Tom Dienhart, Senior Writer, February 11, 2015

Tim Beckman enjoyed a breakthrough in his third season, moving the Illini into a bowl for the first time since 2011. Now, he?s looking to push Illinois up the food chain in the Big Ten West.

There still is lots of work to do, including finding a tight end and settling the kicking and punting situation, among other things.

This spring, the roster will be bolstered by nine early enrollees (six junior-college transfers and three prep players).


1. Develop QB Wes Lunt. He had a solid debut after transferring from Oklahoma State, hitting 63 percent of his passes for 1,763 yards with 14 touchdowns and three interceptions. But Lunt broke a leg against Purdue on Oct. 4 that cost him three starts. He returned vs. Iowa on Nov. 15 but wasn?t himself. Lunt lost his job because of ineffectiveness the next week vs. Penn State, giving way to Reilly O?Toole as the starter for the regular-season finale and bowl game. The junior needs to develop under coordinator Bill Cubit. It also would help to add some mobility to his game. With O?Toole graduated and Aaron Bailey transferring, this is Lunt?s team.

2. Establish depth at running back. Josh Ferguson is a good one, a versatile weapon who led the team with 735 yards rushing with eight touchdowns and also caught 50 passes for 427 yards and two TDs. But the senior needs help. Who will step up to be the yin to Ferguson?s yang? This question may not be answered until fall camp.

3. Improve on defense. This unit has been a drag on the program under Beckman. Last year was more of the same. Illinois was last in the Big Ten in scoring defense (34.0 ppg); last in total defense (456.4 ypg); last in rushing defense (239.2 ypg); 11th in sacks (23). The struggles cost d-line coach Greg Colby his job. Play makers are needed, especially along the front seven. Senior end Jihad Ward is an exciting player, and senior linebacker Mason Monheim is a cornerstone in the front seven. Ends Paul James III and Dawuane Smoot needs to take the next step up front. The secondary could be solid with junior safety Taylor Barton and senior cornerback V?Angelo Bentley as anchors.


Record: 6-7 overall; 3-5 Big Ten (lost to Louisiana Tech in Heart of Dallas Bowl)
Spring ball opens: March 14
Spring game: April 18
Key players lost: OT Simon Cvijanovic; TE Jon Davis; P Justin DuVernois; TE Matt LaCosse; QB Reilly O?Toole; SS Zane Petty; DT Austin Teitsma; S/LB Earnest Thomas III; RB Donovonn Young
Key players back: WR Geronimo Allison; FS Taylor Barton; CB V?Angelo Bentley; WR Mikey Dudek; RB Josh Ferguson; OL Ted Karras; QB Wes Lunt; LB Mason Monheim; LB T.J. Neal; CB Eaton Spence; DE Jihad Ward


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.

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