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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 64: Illinois

Illinois is only good at football when it has a Butkus. Any Butkus will do, whether Dick, Mark or Luke, but this is important: Illinois must have a Butkus. Illinois went 16-11-1 from 1962-64, when Dick was wreaking havoc at linebacker. Thanks in part to Mark’s all-American play at defensive tackle, the Illini went 27-18-1 from 1980-83. Luke, an all-Big Ten center, helped Illinois go 26-20 from 1998-2001. Illinois has won three outright Big Ten titles in six decades: 1963, 1983 and 2001. Dick, Mark and Luke. Combined, the family Butkus holds a career record of 69-49-2 when lined up for the Illini, winning games at 58.5 percent clip. Without a Butkus in uniform, Illinois is 511-485-48 — a winning percentage of 51.3 percent. In summation: For Illinois, it’s either Butkus or bubkes.

Conference
Big Ten, Leaders

Location
Champaign-Urbana, Ill.

Nickname
Fighting Illini

Returning starters
15 (7 offense, 8 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 57

2011 record
(7-6, 2-6)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 70

2012 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    Western Mich.
  • Sept. 8
    at Arizona St.
  • Sept. 15
    Charleston South.
  • Sept. 22
    Louisiana Tech
  • Sept. 29
    Penn St.
  • Oct. 6
    at Wisconsin
  • Oct. 13
    at Michigan
  • Oct. 27
    Indiana
  • Nov. 3
    at Ohio St.
  • Nov. 10
    Minnesota
  • Nov. 17
    Purdue
  • Nov. 27
    at Northwestern

Last year’s prediction

Illinois is going back to bowl play in 2011, if only because it would take an incredibly inept coaching job to not get the Illini back to at least six wins. My take in less than 30 words: the Illini should win at least eight, they’ll probably win seven, and six or less should lead the program to make a coaching move on Nov. 27. The team is good enough to be a very realistic challenger for the Big Ten crown, but I don’t have enough confidence to go that far. Instead, put me in the camp of 7-5, thanks to the combination of the above positive factors and eight home games — even Ron Zook could win seven games in 2011. Of course, perhaps only Zook could take this team, these great coordinators and this schedule and win only seven games. Perhaps I’m far less bullish on the Illini than most, but I do remember very well the times that Zook was supposed to win but didn’t, held every advantage but still disappointed, had all the pieces to the puzzle but still couldn’t put it together.

2011 recap

In a nutshell It’s better to fail from the start than crash and burn in the same fashion as Illinois did a season ago, when the Illini started 6-0 before losing six straight to end the regular season. This was Ron Zook: bad, then worse, then shockingly good, then abysmal, then good, then horrifyingly bad. In the very least, Tim Beckman, formerly of Toledo, needs to balance out the bi-polar traits Illinois developed under Zook’s watch. Last year’s team, while able to reach bowl play for the second straight season, suffered a precipitous slide in offensive production: fourth in the Big Ten in scoring and total offense in 2010, the Illini finished ninth in both categories last fall. The defense was there to carry the load, but the offense disappeared. That was disappointing, much like Zook’s entire tenure.

High point Over the first half of the season, Illinois beat Arkansas State, then-No. 22 Arizona State, Western Michigan and Northwestern. That’s four bowl teams, even if the Sun Devils and Wildcats squeezed into postseason play by the skin of their teeth.

Low point Any point from Oct. 15 on, with special attention paid to a mailed-in loss to Minnesota in the regular season finale. The Golden Gophers didn’t just win; they dominated.

Tidbit Last year’s offense didn’t crack the top 40 nationally in each of the main four statistical categories: rushing offense (41st), passing offense (91st), total offense (85th) and scoring offense (91st). The defense, on the other hand, didn’t dip below 26th in the same categories: rush defense (26th), pass defense (3rd), total defense (7th) and scoring defense (15th). This latter group was a sight to behold; the offense, on the other hand, was a weekly nuisance.

