Big Ten Spring Football Review: Illinois

Illinois has had a rough first two years under former Ohio State assistant Tim Beckman, who spent his third spring in Champaign overseeing a quarterback battle. The was also a search for new men to handle catching most of those passes.

Quick 2013 review:

Illinois started 3-1 with a throttling of Cincinnati and a 10-point loss to a ranked Washington team mixed in, but things steadily declined from there. The Fighting Illini started Big Ten play 0-6 before beating hapless Purdue 20-16 on the penultimate weekend of the season. Of their eight losses, only two were by less than 10 points, and four were by 17 or more.

With yet another new offense in place, Illinois improved significantly to 46th overall. The Illini were good on third down (16th nationally) but not in the red zone (89th) and relied mostly on the passing game. The defense remained abysmal with triple-digit national rankings in scoring, passing efficiency, total yards and rushing yards allowed. Turnovers were also a major issue as Illinois finished tied for 112th in margin.

As far as Football Outsiders advanced numbers, not much looked different. The Illini offense was among the nation's best at putting together methodical drives and ranked 22nd on standard downs while remaining solid (54th) on passing downs. Defensively, Illinois still ranked in triple digits nationally in just about every category with its best rating No. 83 in rushing S&P+P.

Spring game recap:

Reilly O'Toole threw for 126 yards and two touchdowns as the Blue rolled to a 38-7 victory in front of 5,105 fans at Memorial Stadium. O'Toole, a senior who shared snaps with Nathan Scheelhaase at various times over the past couple of seasons, also ran for 30 yards. The Blue's Peter Bonahoom led all receivers with seven catches for 95 yards while Josh Ferguson (playing for the Orange team) led all rushers with 61 yards on 11 carries. Paul James III was among standouts defensively with four tackles for loss, including two sacks, while Cleveland Glenville product V'Angelo Bentley returned an interception 89 yards for a touchdown.

Issues addressed:

There was almost nowhere to go but up for Illinois in year two under head coach Tim Beckman, but the improvement in 2013 might have been little enough to put him on the hotseat for 2014.

This year he'll need to almost completely rebuild a passing game that was by far the team's strength last season. Not only is Scheelhaase (finally) out of eligibility, three of the top four receivers are also gone, including Cincinnati native Steve Hull, who topped the team with 59 catches for 993 yards in 2012.

Some expected Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt to assume the controls upon becoming eligible after sitting out last season, but offensive coordinator Bill Cubit did not give away who might be leading when he spoke to reporters on the Big Ten spring football teleconference prior to the spring game.

"Sometimes guys might take a little longer to come along than some other guys, but there's no rush," Cubit said when asked if he saw any separation in the battle involving Lunt, O'Toole and sophomore Aaron Bailey. "I think just watching the decision-making process, the accuracy, the offense with the checks and blitzes, I think the experienced guys show a little bit more experience, but at the same time we're trying to give everybody a shot. Some guys take a little bit longer than others. You see it, but it's not that big of a deal right now. You've got to be fair."

After Lunt completed only 6 of 16 passes for 99 yards with an interception and no touchdowns for the Blue in the spring game, Beckman told reporters Lunt had been better in practices than he was that day. The coach also declined to name a starter.

"All quarterbacks have got things that they do well," Beckman said, per the Champaigne News-Gazette. "We're going to let everybody have that chance to be the starting quarterback at the University of Illinois."

As for the receivers, Cubit praised newcomers Mike Dudek and Geronimo Allison for being farther along than he anticipated but said he was still waiting for some standouts to emerge.

"I think we've got to find some guys out of Justin Hardee, Pete Bonahoom, Dionte Taylor, those guys, somebody's got to fill in the position," Cubit said. "We have two guys coming in that we think of really highly in the fall, so we'll find some guys, but i don't think we've really had the chemistry yet because we want to make this competition fair to everybody."

While the defense returns eight starters, it figures to have a different look as the top returning tackler, Earnest Thomas III, moves from safety to the Star linebacker position.

"At safety you have to be a lot more patient at times," he told "At Star it's just reacting, reading and going. Since I came into college, that was one of my strong points."

He was named the defensive MVP of the spring while sophomore linebacker T.J. Neal, who is hoping to replace standout Jonathan Brown, was tabbed the most improved player on the defensive side of the ball.

"We're very excited about T.J.," defensive coordinator Tim Banks told the News-Gazette. "I know he didn't play as much as he wanted to play last year, but that didn't deter him. He picked up where he left off as far as the preparation. He's really had a productive spring."

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