Camp Hawthorn, as Illinois coach Tim Beckman likes to refer to it as, begins Monday. The players will stay at the nearby hotel off Kirby and Neil in Champaign before starting practices at Memorial Stadium on Monday. They last a week before Media Day arrives next Sunday and then the players board buses to make the short trek north to Rantoul for a training camp open to the public. Before the players don pads and the Illini coaches finally get a chance to coach for the first time since mid-April, here’s 10 burning questions regarding the Illinois football team, with beat writer MATT DANIELS supplying the answers.
1. Can we expect the 2010 and early 2011 version of Nathan Scheelhaase or the 2012 edition?
The veteran quarterback is poised to make sure 2012 was an abberation on what had been a stellar college career. Don’t expect him to use his feet as much this fall. He didn’t run much during the spring game (of course, there’s no way Illinois would show its full offensive plans on a game televised live by BTN), but Bill Cubit doesn’t have a history of having his quarterbacks scramble. A big year running the ball could possibly push Scheelhaase past Juice Williams on the school’s career rushing list by a quarterback (Williams has 2,557 compared to 1,795 for Scheelhaase). Scheelhaase enters camp fully healthy after dealing with injuries to start his junior season, and will need to increase his touchdown passes (they’ve dropped every year from 17 in 2010 to 13 in 2011 and four last year) while making sure his interception totals (eight each season) don’t increase. It’s Scheelhaase’s last season wearing an Illinois uniform. He knows his legacy is at stake.
2. That’s great if Scheelhaase returns to form this fall. But who’s he going to throw to?
At least on paper, Illinois has a plethora of players to choose from. A healthy Jon Davis could go a long way toward reinvigorating the passing game. The loss of Darius Millines hurts the wide receivers corp, and Beckman is counting on productivity from junior college transfer Martize Barr and Miles Osei, especially since Osei is strictly focusing on wide receiver in his final season. Ryan Lankford, last year’s leader in receiving yards, returns, as does Spencer Harris, a dependable option Scheelhaase has grown accustomed to seeing on the field. Don’t forget about Evan Wilson and Matt LaCosse at the tight end position, either, plus Justin Hardee had a nice freshman season while Steve Hull, a close friend of Scheelhaase’s, returns to the offensive side of the ball in 2013.
3. Who gets hurt first: Jonathan Brown or Corey Lewis?
Injuries are a touchy subject around Memorial Stadium. Beckman’s team experienced more than enough last year. He’s hopeful half the number of players will be a frequent visitor to new trainer Toby Harkins this season. Brown dealt with leg and shoulder ailments last year that limited his ability. And probably kept the linebacker off the NFL Draft radar. Lewis is a feel-good story, getting his sixth year of eligibility granted this spring after knee injuries have derailed his career so far. Lewis seemed to hold up fine throughout the spring and said the knee is good to go last week at Big Ten Media Days.
4. When is the first time we’ll hear the words, ‘Fire Beckman?’
Probably sometime around mid-September. The words most likely won’t get uttered on the final day of August. Southern Illinois is about the only guaranteed game on Illinois’ schedule. Games against Cincinnati and Washington lurk the next two weeks. Both teams played in bowl games last year (Cincinnati beat Duke 48-34 in the Belk Bowl in Charlotte, N.C. while Boise State edged Washington 28-26 in the Las Vegas Bowl). Both will be favored. Even if Illinois doesn’t come out with a win, fans will want to see Illinois be competitive in the game, which wasn’t the case much of last season. The second-year coach is dealing with an unhappy fan base. Wins, especially in the nonconference portion of the schedule, are the best cure. Easier said than done, though.
5. Can I get a ticket to the Washington game at Soldier Field?
If Illinois loses to Cincinnati, sure. If the Illini head up into Chicago with a 2-0 record, there’s still a good chance you can walk up to the stadium on Lake Michigan the day of the game and procure a decent ticket. But the crowd that packed Soldier Field a few weeks ago for the Jay Z and Justin Timberlake concernt won’t provide the same type of atmosphere when Illinois runs out of the visitor’s locker room at the Bears’ home venue. Having the kickoff at 5 p.m. can provide fans with an opportunity to tailgate most of the day and still see the city after the game. At least that’s the hope from Illinois officials. Should be interesting to see if Illinois pursues any more games at Soldier Field if this one falls flat.