Tidbit (six losses edition) Last fall, Illinois became the first team in F.B.S. history to start a season 6-0 yet finish the regular season at 6-6. While certainly not something you’d want associated with your program, that record isn’t as ignominious as it seems; remember that the 12-game regular season is a fairly new development. And you can’t say that Illinois ended the entire year at 6-6, as the Illini did go on to beat U.C.L.A., 20-14, in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. And here’s some good news: Illinois’ victory over the Bruins gave it bowl wins in back-to-back years for the first time in program history.

Former players in the N.F.L.

31 OT Jeff Allen (Kansas City), OG Jon Asamoah (Kansas City), CB Alan Ball (Houston), S Travon Bellamy (Washington), WR Arrelious Benn (Tampa Bay), DT Josh Brent (Dallas), DE Jerry Brown (Indianapolis), LB Nate Bussey (New Orleans), OG Jack Cornell (Baltimore), TE Jeff Cumberland (New York Jets), CB Vontae Davis (Miami), OG David Diehl (New York Giants), K Derek Dimke (Detroit), WR Jarred Fayson (Indianapolis), RB Jason Ford (Houston), CB Kelvin Hayden (Chicago), TE Michael Hoomanawanui (St. Louis), WR A.J. Jenkins (San Francisco), RB Mikel Leshoure (Detroit), DE Corey Liuget (San Diego), WR Brandon Lloyd (New England), WR Eddie McGee (Oakland), RB Rashard Mendenhall (Pittsburgh), DE Whitney Mercilus (Houston), RB Brit Miller (St. Louis), OG Brandon Moore (New York Jets), K Neil Rackers (Washington), RB Pierre Thomas (New Orleans), P Steve Weatherford (New York Giants), LB Martez Wilson (New Orleans), S Tavon Wilson (New England).

Tidbit (2008 class edition) Illinois has 31 players currently on an N.F.L. roster, which is pretty solid. Zook recruited – or, in one case, landed via a transfer – 23 of the 31, which does illustrate the job he did reeling talent into the program. The 2008 class in particular stands out. Seven members of that 28-player class are currently on a roster: Jenkins, Allen, Ford, Leshoure, Mercilus, Liuget and Tavon Wilson.

Arbitrary top five list

Ron Zook’s best wins at Illinois
1. 2007: Illinois 28, Ohio State 21.
2. 2007: Illinois 27, Penn State 20.
3. 2010: Illinois 38, Baylor 13.
4. 2008: Illinois 45, Michigan 20.
5. 2011: Illinois 38, Northwestern 35.

Coaching

Tim Beckman (Findlay ’88), entering his first season. Beckman comes over from Toledo, where he went 21-16 over the last three seasons. Coaches across the country experienced pangs of envy when considering the frigidity of Beckman’s seat in Toledo: he could do no wrong, and was rewarded with the sort of job security that ensured that he could remain with the Rockets for as long as he so chose – though it was clear that he wasn’t long for the program. He was a great fit from day one. For starters, he had experience coaching both in the MAC and in the state of Ohio. From 1998-2004, Beckman was the defensive coordinator and the assistant head coach at Bowling Green. Over that time, Beckman served under Gary Blackney (1998-2000), Urban Meyer (2001-2) and Gregg Brandon (2003-4). Bowling Green’s best defense under Beckman was the 2001 unit, which allowed only 19.5 points per game. In 2005, Jim Tressel hired Beckman to be Ohio State’s secondary coach; the Buckeyes went 10-2 that season before going 12-1 and reaching the B.C.S. National Championship Game in 2006. Beckman spent the 2007-8 seasons as the defensive coordinator at Oklahoma State: the Cowboys went 16-10 over this period and participated in two bowl games, winning one. Oklahoma State won nine games in 2008, then the second-highest win total in school history; all four of its losses came against nationally ranked opposition, and three — Texas, Oklahoma, Texas Tech — came against teams then ranked in the top three of the A.P. poll. In all, the last seven teams on which Beckman was an assistant spent at least one week in the Top 25 each season. He brought a breadth of high-level experience to the position, and it’s showed. Over the span of three years, Beckman remade Toledo into a MAC powerhouse. It won’t be as easy to do so at Illinois, but Beckman does inherit enough talent to make a bowl run from the start. Whether he lifts the Illini above six wins depends on how he fares on the recruiting trail.

