Tim Beckman, the head coach of the Illinois Illini, is on arguably the hottest of hot seats. His first year with the Illini was 2012, and his team went 2-10. In 2013, the Illini went 4-8, which was an improvement. However, the issue with Beckman has been the peripheral nonsense. In 2012, according to USA Today, he was caught on camera chewing tobacco on the sidelines, which breaks an NCAA rule. Then there was the Penn State-recruiting scandal, which wasn't illegal but didn't endear him to any of his fellow coaches. More recently, he publicly forgot his mother's birthday. He seems to have learned from his past blunders, but he may have made his bed, and may need to achieve bowl eligibilty in order to save his job.
2013 scoring offense: 29.7 PPG (sixth in the conference), total offense: 426.7 YPG (fifth), rushing YPC: 4.06 (10th), passing efficiency: 140.63 (third)
Average scoring offense conference ranking over last five years: 7.8
Best scoring offense conference ranking over last five years: Fourth (2010)
Worst scoring offense conference ranking over last five years: Last (2012)
Returning starters: RB Josh Ferguson; TEs Jon Davis, Matt LaCosse; OL Alex Hill, Ted Karras, Michael Heitz, Simon Cvijanovic
Open Positions: QB, WR, OL
Offensive Formation: Multiple
Offensive Philosophy: Balance
It might surprise casual fans to note that Illinois had the second-most passing attempts in the Big Ten in 2013, not to mention the highest completion percentage. This is not typical for Tim Beckman offenses; in his five years as head coach—two at Illinois and three at Toledo—only two of his teams have favored the run over the pass: 2013 Illinois and 2009 Toledo. Both teams featured experienced senior quarterbacks.
Typically, Beckman's teams heavily favor the run, but this year is a bit of an enigma, as Illinois does not have an experienced returning quarterback, but the probable starting quarterback is a pocket passer with a good deal of recruiting hype.
Either way, it is evident that Beckman, along with his offensive coordinator (OC) Bill Cubit, work with what they have, and what they have is a hyped quarterback, a reasonably experienced offensive line and a good amount of positive momentum from 2013's offensive showing.
There are plenty of options to replace quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who graduated Illinois with many school records, including total offense. The issue is none of them have his fully rounded skill set. Despite Beckman's promises, via the QCTimes.com, that the quarterback competition will last into the fall, it would be shocking if Oklahoma State-transfer Wes Lunt doesn't win the starting job. As previously mentioned, Lunt comes to Illinois with an impressive pedigree. His limited performance as a true freshman at Okie State was mediocre, and his performance in the Illinois spring game, according to Steve Greenberg of the SunTimes.com, "couldn't have gone much worse." Nevertheless, he is the most talented and polished of all of Illinois' quarterback candidates.
Running back is settled with junior Josh Ferguson taking on the featured back role. He had a strong 2013, finishing with 779 yards and 5.52 YPC, plus 50 receptions for 535 yards. The question is if the 195-pounder can handle the punishment of the featured role, especially without Scheelhaase to take the pressure off him. If he can't, 220-pound bruising sophomore Donovann Young will spell him.
Receiver is wide open after the Illini graduated its top four receivers. Returning receivers combined for only 40 catches in 2013, 26 of which were by likely starter, senior Martize Barr. At least one of the other starting positions will go to Juco Geronimo Allison. Meanwhile, the Illini have two talented and experienced tight ends who will be depended upon to take the pressure off Lunt and his wide outs.
Illinois returns the fifth-most experienced offensive line in the conference, but it will need to pick up its game, as it allowed 29 sacks last year, which was fourth-worst in the conference. The starting line up is made of three seniors and a junior, with the only open spot at right tackle. True sophomore Austin Schmidt held down this position following spring practices. The line has potential, but it will struggle against stronger defensive fronts.
Expect the Illinois offense to take at least a small step backward with the graduation of Scheelhaase. The question is how small. That will mostly be answered by Lunt, or whomever takes over the quarterback spot. Assuming Lunt, and his receivers, are at least adequate, Illinois' scoring offense should be in the middle of the conference pack and good enough, on its own, to get the program to a bowl. But the problem is not with the offense.
2013 scoring defense: 35.4 PPG (10th in the conference), total defense: 481.5 YPG (11th), rushing YPC allowed: 5.58 YPC (12th), passing efficiency allowed: 156.03 (12th)
Average scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: 8.4
Best scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: fifth (2010 and 2011)
Worst scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: last (2009)
Returning starters: DTs Austin Teitsma, Teko Powell, Jake Howe; LB Mason Monheim; STARs Earnest Thomas and Mike Svetina; CB V'Angelo Bentley; S's Eaton Spence, Zane Petty
Open positions: DE, LB, CB
Defensive formation: 3-3-5 Stack
Defensive philosophy: Use speed and versatility to confuse opponents
Illinois runs a non-traditional defense, especially by Big Ten standards. Its base is a 3-3-5 stack, but that includes a hybrid-defensive end-linebacker, or LEO, and a hybrid-linebacker-safety, or STAR. A 4-3 is the conference's traditional go-to, and the 3-4 is gaining in popularity—Wisconsin had great success with it last year. But a 3-3-5 is more of a Big 12 philosophy or a sub package, and could be a large part of the reason Illinois has struggled on defense under Beckman. In a run-first conference, defenses would rather have an extra linebacker on the field.
