should also see some playing time at the safety position, but does have several skilled players ahead of him.

At cornerback, The clear starters in V’Angelo Bentley, Eaton Spence, and Darius Mosely (some combination of those three) return, but having some of the backups healthy and young players a year more experienced will help substantially. Caleb Day saw action toward the end of the year, especially against Northwestern and in the bowl game against Louisiana Tech. Jaylen Dunlap spent nearly the entire season on the sidelines with injuries (shoulder & concussion), but having him back in the lineup is a big boost to a position that previously lacked size to match up with bigger receivers. Julian Hylton and Chris James are two members of the 2014 class who redshirted this year but could see action next season with a strong spring, especially Green, who by some accounts is developing more quickly than expected.

Special Teams - The kicking game was pretty bad this year. Now include the departure of four-year starter at punter Justin DuVernois. Illinois tried three different kickers this year (Reisner, Zalewski, Frain) and none of them really provided any sort of consistency or reliability as the position turned into a revolving door. Reisner was the most accurate of the group, but that isn’t saying much. Illinois has neither a kicker or a punter committed in the 2015 class, so as of now, they are looking to have to make do with what they currently have on the roster.

Walk-on Brennen VanMieghem is the only one in the group to graduate, meaning Reisner, Zalewski, and Frain all come back among the kickers. The only remaining punters on the team are a pair of what will be redshirt freshman walk-ons in Nick Kyburz and Ryan Tucker. Ryan Frain is doubly-listed as a punter as well, but for such a crucial pair of positions, the doubt even heading into the spring is very troubling.

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