Tidbit (coaching edition) Eleven B.C.S. conference programs changed head coaches following the 2011 season. Of those 11, only Illinois and Pittsburgh — and not counting Kansas, where Charlie Weis will be his own offensive coordinator, and Penn State, where Bill O’Brien will do the same — named a coordinator without prior experience in that position on the F.B.S. level. As his co-coordinators, Beckman hired Billy Gonzalez, who has been the wide receivers coach at L.S.U., Florida and Utah, and Chris Beatty, who spent one year as the coordinator at Hampton but has worked only as an offensive position coach on the F.B.S. ranks. To be fair, the Illini have an experienced offensive coordinator on hand; he’s the running backs coach and special teams coordinator, however. Tim Salem was Purdue’s offensive coordinator from 1994-96 and led Eastern Michigan’s paltry attack in 2003. In addition, he was the coordinator at U.C.F. from 2004-8 before being demoted to tight ends coach over the last three seasons.

There was a point to the opening paragraph to this preview. Beckman clearly knows his history: Illinois hired Luke Butkus, formerly a quality control assistant with the Seattle Seahawks, as its offensive line coach. One issue: Butkus has never been a true position coach, though he did assist with offensive line duties over his two seasons as part of Pete Carroll’s staff, from 2010-11. As his defensive coordinator, Beckman hired former Cincinnati coordinator Tim Banks; he’ll also coach the safeties. Tight ends coach Alex Golesh, linebackers coach Mike Ward and cornerbacks coach Steve Clinkscale came with Beckman from Toledo. The lone holdover is defensive line coach Keith Gilmore – which was smart. Gilmore would have landed two handfuls of major offers if Illinois had decided not to retain his services.

Players to watch

Illinois will run the spread. This will be a Toledo-like spread, which implies the following: Illinois will prefer a dual-threat quarterback; the running game will feature far more finesse than straight-ahead, Big Ten-like power; the offense will often feature multiple-receiver sets; the skill players will be used in multiple ways, with receivers running sweeps and the backs serving a key role as receivers coming out the backfield; and the system will lean towards the run – a few percentage points north of 50 percent run, more or less. The overall goal will be to run the football to set up the pass. That’s not an idea that’s foreign to this program.

One thing we saw from Beckman at Toledo was a willingness to utilize two quarterbacks on a fairly even split. Last fall, the Rockets used both Terrence Owens and Austin Dantin to tremendous effect – Beckman put each in a situation where he could succeed, which doesn’t speak merely to his coaching acumen but also to his overall flexibility; that’s a hallmark of a confident head coach.

Look for Illinois to do the same in 2012, just to a lesser degree. The Illini have two quarterbacks with solid Big Ten experience in junior Nathan Scheelhaase and sophomore Reilly O’Toole, a pair that shared time under center over the second half of last season. Scheelhaase is the more athletic of the two: he led the Illini with 624 rushing yards last fall, giving him 1,483 yards over his first two years. But O’Toole has the higher ceiling as a passer, even if he showed little indication of this fact during his time in the lineup a season ago. You’d think, based on what each can do for this offense, that Scheelhaase and O’Toole could work well together.

It depends on whether Beckman, Beatty and Gonzalez believe that going with a single quarterback will be better for this offense – whether that sort of consistency would help this system in year one. My belief is that Illinois should use both, but not to a Toledo-like degree: Scheelhaase has the ability to make noise in this offense, even if he’s not quite the runner his totals suggests. He should be the centerpiece of this offense, leaving O’Toole in a secondary role. At worst, O’Toole plays in a slice of packages while serving as a competent reserve.

