Tom Dienhart, Senior Writer, August 19, 2014

Tim Beckman made improvement from Year One to Year Two, going from 2-10 (0-8) to 4-8 (1-7). Can he build on that?

The offense offers hope, as the hiring of coordinator Bill Cubit prior to last season sparked the attack. And the unit will be fortified by seven returning starters.

The key to big improvement will hinge on the defense, which has nine starters back. How bad was it last year? The Fighting Illini ranked 104th in the nation in scoring defense (35.4 ppg); 116th in rush defense (238.6 ypg); 81st in pass defense (242.9 ypg) and 110th overall (481.5 ypg).

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Here are questions I have as we head to see Illinois practice.

1. How is the quarterback derby looking? This opened as a three-man race between Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt, Reilly O?Toole and Aaron Bailey. Lunt is supposed to be the man. I wanna see him throw and move.

2. Is the defense better? This group struggled mightily last year in just about every aspect of the game.

3. Is the o-line excelling? The unit could be good with four starters back, but it hurt for line coach A.J. Ricker to bolt over the summer. Tabbing vet Tom Brattan to take over helps.

4. How do the wideouts look? This is an inexperienced group. JC transfer Geronimo Allison needs to step up. He is big, fast and good. And how does freshman Mike Dudek look?

5. Is RB Josh Ferguson in top form? He needs to be a lynchpin if the Fighting Illini want to improve. He?s one of the most underrated backs in the league and one of the top pass-catching backs in the nation. He's also Illinois' best player. Period.

6. Who will bring the heat as a pass rusher? There are several interesting options. A rush is needed to help a secondary that has a lot of questions.

About Tom Dienhart senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at, 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.