Nathan Scheelhaase, QB
Hard to top how the fifth-year senior opened the season. He might have to, though, if the Illinois run game is stonewalled again. Cincinnati defensive coordinator Art Kaufman, a longtime Tommy Tuberville assistant, neutralized Purdue’s Rob Henry last week. He’ll want his group to do the same against Scheelhaase, who made few poor decisions and only one regrettable throw (third-quarter interception on a well-underthrown ball) against Southern Illinois. And he has the chance to open the season with back-to-back Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week accolades.
“It’s always good when any of your teammates can get recognized on that magnitude,” receiver Ryan Lankford said. “Nate is one of my buddies and one of the guys I’ve been rolling with since I got here. It’s always good, always exciting, and we’re just trying to see if we can make that a weekly thing here.”
How Scheelhaase counters against the multiple looks Cincinnati will throw at him will go a long way toward a possible surprise victory by the Illini or an expected defeat at home.
Jon Davis, TE
Tight end is his listed position, but he is likely the most versatile offensive player Illinois has.
The key question remaining with Davis, though, is his health. Illinois doesn’t want to put too much strain on his weak knees, but getting him involved early and often in the game plan can only benefit what Bill Cubit wants out of his offense. Davis showed his athleticism with his 11-yard touchdown catch against Southern Illinois in which he did most of the work before leaping into the end zone for the score right before halftime.
“We’d like to utilize Jon in different positions,” Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. “With his knee and with the situation that he has with that, we want to make sure that we keep him healthy also.”
Earnest Thomas, SS
Stopping the run is his strength. Going against a mobile quarterback like Munchie Legaux will provide Thomas with many opportunities to make plays. A week after making eight tackles and recording the only pass breakup, expect Gene Honda to call the junior’s name quite a bit through the PA system. He can’t afford to get beat deep, an all-too-common theme the Illinois secondary experienced against Southern Illinois, but the Salukis mainly hurt Illinois in the passing game when it went to the sidelines. You can bet Thomas was constantly reminding the young Illinois secondary this week during practice that it still has quite a bit to prove.
Munchie Legaux, QB
Not up there — yet — with former Bearcats quarterbacks Ben Mauk, Tony Pike and Zach Collaros, who helped the program get on an upward trend recently, but he has the talent to land his name among those other quarterbacks by the time he departs. Highly recruited out of high school, the New Orleans native initially gave an oral commitment to Colorado before flipping to the Bearcats late. He might alternate some series with Brendon Kay on Saturday. You could just as easily put Kay in this spot if Tommy Tuberville doesn’t like what he sees from Legaux.
“The common denominator is they both throw the ball extremely well,” Illinois defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. “Munchie is probably a little bit better athlete, but both guys have tremendous arm strength, good poise and accuracy.”
Jeff Luc, LB
It’s not too often you’ll hear Florida State and Cincinnati football mentioned in the same sentence. With Luc, however, it’s pretty much a requirement. He transferred from the Seminoles to the Bearcats after the 2011 season, sitting out last year. His debut at Cincinnati wasn’t awe-inspiring (three tackles, half a tackle for loss), but the country’s No. 1 middle linebacker in the Class of 2010 out of Treasure Coast (Fla.) High School knows he has yet to live up to his high school hype. Chances are Illinois running back Donovonn Young will know where No. 48 is lined up Saturday.
“He’s a big guy, a big guy,” Young said. “I remember watching him on ESPN (when he was at Florida State), and I’m talking about a monster. I was like, ‘Man, I would never want to play that guy.’ Three years later, I’ll end up playing against him, so it will be interesting.”
Adrian Witty, Safety
Beckman called up his old offensive coordinator at Toledo this summer. Maybe the two talked about how to stop this particular Cincinnati player.
Matt Campbell, now in his second season as the Rockets’ coach, saw
firsthand the kind of difference the junior playmaker can make. Witty had two tackles for loss and added a sack last year against the Rockets, who prevailed 29-23. Witty was up to more havoc against Purdue, returning an interception 41 yards for a touchdown. He is productive against the run and the pass, but given Illinois’ lack of success running the ball last Saturday, Scheelhaase will have to worry more about Witty when he puts the ball in the air.
“He makes a lot of plays,” Beckman said. “He’s aggressive, and he’s been there. He’s a good football player.”