If you need a reprieve from basketball madness, the following is the latest on Tim Beckman’s attempt to resurrect a listing Illini football ship.
How about some good news:
— New offensive coordinator Bill Cubit likes all three running backs, saying, “Josh Ferguson gives us something different in space. I’ve never coached a guy who can make tacklers miss like he can. Donovonn Young (571 rushing yards last year) and Dami Ayoola are solid.”
— Linebackers are traditionally good for special teams, so Tim Salem’s unit should be improved with all those roughnecks carrying between 220 and 235 pounds. Jonathan Brown was the UI tackle leader in 2011, and Mason Monheim became a freshman star in 2012 (86 tackles) when Brown was injured. They head the group to fill three key defensive positions: Mike Svetina, T.J. Neal, Henry Dickinson, Ralph Cooper, B.J. Bello, Zeph Grimes and Eric Finney.
They have more in common than their size. All but Lincoln-Way West’s Bello were recruited from beyond Illinois borders.
Said linebackers coach Mike Ward:
“Right now we’re holding out three key defensive guys ... Brown, Dickinson and safety Earnest Thomas. We hope to use them on a limited basis the last three weeks.”
Ward believes sophomores Monheim and Svetina “can be special” and that redshirted Neal “is going to be a pleasant surprise.”
Work to do
We can’t go forward without acknowledging the words of astute visitor Howard Griffith of the BTN. Said the former Illini running back:
“Three years ago I thought Illinois was as physical as any in the Big Ten, and I don’t see that now.”
But I don’t see size as a problem. Defensive tackle Jake Howe weighs 300, and the offensive line is well past that number. Young is a solid 220, and tight end Evan Wilson is 250. Defensive end Tim Kynard is 260.
My overview: Illinois has enough size and just enough quality athletes — if they stay healthy — to be competitive. Versatile tight ends and running backs offer fourth-year quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase options.
But, admittedly, Cubit faces a challenge. In a 2-10 season, Illinois scored 200 points (16.7 average), the lowest UI total since the 12-game schedule was introduced in 2006. Cubit, former Western Michigan head coach, will find his innovative skills tested.
Up front, after a year of mixing and patching around now-departed Graham Pocic, the line appears set with 325-pound Alex Hill, who started a game at guard last year, moving to center. Hill is surrounded by four former starters: 300-pounders Ted Karras and Michael Heitz at the guards, junior Simon Cvijanovic at left tackle and sixth-year veteran Corey Lewis (6-6, 310) at right tackle.
“We moved Hill to center to get a more physical presence there,” Cubit said. “In doing that, we’ll swing both Tony Durkin and Joe Spencer between center and guard as insurance. We have Dallas Hinkhouse (junior college transfer) backing up at left tackle.”
A note here: Ryan Nowicki, ballyhooed transfer from Penn State, is not listed on the first two offensive line units.
“Durability is the key with Lewis,” Cubit said. “He hasn’t played for two years (five knee surgeries). We hope he can hold up because he really wants to play, has worked hard and shows good quickness and strength.
“I enjoy coaching those guys. They’ve been scarred, but they’re willing.”
Cubit has 90 percent of his new offense installed, saying:
“To work, this has to be in sync. The quarterbacks understand that we want the ball out faster (within 2.2 seconds). This is a drastic change for Nate, and it’s a work in progress.”
Noticeable in practice has been Cubit’s use of Wilson as a pass-catching tight end. The 6-foot-6 senior has been primarily a blocker (two catches in 2012), but Cubit is pondering a personnel package involving Wilson and 240-pound Jon Davis when the latter is cleared.
“The tight ends are key to this offense,” Cubit said. “Wilson asked for this, and he’s been impressive. Matt LaCosse shows promise. Davis is running routes on the side, and we’re anxious to get him back. He should be one of the better players in the Big Ten.”
Cubit’s greatest concern is with Mike Bellamy’s receivers, where senior Darius Millines is hit with the double whammy: Millines is injured AND under suspension. Senior Ryan Lankford has the most speed but, in Cubit’s words, “needs refinement in his route running ... our receivers have a ways to go. This is a different system, and it takes precise route running.”
After six sessions, Cubit has a better understanding of his assets and will attempt to maximize them ahead of the April 12 spring game. It could mean more receiving opportunities for Ferguson and the tight ends. And it definitely means that Scheelhaase and Reilly O’Toole will be asked to hit their targets more quickly than in the past.
The UI defense is in start-over mode under Tim Banks. There’s no other way to describe it.
Five veteran defensive backs are gone. You might see freshman Darius Mosely (early arrival from O’Fallon) getting quality time behind likely cornerback starters V’Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence. Beckman has given personal attention to Mosely in drills.
“Mosely really came along in the last couple of practices,” Ward said.
And you’ll definitely see two of last year’s giant plebes, Teko Powell and Vontrell Williams, alternating with Austin Teitsma, Howe and redshirted Robbie Bain in the defensive interior.
If you’re looking for a surprise, rapidly developing 255-pound sophomore Ken Nelson is challenging for time behind veteran Kynard at defensive end.
“Nelson is long and lean, and he’s added thickness,” Ward said. “He wasn’t ready last season. He’s making big strides. And Teko is the most athletic of the tackles with that X-factor of arm length and fast-twitch movement.”
But we must be honest. Both the line and secondary have a long way to go to match the linebackers.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.