Two Steps Forward.......Three Steps Back.

Two Steps Forward.......Three Steps Back.
The rebuild of the Illinois football program continues as they drop a tough 34-31 loss in overtime to Purdue.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

And away we go!

     Welcome to the second year of the Tim Beckman era at Illinois.

     The inaugural season of Beckman at the helm of the Fighting Illini football team was one that could easily be forgotten.  The Illini stumbled out of the gate en route to a dismal 2-10 season, and doubts arose almost from the get-go regarding whether or not Athletic Director Mike Thomas made the right choice.  To defend Beckman for a moment, he wasn't really given a whole lot to work with and didn't have much time to put things in place.  However, the second season beckons (a little play with words, if you will indulge me for a moment), and major questions still arise.  The Illini are in the waning stages of preseason training camp, leading up to the first game on August 31st.  Here now, is a look at the offensive unit, fresh off a week in Rantoul for their annual off-campus training camp.

     The quarterback position seems to be one of the only spots on offense that is somewhat set at this current juncture of the season, with redshirt senior Nathan Scheelhaase set to lead under center.  Scheelhaase will have yet another offensive coordinator to work with, as Bill Cubit comes in from Western Michigan, where he was a head coach for the past few seasons.  This year will be a bit of a difference for Beckman and the offensive play calling, as he has instilled that duty to Cubit solely instead of call-by-committee like it was last season.  Battling Scheelhaase for playing time will be junior Reilly O'Toole and true freshman Aaron Bailey, who has shown a lot of promise thus far in practice.  Scheelhaase, who was married in the off-season, is back to near 100%, and despite a tweak to an ankle last week in practice, will be the go-to guy when the Salukis come to town for the first game.  The running back position is also one that has some experience returning, as Donovonn Young appears to be the leading candidate to carry the ball, with Josh Ferguson, and Dami Ayoola also expected to see quite a bit of action.  True freshman Kendrick Foster also will fight some of the veterans for playing time.

     The wide receiver position returns a lot of players from last season, led in part by Ryan Lankford and Spencer Harris, who caught the bulk of passes in 2012.  Justin Hardee will also figure into the mix, as will junior college transfer Martize Barr, who has a lot of upside.  Barr, who brings a lot of energy to the team, has told me on several occasions that the junior college game is markedly different than he has seen so far at the Big Ten level.  Devin Church, who was injured last season and missed a good portion of his freshman year, is back to full strength and should see plenty of action.  Miles Osei, who has fully converted from quarterback, will see his share of passes as well, and Steve Hull, providing that he can stay healthy, should also serve a prominent role in the offense.  As far as tight ends go, Cubit vows that he will use them much more than in past seasons, and there are quite a few players to choose from.  Evan Wilson and Jon Davis will be utilized a great deal, as will Trevor Kanteman, who transfers in from Pierce College in California, having sat out the entire season due to an injury.  Sophomore Matt LaCosse, who has an NFL body, looks to make some noise, as will Tim Clary, who was the star of last season's spring game.  Between this cast of characters and the running backs, Scheelhaase (or whoever) should have no trouble finding someone to pass the football to.

     The offensive line was a major concern last season, and even though a lot of players return from last season, the position is still a question and work in progress.  Corey Lewis returns after multiple knee surgeries at one of the tackle positions, and some other mainstays, including Michael Heitz, Ted Karras and Simon Cvijanovic.  Alex Hill will begin the year at center, but injuries could move some people around before all is said and done.  Earlier this week in practice, Karras hurt himself and was seen on crutches after the session.  Never one to expound on injuries, Beckman naturally was non-committal on Karras' injury and status as game week approaches.  If Karras is out for any length of time, that could deal a huge blow to an already thin (no pun intended) O-Line.  Joe Spencer will fill in for Karras during his absence, but other players such as junior college transfer Dallas Hinkhouse, Jesse Chadwell and Pat Flavin still need to build some additional muscle in order to be effective at this level.

     Yes, numerous challenges await this Illini team as the season opener gets closer, but with Beckman, he is still taking it one day at a time, one game at a time.  Next week, I will get defensive and talk about the other side of the ball for the Illini, who have some challenges of their own to work through.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Dawn Of A New Season

     August is a month that wears many hats.  For some, it signals the end of summer for parents and the eventual return to school of their kids, while others that still have baseball teams in the playoff race (sorry White Sox and Cubs fans), envision dreams of their clubs getting to the World Series.  But for many, August is the beginning of the football season on all levels, from youth leagues to the NFL.  The Fighting Illini began practice on Monday in preparation for the upcoming season, and for second year coach Tim Beckman, there are a lot of questions that need to be answered.  The roster is markedly different than it was last year, as it has been overhauled to include 33 new players, either as incoming freshmen or junior college transfers. There are also four new coaches on the staff, including Bill Cubit, who takes over as offensive coordinator and brings to the position a lot of experience, having been a head coach at Western Michigan for the past seven seasons.  Cubit, who was hand-picked by Beckman, will take sole responsibility of the play calling duties on offense, a much different approach than it was last year when the duties were handled by Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales, both whom were not retained.  Beckman is in a tough situation this season, having not a lot of depth at many positions, and losing quite a few players to the NFL last season, especially on defense.  Tim Kynard is the lone returnee on the defensive line, and will anchor that unit by bringing along quite a few players that have limited or no experience.  A couple sophomores that played extensively last season as freshmen, Mike Svetina and Mason Monheim, are now considered seasoned veterans, and will lead the linebacking corps along with senior Jonathan Brown, who was named a preseason player to watch on the Butkus Award list.  With the defense having a lot of questions coming off a season that saw the Illini give up a ton of points, there is room for much improvement.

     On the offensive side of the ball, redshirt senior Nathan Scheelhaase returns for his fifth and final season at quarterback, but he will have some competition as Reilly O'Toole and true freshman Aaron Bailey are second and third on the depth chart, respectively.  Transfer Wes Lunt, who played last season and started as a freshman at Oklahoma State, left Stillwater last season and due to Cowboys coach Mike Gundy limiting Lunt to transfer anywhere he wanted, basically okayed Louisville and Illinois as the destinations for Lunt to transfer to.  From nearby Rochester, Lunt always wanted to play for the Illini, but several factors detoured him from Champaign to Oklahoma State, but that is a topic for another day.  The Illini begin training camp at the former Chanute Air Force Base this week, and over the course of the next couple of weeks, I will preview each of the units leading up to the season opener on August 31st against the Salukis of Southern Illinois.  Camp Rantoul practices are open to the public, and can be viewed at

     Summer is a slow time on the basketball front, but the recruiting news seems to be ongoing year-round.  The hot commodity these days is big man Cliff Alexander from Chicago Curie, who apparently still has the Illini on his final list.  Alexander would be a huge coup for Coach John Groce, and could very well be the domino that leads a lot of others to fall downstate.  Groce has made major strides on the recruiting front since arriving in Champaign, and is trying to build the Illinois program back up from where it sagged in the last couple seasons under former coach Bruce Weber.  The schedule, which is still being finalized for the 2013-14 season, will hopefully be released in the next few weeks.

     The last few seasons have been some of the best for the Fighting Illini women's track team, but those days may be coming to an end as coach Tonja Buford-Bailey made the decision to leave Illinois and take the associate head coach at the University of Texas.  When that news surfaced, immediate concerns were realized about the Illini's star Ashley Spencer, who was recruited by Bailey to Illinois.  Sure enough, Spencer and Morolake Akinosun have decided to join Bailey at Texas, and their departure will significantly hamper the program, at least for the next couple for years.  Having known Tonja for many years, I wish her nothing but the best in her new position.