2015 Illinois Fighting Illini Football Preview
Head Coach: Tim Beckman (At Illinois: 12-25, 4-20 in 3 years; Overall: 33-41 in 6 years)
2014 Record: 6-7 overall, 3-5 Big 10
Bowl Result: 2014 Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl: Louisiana Tech 35 Illinois 18
While Tim Beckman’s three-year tenure in Champaign hasn’t brought the results that Illini fans would want, Illinois—which has gone 12-25 during that time—has shown improvement each season and last year’s 6-7 finish (that concluded with a bowl loss to La Tech) was enough to warrant bringing the fourth-year coach back for 2015.
Former Illini offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic brought allegations of abuse against Beckman this spring, but the coach—whose contract runs through the ’16 campaign—hasn’t been proven guilty of any wrongdoing and former players have come to his defense.
Lunt (6’5, 225), who originally went to Oklahoma State, was excellent early before injuries plagued him the remainder of the year. He concluded the year completing 63.5 percent of his passes while throwing for 1.763 yards and 14 touchdowns in eight games. Furthermore, he took care of the football, as he was picked off just three times.
There is plenty of experienced talent at the offensive skill positions.
Senior running back Josh Ferguson, who brings tremendous explosiveness to the table, topped the team in rushing (741 yards and 8 TD) while also being second in receptions with 50 catches for 427 yards.
Seniors Geronimo Allison (6’4”, 195) and Justin Hardee, as well as sophomore Malik Turner (6’3”, 205) were other top targets a season ago. Allison hauled in 41 balls for 598 yards and five scores to top the trio.
If the offensive line—which struggled in the pass and run games last year—can make strides, Illinois’s offensive attack has enough skill pieces in place to be formidable in ’15. There are three JUCO O-lineman joining the program to hopefully improve the unit’s production.
Illinois, which allowed 34 points and more than 450 yards per game—including 240 on the ground, will welcome Mike Phair as its new defensive line coach and co-Defensive Coordinator. Phair, who has a lot of experience coaching the D-line in the NFL, will join previous coordinator Tim Banks in the shared role.
The Illini defensive front returns several experienced pieces from last season and will need to force opponents to be more diverse offensively. Last season, the opposition was able to run in typical passing situations.
The defensive line did lose tackle Austin Teitsma (53 TT, 9.5 TFL, 3 sacks), but it does return senior Jihad Ward at end and Dawuane Smoot. Ward, who is a JUCO transfer in his second year with the program, tallied 51 stops a season ago with 8.5 of those being behind the line—including 3 sacks.
Mason Monheim, who topped the team with 111 tackles in ’14, returns at will (weak) linebacker while T.J. Neal—who was fourth on the team with 98 stops—is back at mike (middle) linebacker. The secondary, which was one of the strengths of last year’s D, should be strong again. The unit did surrender too many big plays (12 pass plays of 40 yards or more), but on the whole played good football.
Eaton Spence and V’Angelo Bentley return at corner. Spence, who recorded 51 tackles, was second on the team in pass break-ups (6). Bentley also returned kicks and punts a year ago.
At safety, the Illini will be forced to replace Zane Petty and Earnest Thomas III. Petty was second on the team in tackles (109) while Thomas III was tops on the team in tackles for loss (9.5) and sacks (4.5).
Taylor Barton and Clayton Fejedelem, who played significant snaps last season, had 100 and 51 stops, respectively, and can prevent a severe drop off at safety.
On special teams, Illinois will have to replace punter Justin DeVernois, who averaged 44 yards per boot as a senior. Placekickers David Reisner and Taylor Zalewski return, but the duo will need to demonstrate more consistency this season as they combined to go just 1-for-6 beyond 40 yards and missed four extra points in 2014.
The non-conference schedule is set-up for success with three of the four games being at Memorial Stadium and the lone road game being a very winnable contest at North Carolina in game three.
If the Illini are going to be .500 or above—overall and in the Big Ten—for the first time under Beckman, they will likely need to go at least 3-1 in non-conference play because they will play just three of their eight league games at home with those coming against Nebraska, Wisconsin, and last year’s national champ Ohio State.
By Thomas "Bubba" Rosenbaum
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