1. Receiver reliability
Sixty drops. Sixty! That 2015 performance couldn't quite happen again. Right? Right?! Wes Lunt deserved better last season. His 56.1 completion percentage wasn't fair to him. Cut those drops in half -- still a large quantity of drops -- and his completion percentage would've been around 62 percent, he likely would have topped 3,000 yards and may have thrown a handful more touchdowns -- and likely a win or two more. Almost every receiver was infected with drops-itis last season, including No. 1 target Geronimo Allison who is shining at Packers training camp. This observer saw too many drops on easy passes to feel this position has improved much. New receivers coach Andrew Hayes-Stoker downplayed the drops, but a few players seem to let one early drop cause another one and another -- similar to last season. Malik Turner looked like the best receiver of camp and is by far the most talented. Justin Hardee adds speed but can he find reliability as a senior? Dionte Taylor continues to struggle with consistency. Sam Mays flashes great potential but loses focus too often (coach's words, not mine). Dominic Thieman could be a future star but plays like a true freshman some days. Zach Grant may be this year's version of Cain, a reliable receiver but limited athlete. Illinois definitely has talent at receiver, and if it turns the corner, look out. But the position group's lack of reliability may prevent Lunt from ever reaching his ceiling at Illinois. Yes, Mikey Dudek is missed. A mid-year return (if he's healthy) definitely would be a boost.
2. OL depth
The Illini front five is a solid group. Christian DiLauro (19 career starts) and Austin Schmidt (16 starts) provide potent pass protectors on the edge, and Joe Spencer (26 starts) provides a steady, heady veteran presences in the middle of the offense at center. The Illini are young but talented at guard in redshirt sophomore Nick Allegretti and redshirt freshman Gabe Megginson, both of whom played in prep All-America games. Allegretti looks ready to take a huge leap after a strong training camp. Megginson will likely take some lumps as he plays through his first Big Ten season, but he should get more comfortable and more effective as the season progresses. But hopefully Illinois doesn't suffer any injuries up front because there is a sizable drop off to the second group. Senior guard Connor Brennan could provide a serviceable option as a sixth guy. But Illinois may only be comfortable with going six deep.
http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1646460-projected-illini-foo... If Spencer gets hurt, Allegretti likely would shift to center. If a tackle gets hurt, Megginson would probably shift outside to tackle. Adam Solomon could turn into a road-grading run blocker but doesn't have great feet for a tackle and may be a better fit at guard. Zach Heath looked like he was going to be a contributor last season, but a knee injury has sidetracked his progress. Three walk-ons played on the second group most of training camp, and none of the freshmen are ready to contribute. The last staff did a poor job of creating depth up front. Bill Cubit added five freshmen, but each is likely two years away. The Illini are off to a good start in the Class of 2017 with two gigantic linemen committed (Larry Boyd and Vederian Lowe). The high school seniors may have had a chance to crack this year's thin two-deep -- not necessarily a good thing for 2016.
3. Two secondary spots
With one of the country's best defensive lines -- yes, I'm starting to buy it as a top-5 Big Ten group, which would put it among the country's best -- and a better-than-expected group of linebackers, Illinois just needs its secondary to reliable. Of course, Lovie Smith would say he wants more than that. He wants his secondary to make plays and, more importantly, create takeaways. Illinois has its No. 1 cornerback in Jaylen Dunlap and a solid veteran presence at free safety (the last line of defense) in senior Taylor Barton (29 career starts). But there's still some unease about the other two starting spots. We've been waiting for Caleb Day to break out for several years now. Despite his great athleticism, Day still hasn't proven himself as a reliable football player. He split time with junior Darwyn Kelly at strong safety during training camp. Will Day finally make his impact or is he just what he is at this point? Dunlap gives Illinois the long, athletic, physical cornerback Smith desires. Chris James looks like a great play-making threat at nickel back. Senior Darius Mosely has settled in as the other perimeter corner. He definitely brings experience, unlike the other options, but he even admits that he struggled mightily as a junior. Mosely struggles to turn and run with Big Ten wideouts, but maybe he will be a better fit in Lovie Smith's scheme which uses more press coverage with safety help over the top.
Special teams coordinator Bob Ligashesky brings 16 years of NFL experience to the Illini. He holds the Illini special teams to those lofty NFL standards. In short, Illinois is taking special teams much more seriously now. Expect the coverage units to be improved, but the Illini are still searching for answers to a couple big roles. Ryan Frain returns as a solid but not spectacular punter (40.2 yards per punt last season, 33.4 net). But the Illini have major questions at kicker and returner. David Reisner returns as the most experienced kicker (6-for-11 career FG), and freshman James McCourt is on scholarship. But Chase McLaughlin appears to have the lead on the job based on Lovie Smith's comments.
http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1698221-five-pleasant-surpri... Meanwhile, the Illini have rotated as many as seven players at returner. Most recently, Caleb Day and Kendrick Foster were taking first-team reps. Dionte Taylor, Darius Mosely, Reggie Corbin, Mj McGriff and Dominic Thieman also have received a shot at the job. The Illini want someone they can trust but also don't want a repeat of the early 2010s (pre-V'Angelo Bentley era) when the Illini were close to last in the country in return yardage, so they need some explosion back there. Corbin and McGriff seem to have the best combination of quicks and straight-line speed for the job. Smith prioritizes special teams, and he's let it be known that he has some concerns about his specialists.
5. Keeping Lunt and Vaughn healthy
This was a concern before training camp. It is a concern after training camp. It will be a concern before Week 1. It will be a concern every week from there on out. Every team has players they can ill-afford to be injured. But Illinois' lack of depth and lack of offensive playmakers make their top two guys' health even more significant. Lunt is an NFL talent. Few college quarterbacks can make the throws he can with such accuracy. The two options behind him are limited. Chayce Crouch is a top-notch runner, but the field shortens when he plays because his arm is weaker and inconsistent. Jeff George Jr. has a great arm but is inconsistent and not nearly as good or as tough of a runner as Crouch. The offense becomes far less dynamic without Lunt. Who's the backup? Garrick McGee continues to say he hopes the public never finds out, meaning he hopesLunt stays healthy all season. That's not exactly a ringing endorsement of the options behind him. Vaughn is capable of starting for almost every Big Ten team. He's a dynamic back with strength, quick-cut ability and good top-end speed. Kendrick Foster has had a nice training camp, Reggie Corbin has quicks and Tre Nation has some power. But no other tailback option is an NFL prospect, like Vaughn. Lunt and Vaughn each are likely worth a win or two for the Illini. Losing either or both to injury likely would devastate the Illini's 2016 season.