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.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Getting Defensive

     It is no secret that the main reason why the Fighting Illini football team didn't exactly excel on the field last season was the defense, and the lack of talent on that unit the past couple of seasons.  In this, the second of three parts on previewing the 2014 Illinois Fighting Illini football season, I will be looking at the defense this time, and the transformation that is undergoing on that unit.

     When Illinois head coach Tim Beckman decided to retain defensive coordinator Tim Banks at the end of last season, many people began to shake their heads in disbelief and wondered (some aloud, mind you) if Beckman's decision would ultimately cost him his job.  Banks hasn't exactly been solid in running his unit, but the lack of talent may have something to do with that.  Of the 22 players on the two-deep roster, 20 players return from last season, giving the Illini some much needed experience, as well as some added depth to the roster, as younger players fill in the necessary gaps.  The two players that did not return, defensive lineman Tim Kynard and linebacker Jonathan Brown, both graduated.  The defense, while still rather suspect, at least has a chance to improve on a very disappointing season in 2013.

     Anchroing the defensive line are a cast of returning players from last season, including Austin Teitsma, Dawuane Smoot, Teko Powell and Kenny Nelson.  Perhaps the best news regarding these four players is that Teitsma is the only senior in the group.  Teitsma, a media favorite, plays with a lot of intensity on the field, and would like nothing more than to go out with a bowl appearance.

     Much like Beckman did on the offensive side of the football, he went out and picked up some junior college players to help fill in needed gaps and bolster the experience on the line.  One of the more intriguing players is Jihad Ward, who has quite a story himself about how he got to practice at Globe Tech in New York.  Ward, who stands 6'6 and weighs 295 pounds, is a monster of a man, and seems to swallow up people in his path.  Another player that Beckman brought in was Joe Fotu.  Fotu came in at the start of the 2014 spring semester and participated in spring drills, so he is somewhat familiar with the types of schemes that Banks runs.  The key to the success for the Illini this year will focus on this defensive line, but the linebacking corps also returns quite a few players, which can do nothing but aid in securing the middle of the defense.

     Losing Jonathan Brown last season opened up a hole in the linebackers for the Illini, but they will have some key players back to help anchor the unit.  Leading the charge will be junior Mason Monheim, who has started since he was a freshman.  Monheim has gotten steadily better over the past two seasons, and is ready to take the next step and be a leader of the unit as a whole.  Another linebacker, T. J. Neal, a sophomore, really came into his own last season and has picked up right where he left off so far at Camp Rantoul.  During the first week of practice this fall, the Illini received some bad news when linebacker Mike Svetina sustained a foot injury and will be sidelined 8-10 weeks.  Hoping to step up in Svetina's absence will be Kenny Nelson, a junior, or Ralph Cooper, who is finally getting a chance to show what he is made of in his final season of eligibility.  The linebackers have not been the main issue on the defense over the past couple of years, and judging from the talent returning this season, they will continue to be one of the strong points.

     It has often been said that is your secondary leads the team in tackles, then something on the interior line is seriously amiss.  For the Fighting Illini in 2014, the secondary returns intact, and looks to improve even further than the strides that they took in 2013.  Leading the way will be V'Angelo Bentley, who will be one of the cornerbacks when the defense lines up August 30th against Youngstown State.  Other players of significance will be Caleb Day, Dillan Cazley, Zane Petty and Darius Mosley.  Day, who came on at the end of last season, tweaked a hamstring during the week of practice at Rantoul, and may be slowed as a result.  Petty, who came in last season as a juco player, looks to have another strong season, while Cazley and Mosley, both in their second seasons, both saw quite a bit of action last season as freshmen.  Other players that may draw some name recognition will be Eaton Spence, Jaylen Dunlap, and Chris James.  James, who was originally enrolled at Illinois until academics forced him to go the juco route, is back once again, and if he can keep his attention focused on academics intact, he may be a force to be reckoned with.

     Next week, the third and final installment of the preview will focus on special teams, as well as game week preview of the Youngstown State game (8/30, 11:00 am,  BTN).  Stay tuned!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

It's that time again.......Football!

     On your mark.......Get set.......Go!

     With the beginning of August now upon us, it is once again time for football season, whether it be high school, college, professional, or youth leagues.  Football is the same pretty much at whatever level it is played.