There’s a role in this offense for a speedy back and a bigger, short-yardage back. The Illini’s top rusher will be sophomore Donovonn Young (451 yards), who I think could really flourish in this system. For starters, Young is big enough to earn tough yards between the tackles. But he’s also athletic enough – he averaged 5.1 yards per carry as a freshman – to lend the offense some degree of big-play ability. With Young the bigger back and redshirt freshman Josh Ferguson the speedier option, the Illini have a top pair to lean on in the running game. Illinois might also move Miles Osei from quarterback so as to get him touches on offense. If you include Scheelhaase, Illinois has enough weapons in the backfield to run the ball effectively from the start.

Then again, the health of the running game does depend entirely on the overall play up front, where the Illini must replace a pair of starters – led by left tackle Jeff Allen, who started 47 games over his career. The line’s issue is a lack of extensive experience, even if three starters are back in the fold; this youth is extremely noticeable throughout the two-deep at tackle. Illinois will bookend the line with sophomores Simon Cvijanovic and Michael Heitz, a pair that shared starts on the right side last fall. Cvijanovic will be asked to replace Allen on the blind side while Heitz starts on the right.

The Illini need big years out of seniors Hugh Thornton and Graham Pocic, who return at left guard and center, respectively. A third senior, Tyler Sands, might get the nod at right guard. But he’ll need to outplay redshirt freshman Ted Karras, who has outstanding bloodlines – and above that, he had a good enough spring to perhaps earn the starting nod ahead of a senior. The big question up front: Even if the Illini form a solid starting five, can this line stand to suffer any injuries? If all goes according to plan, Illinois’ front lies in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten. If there are significant injuries, this line could be conference’s worst – well, second-worst, ahead of Indiana.

The terminology has changed, but Illinois really isn’t undergoing any significant overhaul on defense. Last fall, under Vic Koenning – now at North Carolina – Illinois played with a hybrid end-linebacker and a de facto hybrid linebacker-safety. The Illini will use the same two positions on defense under Banks, merely with different titles. All in all, the defense is retaining a similar feel. As such, I believe that the defense, despite some losses at each level, will again play at a high level under the new staff.

As mentioned earlier, Beckman made a great move in retaining Gilmore as line coach. The Illini might have to replace Whitney Mercilus, who turned in an all-American season before hopping to the N.F.L., but Gilmore has enough returning talent – and some very promising talent rising up the ranks – for Illinois to keep getting pressure on the quarterback. Even if the Illini don’t finish in the top 10 nationally in sacks, as they did a year ago, this front will make things uncomfortable for opposing quarterbacks.

Which is good: Illinois plays Western Michigan and Louisiana Tech early, so a potent pass rush would keep those pass-heavy offenses under wraps. With Mercilus gone, the new star up front is senior Michael Buchanan (64 tackles, 13.5 for loss, 7.5 sacks), who fills that hybrid end-linebacker role. While Buchanan did benefit from having Mercilus on the other side, his strong junior numbers aren’t solely due to that fact; he has the ability to post double-digit sacks on his own merit, and should do so in his final season.

Senior Justin Staples (16 tackles) backed up Buchanan a year ago, but he’ll move over to the traditional end spot in 2012. Depth at end took a hit when would-be junior Brandon Denmark transferred following the spring; this likely means an increased role for promising redshirt freshman Darrius Caldwell, which will be good for the Illini in the long run. With Caldwell and junior Tim Rynard a strong reserve pair at end, Illinois hopes that junior Akeem Spence (69 tackles, 5.5 for loss) and senior Glenn Foster (32 tackles) can continue handling blockers along the interior. There’s no reason why Spence – who will play nose guard in 2012 – shouldn’t earn all-Big Ten honors.

This defense will feature two traditional linebackers and the hybrid defensive back. The latter spot will be filled by senior Ashante Williams (21 tackles), who started the final three games of last season on the strong side. He fits: Williams started his career at safety, making a pair of starts as a freshman, before moving to linebacker a year ago. That’s the sort of flexibility thanks Banks and Beckman want at the star position; Williams can run with intermediate routes while providing support against the run. The undisputed star of the linebacker corps is junior Jonathan Brown (108 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss, 6.0 sacks), who is a strong contender for conference defensive player of the year honors.

