CHICAGO - Instead of hitting the reset button on the football program, an under- and unprepared University of Illinois administration decided to hit the replay button.
The 2016 season will be led by the same man, Bill Cubit -- who agreed to a two-year deal to drop the “interim” before his head coach title -- who led the Illini to a 5-7 season this year. The program also will be surrounded by the same long-term questions surrounding the program.
Cubit knows he’s in a tough position to succeed. Just as he was put in a tough position to succeed when thrown into the interim role a week before the season -- which ended with the Illini (5-7, 2-6 Big Ten) ended with their sixth loss in seven games.
“Compared to what I was thrown in before, I think this gives you a lot more time,” Cubit said following the Illini’s 24-14 season-ending loss on Saturday. “When we go in a week before the season, there are some things you change in terms of practice, organization and a lot of things you can’t. So it gives me an opportunity to put your kind of stamp on the program.”
With no long-term athletic director in place, University leadership punted on the football decision -- a decision interim athletic director Paul Kowalczyk called “not ideal” -- which may further set back the program in future seasons.
Cubit’s task now is to overcome more adversity, more challenges and continue to build a program that university leadership has placed in limbo -- likely stalling progress -- for another season.
“We can say two years but I have confidence enough in our abilities and the people around this program that we’ll make this thing,” Cubit said. “We’re really that close.”
“When it was presented to me, the bottom line was I asked myself, ‘Why do you coach?’ I coach because I love being around players like this. So for me, it’s a challenge. I know it’s a big challenge. But I’m looking forward to it.”
Cubit faces many challenges.
Fixing the offense
Illinois finished last in the Big Ten in scoring offense during Big Ten play, averaging just 16.9 points per game. The Illini also finished last in rushing yards per game during conference play (112.9) and 12th in pass efficiency offense.
The Illini offense has slipped each of the past three seasons, slipping from 29.7 points per game during Cubit’s first season in 2013 to 25.9 ppg in 2014 to 22.7 ppg this season.
Big-armed pocket passer Wes Lunt struggled (2,731 yards, 56.1 completion percentage, 14 TDs, 6 INTs) to live up to expectations, partly due to receiver drops (an estimated 60 this season), partly due to a lack of an effective run game and partly due to his own struggles in the pocket.
“We had to sustain long drives,” Illinois quarterbacks coach Ryan Cubit said. “We didn’t get enough big plays. We weren’t a big-play football team, so when you’re not a big-play football team, it forces you to make every single throw. When you miss a throw, you’re punting. We didn’t get run game at times when we wanted to. Overall, inconsistency to sustain drives.”
Injuries hurt the Illini. Freshmen running backs Dre Brown and Reggie Corbin each missed the season with injuries, as did starting receivers Mikey Dudek and Justin Hardee. The Illini lacked receivers who could stretch the field.
“The speed factor outside there (was a problem),” Bill Cubit said. “One, we wanted to keep Wes healthy and we did that all year. The Mikeys, the Hardees, they have the speed a little bit more and they can get up on people.
“I think that will be addressed with some of the guys coming back and through recruiting. We got to get some explosive guys.”
The Illinois senior class isn’t full of top NFL prospects. But unlike previous Illinois senior classes, this one contained some NFL prospects that Illinois must replace.
Running back Josh Ferguson is the biggest loss. But Illinois has some depth at running back with Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Brown and Corbin returning -- and current commits Kentrail Moran and Devin Singletary possibly on the way.
Guard Ted Karras was one of the most reliable and nastiest Illini offensive lineman. He will be tougher to replace than guard Chris Boles, who was serviceable but Illinois needs to upgrade there. The Illini need rising sophomore Nick Allegretti and redshirt freshmen Gabe Megginson and Adam Solomon to grow up quickly. Junior college transfer Zach Heath, who sat most of the season with an injury, also will fight for a starting spot.
Defensive lineman Jihad Ward will be tough to replace as well, but Carroll Phillips emerged as a possible playmaker on the edge this season, allowing Ward to play inside. Chunky Clements will re-take his starting role at defensive tackle. The return of talented freshman DT Jamal Milan should also help depth (and maybe the return of junior Teko Powell -- though multiple foot injuries suggest Illinois can’t rely on him to see the field).
Linebacker Mason Monheim started 47 career games. His experience will be missed. Illinois needs to add speed and freshman Julian Jones’ legal issues make that more difficult. Rising sophomore Tre Watson, senior LaKeith Walls and senior Mike Svetina may compete for the starting job alongside T.J. Neal.
