Dienhart: Illinois spring football wrap

If you watched closely, you could see the improvement in Illinois this spring. Good thing, because Tim Beckman needs to pad his win total as he embarks on this third season in Champaign. He is 6-18 overall and 1-15 in the Big Ten. And that one league win came vs. arguably the worst Purdue team in that school’s history. But, I digress. All eyes in Champaign this spring were on the quarterback derby and defense.

Here are some observations from the spring game.

[ MORE: Watch a replay of the Illinois spring game on BTN2Go ]

1. There are nice options at quarterback. The candidates include Aaron Bailey, Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt and experienced backup Reilly O’Toole. But in the end, it will be a shock if Lunt isn’t the starter. He has the look of a big-time passer with all the requisite skills. And while he didn’t look great in the spring game—hitting 6-of-16 passes for 99 yards–Lunt had a very good spring and is equipped to run Bill Cubit’s offense. It didn’t help the quarterbacks’ cause that tight ends Matt LaCosse and Jon Davis sat out with injury along with wideout Mike Dudek, who had been a spring star.

2. The defense still has work to do. But, no worries. There were bright spots in the spring game. Linebacker T.J. Neal continued to shine and show why he was voted most improved defensive player of the spring. A big key to an improve defense will be the ability to rush the pass. Dawuane Smoot could be a top option, but he didn’t play in the spring game. Paul James III, who was sidetracked last year because of academics, impressed as a pass rusher in the spring game and looks promising. Bottom line on the defense: stay tuned.

3. Josh Ferguson could be one of the Big Ten’s top backs. The key will be to stay healthy. He’s a shifty runner who is one of the best backs in the business when it comes to catching passes. The diminutive Ferguson has 11 carries for 63 yards on Saturday. He’s what those in the biz call a “difference maker.” Ferguson should form a nice duo with Donovonn Young.

4. The secondary should be better after being riddled with youth last season. V’Angelo Bentley is a good one, racing 89 yards with an interception for a touchdown. A better secondary should help a team that was 10th in the Big Ten in scoring defense (35.4 ppg), last in rushing defense (238.6 ypg) and 11th in total defense (481.5 ypg).

The quote: “All quarterbacks have got things that they do well. We’re going to let everybody have that chance to be the starting quarterback at the University of Illinois.” – Tim Beckman

The number: 7, sacks for Illinois’ squads in the spring game. Kenny Nelson and Paul James each had two. The Illini were 11th in the Big Ten in sacks last season with 15. This number must go up … by a lot.

Offseason to-do list
1. Toughen up the offensive line. Running the ball has been an issue since Beckman took over. And in the spring game, neither team eclipsed the 100-yard rushing barrier. The Illini were 10th in the Big Ten in rushing in 2013 (139.0 ypg).

2. The pass rush must turn up the heat.

3. A good pass rush should help improve a defense that was horrid at generating turnovers. How bad was it in 2013? The Fighting Illini were last in the Big Ten with 11 turnovers forced, including a measly three interceptions.

4. Wideouts are needed with go-to man Steve Hull gone. Former walk-on Pete Bonahoom, who had seven catches for 95 yards in the spring game, is one to watch. He could be a nice complement to Mike Dudek, Martize Barr and JC transfer Geronimo Allison.

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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