He’ll move into the middle this fall, replacing Ian Thomas, but Brown can play anywhere – wherever he goes, he’ll make plays. Sophomore Houston Bates (23 tackles) will start on the weak side after backing up Brown a year ago. There isn’t great depth here, but the Illini do have some nice young talent. Keep an eye on redshirt freshman Zepehniah Grimes and true freshman Ta’Jarvis Fuller, who was in for spring ball.

This pass defense made more than a few teams look silly last fall. Yes, this was in some part due to the Illini’s strong pass rush. But from top to bottom, Illinois ran with receivers as well as any team in college football – and with the pass rush still strong and three starters back in the secondary, there’s no reason why Illinois’ pass defense can’t again rank among the top 25 in the country.

Outside of cornerback Tavon Wilson, the Illini return every piece of last year’s two-deep. Illinois will replace Wilson with senior Justin Green (35 tackles), last year’s third cornerback and a two-game starter. He’ll join a second senior, Terry Hawthorne (60 tackles, 3 interceptions), in the starting lineup, with yet another senior, Jack Ramsey, serving as the third cornerback. That’s great experience – just don’t think about how this secondary will look heading into 2013. As was the case last fall, junior Steve Hull (58 tackles) and senior Supo Sanni (49 tackles) will be the starting safeties.

Salem is a solid special teams coordinator who will have his hands full in 2012. While Illinois did a good job on coverage last fall, the lone special teams standout was Derek Dimke, the most accurate kicker in school history. With Dimke gone, Salem must address the kicking position while looking to upgrade the Illini’s results in the return game. This team also needs more from sophomore punter Justin DuVernois, who did not have a good rookie season: out of 53 total punts, DuVernois had only 3 travel more than 50 yards and only 15 result in a fair catch.

Position battle(s) to watch

Wide receiver Begin with the fact that Illinois will no longer be able to lean heavily on A.J. Jenkins, who led the Big Ten in receptions despite Illinois’ disappointingly pedestrian quarterback play and atrocious running game. Jenkins accounted for 39.8 percent of Illinois’ catches, 53.3 percent of its receiving yards and 57.1 percent of its receiving scores. In my mind – when viewing his numbers through the prism of last year’s offense – Jenkins put together one of the most impressive seasons by a receiver in Big Ten history. In addition, the team’s quest to replace that lost production has suffered a hiccup over the last month: Illinois has lost the services of Jordan Frysinger, Jake Kumerow, Jason Robertson – an incoming freshman who didn’t qualify – and Anthony Williams, stretching the team’s depth to the breaking point.

And you have to consider the fact that the Illini don’t exactly have the receiver corps built for this spread system. There are a few who could take well to this offense, however – like junior Darius Millines (19 receptions for 218 yards), who will lead this team in receptions if he can remain healthy. But that’s been an issue for Millines, who has struggled with a foot injury throughout his career. If you go off the idea that Millines remains healthy, he’ll be the team’s top threat, followed by juniors Ryan Lankford (12 for 108) and Spencer Harris (26 for 226).

Of course, the trouble is that Illinois can’t rely on three receivers; this offense will have three receivers on the field at all times, so the Illini will need at least six serviceable receivers. In order to fill out a depth chart, Beckman and his co-coordinators will need to call on a crop of reserves wholly lacking in experience. This group includes sophomore Fritz Rock and redshirt freshmen Jeremy Whitlow, Kenny Knight and Peter Bonahoom – the latter a former walk-on. Illinois will need solid seasons out of sophomore Jon Davis (22 for 187) and junior Evan Wilson at tight end.