The scariest losses are in the secondary, where Illinois loses three starters. The biggest loss is senior safety Clayton Fejedelem, who led the Big Ten with 140 tackles. There is no quality option behind him at the moment, but rising senior Caleb Day likely is the frontrunner based on his athleticism alone. The Illini also lose starting cornerbacks V’Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence. The jobs now go to unproven players, like Darius Mosely and Jaylen Dunlap.
“It’s tough to leave these seniors, mainly because of all the adversity that we’ve had to face here,” Cubit said. “It’s kind of been nonstop for about almost a little less than a year. Those kids they kept on fighting and battling through all the changes. They battled even today. I think it’s a real credit to those players, especially those seniors. I thanked them.”
The biggest challenge Cubit’s staff faces is selling the long-term future of the program when his deal is set up for him to be replaced after one season by a new athletic director.
“I’m looking forward to the challenge, I really am, but we just got to go out there and recruit,” Cubit said. “There’s a lot of high school coaches too, saying, ‘Cubes, I’m happy for you.’ We got a lot of friends out there. They trust us.”
Illinois hits the recruiting trail immediately with a few scholarships to fill in a class -- that to its credit, it’s kept together -- that has 18 commitments, four of which came after Tim Beckman’s dismissal in August.
Illinois will be proactive with the questions about their long-term job security.
“You got to tell them right now where we’re at,” said Ryan Cubit, the Illini recruiting coordinator. “I think a lot of the recruits are happy since it’s happened. I’ve already gotten a bunch of messages from kids that we weren’t on but now are on. They see it, and now they want to visit. I think it’s big for us to have this in place now so we can move forward and get kids on campus.”
Illinois will prioritize filling a few spots: a speedy wide receiver who can stretch the field; one or two lanky, physical cornerbacks (preferably ones who can contribute early); and another offensive lineman or two who can add depth.
Illinois will sell what is has for the past four months: an opportunity to play in the Big Ten and an opportunity to play early.
“I don’t know who is on a four- or five-year deal these days in college football coaching anyways,” Ryan Cubit said. “I think everyone is on a one-year deal contract. Anybody can buy anybody out at any time. That’s the way we’re looking at it. We know we have to win next year. I think every coach in the country knows they have to win next year, no matter how many years they have. We don’t have time to wait. We don’t have any time to soak things and wait for the future. We have to go now. We’re going to recruit that way. We’re swinging for the fences. We’re going to try to sign some of the best guys we can sign who can play for us next year because we know we have to fill some spots with some young kids.”
Bill Cubit inherited Beckman’s staff. Many are expected to stay. But turnover is likely for a few positions on the staff.
Cubit will now have an offseason to shape the program -- the weight room focus, recruiting strategy, schemes, etc. -- to fit his style.
“We’ll sit there and we’ll look at it,’ Cubit said. “I’m going to do what’s best for the University of Illinois and the University of Illinois football team. You sit there and you analyze that too.”
If and when he makes staff changes, Cubit may have a tough sales pitch given that the job isn’t guaranteed for longer than a season. He may have to take a few chances on some, though there will be plenty of free-agent coaches following what could be possibly the craziest coaching carousel.
The Illini have enough talent to qualify for a bowl game next season. But the path there doesn’t get much easier.
The Illini open against Murray State, an FCS team that finished 3-8 this season.
But then Illinois hosts North Carolina, a team that likely will crack the top-10 this season that loses some key pieces but returns a lot of talent as well. In Week 3, Illinois will host the coach who replaced Cubit at Western Michigan, P.J. Fleck, a coach some speculated could be a candidate at Illinois. The Broncos have a lot of talent for a MAC team and are building some momentum after a 7-5 season.
Then Illinois starts its first nine-game Big Ten schedule that includes five away games (Nebraska, Rutgers, Michigan, Wisconsin and Northwestern) and four home games (Purdue, Minnesota, Michigan State and Iowa). Illinois may only be favored in one (Purdue) or two games (Rutgers).
Illinois and Cubit enter 2016 just like it did 2015 with a lot of doubters focused more on who will be the long-term solution rather than what actually happens on the field.
“My job is to convert the naysayers, keep these people up which I’ve been doing here for a couple years and bring this place to a spot where everybody wants,” Cubit said. “The biggest thing to me is everybody can’t be negative. Negativity has not done well around here.
“They entrust me with this title. I’m going out there, and I’m going hard. You can take two, three or five (seasons), it don’t make a bit of difference. Because this day and age, you better start winning quick.”