"Let old acquaintance be forgot.."
Or maybe the line should read "Let old habits be forgot.." instead. Here are a few things Illinois football should look to improve upon in 2016 as the new year quickly approaches...
A Senior QB who plays like a senior QB:
Wes Lunt didn't have a great draw of cards when playing through the 2015 season, but the redshirt junior (soon to be redshirt senior) still made his fair share of mistakes this past season.
Provided that Illinois can get him some better pass protection (cue new-ish OL coach AJ Ricker), Lunt, who has been under center at Illinois now for 3 years of practice and 2 years of live action, needs to play with the mental sharpness of a guy who knows this offense like the back of his hand. He's basically been under the tutelage of Bill Cubit his entire playing time at Illinois.
Provided that the WR corps can stay healthy, Lunt should inherit a redshirt senior Justin Hardee and redshirt soph WR in Mike Dudek. With some of his key weapons back on the field, the central Illinois native should have plenty of reasons to be successful in 2016, provided that he can do his part to minimize the bad throws, not lock in on one receiver, and make more precise reads.
Establish a run game:
Let's be honest, Illinois' rushing attack in 2015, save the Purdue game, was token at best. Injuries to the RB position were part of that, but Lunt threw 40+ times a game the last half of the season, meaning teams could predictably set up against the pass.
Josh Ferguson, a key player in both the run and the pass game, has graduated, meaning that true sophomore Ke'Shawn Vaugh will be more heavily counted upon. But Illinois will need to not only be able to run block more successfully, but also get consistent contributions from guys like Dre Brown, Reggie Corbin, and Henry Enyenihi, who all were injuried for all or part of the 2015 season.
Putting together a stable rushing attack, even if by committee, will enable Wes Lunt to not only throw less each game, but also see more favorable coverage, as teams are forced to respect the run. A consistent run game will also create better opportunities in the play-action passing game. And in turn, better play action looks lead to better deep-ball opportunities, which is something Bill Cubit likes when the personnel are available.
Re-establish Home-State Recruiting Prowess:
Tim Beckman, upon his arrival, always made it a point to recruit the state of Illinois harder than other areas, but realistically, it just didn't work out without several wins on the field. The Illini were able to land a few well-regarded recruits in Illinois such as Dre Brown, Gabe Megginson, and Kentrail Moran, but still lost some of the state's top talent to other Big Ten progams.
After this offseason's staff shakeup, Illinois has some new staff in place with better in-state recruiting ties. Jeff Hecklinski recruited Illinois heavily as a member of Michigan's staff under Brady Hoke and is a native of the suburban Chicago town of Palatine. Tim McGarigle has recruited the Chicago area for Western Michigan and even played at Northwestern. Cubit retained receivers coach Mike Bellamy, who recruits both Chicago and St. Louis metro areas.
Illinois needs to both close out strong in 2016 and land some key commitments in-state in 2017. Landing the top-rated skill player in Illinois in 2017 would be a good start. Jeff Thomas, a receiver from East St. Louis, is a top-50 recruit nationally and a serious playmaker. He would be the highest-rated player Illinois has landed in almost a decade and provide some immediate firepower on offense and in the return game.
Additionally, 2017 OL Kevin Jarvis of Maine South HS in Park Ridge, IL is a key target. He camped with the Illini in July and is one of the top guard prospects in the Midwest. The entire region is important, and Texas is an increasingly important area for Illinois recruiting, but as it's always been, the home state is a vital recruiting battleground, and they have to recruit better on their home turf moving forward.
The plethora of injuries were one of the big storylines of 2015. Sure, some of them were freak injuries, including a few non-contact injuries. And many of those were at key positions to starting personnel. It limited Illinois' ability to really open up the playbook and forced a lot of younger players and reserves into action.
The spring was especially brutal, with freshman All-American Mikey Dudek suffering an ACL tear making a cut. Not long after that, freshman early-enrollee running back Dre Brown, who had ascended to the number two running back spot, suffered a similar injury and was sidlined all year. In the summer, top receiver Justin Hardee continued to struggle with a foot injury. Freshman Reggie Corbin tore his labrum in his shoulder and sat all year. Teko Powell played at times throughout the year, but the talented D-Tackle never did quite recover from a stress fracture in his foot, either.
Tight end Tyler White was in and out of action most of the year with various injuries, most notably an ACL tear at the end of the year, which limited the Illini's ability to utilize the tight end. TE/H-Back Tim Clary broke his hand early in the season and did not return until the last couple of games, which further crippled an already depleted run game.
I get it: it's easier said than done to "stay healthy". And a coach is always looking for that balance of contact and injury prevention to keep his team both aggressive and healthy. But after this past year, the coaches and the trainers need to be much more cognizant of regulating workload during practice and keeping guys healthy for the season.
Get Back to a Bowl Game:
The Illini were on the cusp of getting to a bowl game with two more games to play, sitting at 5-5 on the season. But after dropping late contests to both Minnesota and Northwestern, two pretty winnable games, the orange and blue sat at home this year in December. If the roster can stay relatively healthy, the team has a chance to get back to a bowl game this year.
The offense will no question have to perform far better than it did this year. Ke'Shawn Vaughn will need to get the ball more often, plain and simple. The offensive line will need to block better in the run game. Illinois has all the personnel on offense to be great, but they have to piece the scheme and execution together. Oh, and all those dropped passes in 2015? Yeah, those can't happen.
But the real concern may be the defense. No Jihad Ward. No Clayton Fejedelem, No Mason Monehim. No V'Angelo Bentley. No Eaton Spence. Illinois replaces a LOT on the defensive side of the ball, including a good chunk of the secondary. So guys like TJ Neal, Dawaune Smoot, and Jarrod Clements need to take the bull by the horns and lead that front seven. Guys like Tito Odenigbo and Henry McGrew need to take that next step and have more of an impact as they get more snaps.
But most importantly may be for Caleb Day to finally "get it" back there at safety. He's a freaky athlete with a ton of range, but has at times struggled to make the right reads. He has the Tavon Wilson-like versatility to play either corner or safety, but will likely be needed at safety more often out of need. If he can turn into that eraser in 2016, the Illinois defense could be in pretty good shape.