Illinois: 10 reasons to be excited in 2012
This is the best time of the year. This is the time of year when every team has a shot to win the Big Ten. The possibilities seem limitless, right? The games have yet to begin—heck, practices haven’t started—but great expectations loom from Minneapolis to Bloomington, and from Lincoln to State College. As a way to fuel the aforementioned enthusiasm on each campus, I will offer 10 reasons–in no particular order–to be excited for each Big Ten school. First up: Illinois.
1. The arrival of former Toledo coach Tim Beckman and his staff have energized the players. Yes, Ron Zook got the Fighting Illini to the Rose Bowl after the 2007 season. But the lowlights out numbered the highlights during a tenure that produced just three bowls and a 34-51 record (18-38 in the Big Ten) in seven seasons. In the end, Zook’s era will be noted more for producing a few star players than for generating any sustained, consistent success. Beckman’s arrival offers a new hope and a new beginning.
2. Offense. It was what defined Beckman’s Toledo teams. The Rockets paced the MAC and ranked eighth in the nation in scoring (42.2 ppg) last season en route to also leading the league in total offense (481.3 ypg). Beckman’s cutting-edge spread offense could be just what the doctor ordered for an Illini attack that ranked ninth in the Big Ten in scoring (22.6 ppg) and ninth overall (355.7 ypg).
3. Jonathan Brown. Is there a better linebacker in the Big Ten? Perhaps not. He ranked second in the Big Ten and sixth in the nation in tackles for loss last season with 1.63 per game. Brown, a junior who led the team with 108 tackles last season, also ranked sixth in the conference in sacks with .50 per game.
4. The schedule. In particular, the Big Ten home games. They all are winnable: Penn State; Indiana; Minnesota; Purdue. And Illinois should be favored in three of its four non-conference games. Bottom line: This team should go bowling for a third season in a row; it’s coming off consecutive bowl wins for the first time ever. The question: How good will that bowl be?
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5. Terry Hawthorne. Meet the Big Ten’s “Mr. Slash,” as Hawthorne will double as a receiver and cornerback, his natural position. Offensive coordinator Billy Gonzales wants to get the ball into the hands of his best athletes. And no one on the Illini roster is better than Hawthorne, a senior who will try to help replace departed star wideout A.J. Jenkins and his Big Ten-leading 90 catches. Late in the third quarter of the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl vs. UCLA last season, Hawthorne returned an interception for a go-ahead touchdown. He just makes plays.
6. Nathan Scheelhaase. He may be the perfect triggerman for the new spread offense. A two-year starter, Scheelhaase improved his completion percentage from 58.7 to 63.2 percent last season when he led the team with 624 yards rushing. Reilly O’Toole also is back after showing promise as a true freshman last season, giving Illinois a nice situation at quarterback.
7. Michael Buchanan. No doubt, it hurts that end Whitney Mercilus turned pro after a remarkable junior season that saw him lead the nation in sacks (16) and rank second in the country in tackles for loss. But Buchanan—who had 7.5 sacks last season–has the potential to be a reasonable facsimile coming off a productive junior season for a potentially strong line that also welcomes back starters in tackles Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster.
8. Defense. This could be one of the better units in the Big Ten. Yes, coordinator Vic Koenning will be missed—along with end Whitney Mercilus. Still, seven starters are back from a unit that ranked No. 2 in the Big Ten overall in 2011 (286.2 ypg) during a weird 7-6 season that saw the Illini start 6-0, lose six in a row and then finish with a bowl win over UCLA.
9. Jon Davis and Evan Wilson. The tight end tandem is more about potential than production at this juncture. But this could develop into one of the top tight end tandems in the conference. Davis, a sophomore who made 22 catches for 187 yards and a touchdown, and Wilson, a junior who made nine receptions for 89 yards and three scores, are athletic pass catchers who look to be good fits for this offense.
10. Big uglies. The makings for a potentially good offensive line are in place with the return of three starters. The cornerstone? Senior Graham Pocic, who may be the top center in the Big Ten for a line that must pave the way for a group of still-developing running backs led by Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson.
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