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?

Illinois' Terry Hawthorne
Jason O. Watson-US PRESSWIRE

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.

BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is on Twitter and Facebook, all of his work is at btn.com/tomdienhart, and you can subscribe to it all via his RSS feed. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below.

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Show Comments (7 Comments)
7 Post Your Comment
Stephen on 7/17/2012 @ 9:31am EDT Said:

Two words. Offensive consistency.
If they can solve that one, especially through the air, the conference should look out.

Carol Bowles on 7/17/2012 @ 3:05pm EDT Said:

Five words – Illinois is not Penn State. The University of Illinois should call for the ouster of Penn State from the B1G to condemn the culture of “win at all costs.”

Why continue to associate with such an institution until they serve just punishment for such criminal attitudes that have allowed such silence. Will the illini stay silent, too?

aroznowski on 7/17/2012 @ 3:24pm EDT Said:

If Nathan Scheelhaase can be consistently good all season long and if Donovann Young can follow Rashard Mendenhall and Mikel Leshoure in the line of Illinois star running backs, the Fighting Illini could definitely be a sleeper team that could challenge for the division title if breaks go their way in the wide open Leaders Division.

aroznowski on 7/17/2012 @ 7:56pm EDT Said:

Carol, what does that have to do with Illinois’s 2012 season? Nothing.

Tom Fast on 8/15/2012 @ 6:35pm EDT Said:

Tim Beckman should have stayed at Toledo. As a proud UT alum, I was disappointed to see him leave. I am also disappointed at the fact that Illinois accepted Penn State transfers. All Penn State players should have stayed in State College to honor their commitment to that university. Shame on Illinois for taking the transfers on their roster. I believe this will cause Illinois to lose 7 games this season. Penn State will win 7 games and go to a bowl game in what will be a great national headline.

Greg on 8/17/2012 @ 1:00pm EDT Said:

Tom, you are wanting them to honor a commitment an untenable situation? Why should they be punished for the PSU cultutre that was allowed to happen? Why should they not get to compete for a championship? Why should they not get to go to a bowl game? You are so wrong as many are, that these kids should have had to stay at all costs to themselves.

Barry on 8/19/2012 @ 10:44am EDT Said:

Wow Tom. Penn State going to a bowl game will *not* be a headline this season, let alone a great one. You can go back to sleep now.

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