6. When does the Big Ten losing streak stop?
The first chance to end the 14-game skid is at Nebraska on Oct. 5. Don’t bet your life savings that it will end among a sea of red-clad fans who have sold out every home game in Lincoln since 1962. Next comes Wisconsin for a home night game on Oct. 19, and even with a new coach in Gary Andersen, the Badgers are still the Badgers. Homecoming the following Saturday doesn’t look any more promising. Illinois hasn’t beaten Michigan State in Champaign since 1992, a string of six straight losses to the Spartans at Memorial Stadium. Best opportunity is sometime in November. Games at Penn State, Indiana and Purdue are all tossups, and even with Ohio State’s stacked roster, Illinois always seems to hold its own against the Buckeyes, especially in Champaign. Illinois hasn’t beaten Ohio State at home since 1991, but the last six setbacks since 2000 have come by a combined 45 points.
7. Should I keep December and January open for any bowl trips?
Maybe. The only other time Illinois finished 2-10, it went to the Rose Bowl the next season. Booking a plane trip to Pasadena right now for the Rose Bowl or the BCS national championship game on Jan. 6 might have your friends looking at you strangely, though. The Big Ten has bowl tie-ins for eight games this season. Of course, a 6-6 record only guarantees a team a postseason game to prepare for. Illinois has never played a bowl game in Detroit (Little Caesars Pizza Bowl on Dec. 26) or in Tempe, Ariz. (Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl on Dec. 28), and is 1-1 in bowl games in Texas (Texas Bowl on Dec. 27 in Houston and the Heart of Dallas Bowl on Jan. 1 at the Cotton Bowl) after beating Baylor and Robert Griffin III in 2010 but losing to UCLA in the 1991 John Hancock Bowl. If you’re the ever-optimistic Illinois fan, those are the places you could start making travel arrangements to now without receiving a wayward glance from family members.
8. What’s the biggest position battle on the team?
The wide receivers struggled last year to separate themselves from opposing defenses. Or catch many passes. With the dismissal of Darius Millines this offseason, Ryan Lankford and Spencer Harris are about the only veteran who returns with significant game experience. And they don’t exactly fill fans with immense confidence. Converted quarterback Miles Osei, junior college transfer Martize Barr, Justin Hardee, former safety Steve Hull and a handful of others will vie for playing time in new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit’s pass-happy system. Cubit had 10 wide receivers in his eight seasons top the 469 receiving yards Lankford, who led the team in that category last year, accumulated in 2012. The opportunities are there for the wideouts to thrive in Cubit’s system. It’s just a matter of who will grab them.
9. Illinois signed 20 freshmen in February. Who will be this year’s version of Mason Monheim?
Indications point to Darius Mosely. The early enrollee from O’Fallon showed he wasn’t afraid of college football in his first spring game, compiling a team-high 10 tackles. He’s a physical cornerback, and with so many unproven names in the secondary, Mosely has a chance to play. Right away. Picking off passes was an aspect Illinois struggled in last year, and while Mosely only had one interception his senior year at O’Fallon, he did haul in 1,126 receiving yards. This came after he intercepted four passes his junior year and returned three for touchdowns. He will have a learning curve, like all 18-year-olds playing college football do, but his instincts and playmaking ability are two strengths the Illinois coaches like.
10. Glad to hear about Mosely, but what about Aaron Bailey?
The highly-touted quarterback from Bolingbrook is an exceptional athlete. Questions about his arm are out there. Having missed more than half of his senior season with the Raiders because of a knee injury doesn’t exactly put those doubts to rest. At least not yet. He can run the ball with precision, an area he put on full display for most of his high school career. The talent he has is evident by the number of Big Ten schools like Iowa, Nebraska, Northwestern, Ohio State and Wisconsin, among others, handing out scholarship offers to the most sought-after recruit in Beckman’s Class of 2013. Beckman has stated before that ideally he’d like to redshirt all freshmen. Bailey’s talents, however, might make those plans mute if he has a strong fall camp.