Further compounding the issue, the Illini will depend a great deal upon Jucos to fill out the depth chart. Many coaches have worked wonders with Jucos; for example, Bill Snyder at Kansas State has made a career out of them, and Gene Chizek at Auburn won his national championship because of them. However, it is worrisome to see a coach in his third year putting so much stock into them.
Last year, due to youth as well as a number of other issues, Illinois had arguably the worst defense in a conference that had its share of bad defenses. Much of that youth has grown up, so now, if things don't go right, the blame falls on the talent and schemes.
Up front, the Illini return three players—two seniors and one junior—with starting experience, but after last year's troubles controlling the line of scrimmage, Beckman felt he needed some help. In effect, he recruited three Jucos: Joe Futo, Carroll Phillips and Jihad Ward. Following spring practice, Ward was written down as a starting defensive tackle. Highly recruited redshirt-freshman Paul James—he had offers from Florida State, Miami (FL) and Texas A&M among others—was listed as the defensive end and Austin Teitsma was the one returning lineman that held a starting position.
Linebacker is a little clearer than the front. Two-year starter Mason Monheim will move to the weak side with red-shirt sophomore T.J. Neal taking over his spot in the middle. LEO will likely be a three-way battle between true sophomore Dawuane Smoot, Juco Carroll Phillips and senior DeJazz Woods.
The backfield returns just about everybody, almost all of whom are juniors or seniors; however, there isn't much of a game-changing presence, as is evident in the Illini's nationally last three interceptions in 2013. True, Illinois also tied for last in the conference with 14 sacks, but even Purdue, which also had 14 sacks, managed 13 picks.
In 2013, the teams that comprise the Big Ten West ran on 57.2 percent of their 6,158 plays. That is not the environment against which a coach should field a glorified nickel defense as its base. Last year's defense was inexperienced—four returning starters—but Beckman's and his defensive coordinator Tim Banks' schemes didn't help. Look for an improvement in 2014, but there will still be an inability to make big plays and issues allowing opponents to secure third-and-short situations.
Illinois' top return man is junior cornerback V'Angelo Bentley. He paced the Illini with the third-best punt return average in the conference and the third-worst kick return average. He also ran one punt and one kick back for a touchdown. It's hard to say if he is an exceptional returner, but he is solid.
Meanwhile, Illinois returns both its punter and kicker. The punter, senior Justin DuVernois, ranked sixth in the conference in net average. Meanwhile, the kicker, junior Taylor Zalewski, improved from his freshman campaign, in which he made 57.1 percent of his field goal attempts. Nonetheless, he will need to do better than the 70.6 percent of his sophomore year.
Finally, the Illini ranked in the middle of the conference in punt return coverage, but were dead last in kick return coverage.
This looks to be an average special teams crew, but can be more if Bentley and Zalewski become more consistent.
A pound sign—#—indicates must-win for Illinois.
An exclamation point—!—indicates a probable loss.
A dollar sign—$—indicates a swing game.
08/30: Youngstown State (FCS) #
09/06: Western Kentucky #
09/13: at Washington !
09/20: Texas State #
09/27: at Nebraska !
10/04: Purdue $
10/11: at Wisconsin !
10/25: Minnesota $
11/01: at Ohio State !
11/15: Iowa $
11/22: Penn State $
11/29: at Northwestern $
The Illinois offense doesn't miss a beat without Scheelhaase. It leans more heavily on the running game than in 2013, but it is equally as effective. Meanwhile, the defense struggles against power running teams, but does a much better job pressuring the quarterback and forcing mistakes.
The Illini sweep the out-of-conference (OOC), shocking Washington with a close victory. It then goes on to a 4-4 conference record, losing to Ohio State, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Iowa. This puts the Illini at 8-4, in third place in the West and solidifies Beckman's place in Champaign.
The retooled Illinois offense struggles with its new quarterback. At the same time, the defense is just as incapable as last year's unit. It is particularly helpless against power rushing games and dominant offensive lines like Wisconsin and Iowa.
Illinois goes 3-1 in its OOC with a decisive road loss to Washington. In conference, Nebraska steamrolls the Illini while the Boilers shock Illinois for their first Big Ten win under Darrell Hazell. After that, the wheels come off and the writing is on the wall. The Illini are barely competitive for the rest of their schedule, going 0-8 in conference and 3-9 overall. Beckman is fired before the Northwestern game, and Bill Cubit serves as the interim coach for the in-state rivalry matchup.
There is talent on the Illini roster. There is and always has been potential in the Illinois program if only a coach would appear who could right the ship. Unfortunately, aside from a few random up cycles, that coach hasn't been around since well before World War II. One can't yet write off Tim Beckman, but he hasn't gotten off to a glowing start.
In 2014, the same old problems will continue to pop up for the Illini. The offense will be intermittently dangerous, but will struggle against quality defenses. Nevertheless, the defense will once again let the Illini down, not because of talent, but because of a misuse of the talent it has. Running a base-nickel defense, even with a quality tackling safety, against the likes of Wisconsin, Ohio State, Iowa and Nebraska is a mistake.
Illinois will dismantle its lower-tier OOC foes, but will come away from Washington with a close loss. It will lose to Nebraska but take home a close win against Purdue. After that, the defense will continually let a respectable offense down, and when the season is over, Illinois will finish 4-8 (1-7 in conference), and the Tim Beckman era will be over.
Final Record: 4-8 (1-7 in conference)
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