Game(s) to watch

The non-conference slate isn’t easy, even if the Illini only take on one team from a B.C.S. conference. That would be Arizona State, which hosts the Illini on Sept. 8. In Western Michigan and Louisiana Tech, Illinois gets two strong – very strong, when it comes to the latter – non-B.C.S. conference teams that could very easily steal a win on the road. Any hopes that Illinois has of reaching the Big Ten title game are hampered by the fact that it plays Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Northwestern away from home. Theoretically, the Illini would need to gain at least a split in those four to win the Leaders division; I would be shocked if they win more than one. On the other hand, this team should absolutely not lose conference home games against Purdue, Minnesota and Indiana, and getting Penn State earlier in the year bodes well for the Illini’s chances.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Illinois should be a far more consistent team under Beckman and this staff. That’s an important step for this program to take after last year’s monumental collapse: Beckman will take the Illini off the rollercoaster, lending the team a much-needed degree of evenness as it looks to make a move in the Leaders division. Now, can the Illini take advantage of a more wide-open division in Beckman’s first season? Not when they need to travel to Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio State – the latter pair clearly the top two in the Leaders. Here’s the thing about Illinois heading into the fall: I think that this team will get into bowl play, but I can’t imagine a realistic scenario where the Illini wins more than seven games. Most likely, Illinois wins somewhere between five and seven games – my bet is six, though seven is the number with one upset win during Big Ten play.

The reason why this team will win games is because of its defense, which should again rank among the two or three in the league. I’m not as worried about the pass rush as some; I think Buchanan and Spence are going to earn all-Big Ten honors, and the two younger linemen waiting in reserve – Caldwell, for example – could make an impact if used correctly. And if the pass rush remains strong, Illinois will again land terrific play in the secondary. From top to bottom, this defense will do enough to lead Illinois into bowl play. The reason why the Illini are a bit of a wild card is the idea that the offense could hit the ground running in September. That’s not a safe bet to make, even if you could see Scheelhaase blossoming as a junior. But the offense isn’t ready: the receiver corps lacks optimal numbers and the line is questionable at both tackle spots. For now, leading Illinois back into bowl play would mark a fine debut for Beckman and his staff.

Dream season The Illini stumble early, losing at Arizona State and to Louisiana Tech at home, but they find a groove in the Big Ten opener against Penn State. The only conference loss comes at Michigan; overall, Illinois goes 9-3, 7-1 in Big Ten play, and represents the Leaders division in the conference title game.

Nightmare season The Illini go 1-3 in non-conference play and open with three straight losses in Big Ten action before righting the ship against Indiana. It’s a short-lived winning streak: Illinois closes with four straight losses, dropping even a home game against Minnesota, to finish 2-10.

In case you were wondering

Where do Illinois fans congregate? For independent sites, you should check out A Lion Eye – which I only recently found and really like – IlliniHQ.com and Illinois Loyalty. Illinois fans can also find in-depth recruiting coverage at Orange & Blue News and Inside Illini.

Illinois’ all-name nominee DE DeJazz Woods.

Word Count

Through 61 teams 234,956.

Up Next

Who is No. 63? Tomorrow university has a nice enough name, but it would love to be known by a different title – something it once went by, albeit for only a few weeks in 1984.

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Comments

  1. Parker says:

    ULaLa Rajin Cajuns are 63

  2. Eksynyt says:

    Louisiana-Lafayette?

  3. DMK says:

    University of Louisiana is next.

  4. Trey says:

    Gotta be the Lafayette Leopards.

  5. Kevin says:

    It could be Louisiana-Monroe. One of their alumni from the 80s told me they want to change their name back to Northeast Louisiana.

  6. LAUGH-ayette says:

    LCLA – Lafayette College of Louisiana (LA)

  7. D is for Dumb says:

    @DMK:

    Tulane University (aka the University of Louisiana) came in at #112.

  8. DMK says:

    Then Southwest Louisiana must be next.

    Possibly Southwestern Louisiana.

    I’m stumped.

  9. Nick Coston says:

    Paul, any hypotheses on The Zooker’s next gig?

  10. University of Southwestern Louisiana (USL) says:

    USLess is next.

  11. justin says:

    It has to be ULL. They desperately want to be University of Louisiana, but the Louisiana legislature won’t allow it. They still unofficially refer to themselves that way, and encourage/demand that their conference mates do as well.

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