     The Fighting Illini have begun preparations for the 2014 season, practicing the first week of their annual camp on campus, while balancing finals.  Now, the focus shifts to Rantoul, and their annual trek north to where the public (and media) can get a glimpse of the team and actually watch the team go through workouts.  Head coach Tim Beckman begins his third season at the helm, a season that many believe to be a pivotal one.
     Illinois is coming off of a 4-8 season in 2013, is looking to take that next step, which is obtain bowl eligibility.  In this, the first of three parts of the 2014 preview, I will look at the offensive side of the ball, from the guys up front to the ones in the backfield.

     The offensive line has been an area of concern in the past couple of years, mainly due to undersized and inexperienced players and not a lot of depth at the guard and tackle positions.  However, as the Illini head into the 2014 season, those questions seem to be rectified for the most part.  The center spot is pretty much set, as Alex Hill will snap the ball.  However, Joe Spencer could see some time at center as well, which would move Hill to a guard spot.  Speaking of the guards, Ted Karras and Michael Heitz look to be the frontrunners at the moment.  At the tackle position, Simon Cjivanovic has one of the spots nailed down, while the other tackle position seems to be a two person battle between Patrick Flavin and Christian DiLauro.  Beckman had a slight hiccup with the offensive line coach when A. J. Ricker left Illinois to take the same position at his alma mater of Missouri with just two weeks remaining in summer school.  That void was quickly filled when Tom Brattan was hired to replace Ricker.  Brattan spent the last twelve years at Maryland, which is now in the Big Ten.  Brattan brings a lot of experience to Illinois, and has bridged the gap nicely in his short time in Champaign.  The experience of the line that returns virtually intact from last season is a sigh of relief for Beckman, who has some depth on the line as well.

The quarterback battle has been one of the more talked about topics during the off-season, and now that training camp is upon us, we have actually been able to see all three of these guys in action.  Senior Reilly O'Toole brings experience to the position, while Aaron Bailey can move in the pocket and resembles more a runner than a passer.  However, the clear cut favorite for the starting job is probably going to be Wes Lunt, the sophomore transfer from Oklahoma State that played his high school ball at nearby Rochester.  Lunt brings a solid frame, plus an uncanny ability to throw the football, something that Illinois fans haven't seen in quite a few years.  Replacing Nathan Scheelhaase will be tough, but Lunt possesses the talent to take over and even exceed where Scheelhaase left off.  After the first two days of Camp Rantoul, it is becoming more clear who will be listed where on the depth chart.  Lunt is quite a ways ahead of O'Toole, while Bailey is quite a bit behind O'Toole.

Throwing the ball is something that Lunt does well, and he will have some new faces to get the ball to this season.  The normal players are still there from last season, in Justin Hardee and Martize Barr, but keep an eye out for several young players that could make a big splash once the season begins.  Freshmen Mikey Dudek and Malik Turner have opened many eyes thus far, and both should see quite a bit of action.  Dudek is small at only 5'11, but is lightning quick and should be able to break away from defenders provided he can catch the ball.  Turner is much bigger at 6'3 and 205 pounds, and comes from the powerhousae of Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin, where he excelled.  Beckman brought in a couple of junior college players as well in Geronimo (Gmo) Allison and Tyrin Stone-Davis.  Allison is 6'4, and is pretty quick for his size.  He should fit in nicely in the rotation.

Also figurng in the mix for catching passes are the tight ends.  In offensive coordinator Bill Cubit's offense, the tight ends were a formidable option last season, and should see a similar load this season.  Returning are the two main pass catchers in Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse.  LaCosse caught three touchdowns last season, and has the potential for another huge season.  In addition to these two, Beckman brought in another junior college player in Dallas Hinkhouse.  Barr, Allison and Hinkhouse all played at Iowa Western Community College, giving that school a pipeline to Champaign with some good talent.

The running game returns virtually intact as well from last season, wih junior Josh Ferguson listed as the feature back.  Senior Donovonn Young had a sub-par season in 2013, but has had a good first week of camp and will look to bounce back this season.  Devin Church and Kendrick Foster, two of the younger players at the position, will also see considerable action.

Up next week, a look at the defensive side of the football, a concern that was very evident last season.