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.