Matt Daniels: A look at Illinois' two-deep

OFFENSE
Quarterback
Name    Ht.    Wt.    Yr.
Wes Lunt    6-5    215    So.
Aaron Bailey    6-2    220    So.
Comment: Who emerges to replace Nathan Scheelhaase will be the most heavily scrutinized position battle on the team. Both have solid arms. Bailey gets the edge with his feet, but Lunt is the one to beat.

Running back
Josh Ferguson    5-10    195    Jr.
Donovonn Young    6-0    220    Sr.
Comment: Ferguson firmly grasped the starting job by the middle of the season. Tim Beckman had to dispel rumors of Young transferring, so the starting job is Ferguson’s to lose.

Wide receiver
Geronimo Allison    6-3    190    Jr.
Peter Bonahoom    6-2    200    Jr.
Comment: Allison, the junior college transfer from Iowa Western Community College, has a chance to replicate what Steve Hull did last fall.

Wide receiver
Martize Barr    6-0    195    Sr.
Devin Church    5-8    185    So.
Comment: Barr didn’t distinguish himself in 2013 but is a logical choice to slide in and replace what Miles Osei did out of the slot receiver position.

Wide receiver
Justin Hardee    6-1    195    Jr.
Tyrin Stone-Davis    6-3    200    So.
Comment: Another key position battle to watch. Coaches showed more confidence in Hardee later in the season, while Stone-Davis is a highly coveted junior college transfer.

Tight end
Jon Davis    6-3    240    Sr.
Matt LaCosse    6-6    245    Sr.
Comment: Whoever gets the nod will bring experience, versatility and athleticism to a position that Bill Cubit’s offense used frequently last season.

Left tackle
Simon Cvijanovic    6-5    310    Sr.
Patrick Flavin    6-7    300    Jr.
Comment: Cvijanovic could fill void of Corey Lewis and become vocal leader of a unit that improved last fall under A.J. Ricker’s tutelage.

Left guard
Michael Heitz    6-5    305    Sr.
Joe Spencer    6-4    300    So.
Comment: Heitz lost his starting spot late in the season. Whether he holds off Spencer, whom the coaches like for his versatility, in camp is one to keep an eye on.

Center
Alex Hill    6-3    310    Sr.
Tony Durkin    6-3    290    So.
Comment: Hill should win the job. Durkin missed last season with a shoulder injury, so don’t be shocked if a few other linemen get reps at this position in the spring.
Right guard
Ted Karras    6-4    300    Jr.
Scott McDowell    6-5    290    So.
Comment: Karras brings the nasty to the line that so many offensive line coaches crave. High expectations for potential All-Big Ten lineman next fall.

Right tackle
Austin Schmidt    6-6    285    So.
Patrick Flavin    6-7    300    Jr.
Comment: Schmidt got thrown into the fire as a true freshman, seeing significant time at left and right tackle, but right tackle is where he’s most comfortable.

Kicker
Taylor Zalewski    6-3    220    Jr.
Ryan Frain    6-2    220    So.
Comment: Zalewski has the leg up on Frain in place-kicking and kickoff duties, but he will need to improve his consistency going into next season.

Holder
Reilly O’Toole    6-4    220    Sr.
Justin DuVernois    6-1    190    Sr.
Comment: Illinois likes to have a passing option as its holder. Enter O’Toole, who should replace a three-year starter in Tim Russell.

Long snapper
Zach Hirth    6-4    220    So.
Michael Martin    6-4    225    So.
Comment: Last season, Hirth did what every long snapper tries to do: make sure his name stays out of the paper for any glaring mistakes he made.

DEFENSE
Defensive end
Kenny Nelson    6-6    250    Jr.
Jarrod Clements    6-3    285    So.
Comment: Nelson, who recovered two fumbles last season, could develop into that pass-rushing force that was missing in 2013. But Clements could push him.

Defensive tackle
Teko Powell    6-3    295    Jr.
Jake Howe    6-3    300    Sr.
Comment: Powell has the size, potential and talent NFL scouts love to see. Too bad a redshirt year wasn’t used on him in 2012.

Defensive tackle
Austin Teitsma    6-2    290    Sr.
Jihad Ward    6-7    285    Jr.
Comment: Teitsma and his gregarious personality finished sixth on the team with 53 tackles in 2013, but Ward is a physically imposing presence. High hopes abound for the junior college transfer.

LEO
Houston Bates    6-3    250    Sr.
DeJazz Woods    6-3    255    Sr.
Comment: Bates, an avid hunter, will expect more out of himself after he had 31/2 sacks and a team-best five quarterback hurries in 2013.

Weakside linebacker
T.J. Neal    6-1    235    So.
Ralph Cooper    6-1    230    Sr.
Comment: No easy task for Neal, who should fill position vacated by Jonathan Brown and his 317 career tackles. But he showed flashes of his skill at key times in 2013.

Middle linebacker
Mason Monheim    6-1    235    Jr.
Zeph Grimes    5-11    225    Jr.
Comment: Monheim’s 97 tackles ranked third on the team. A high-effort player, Monheim will need to assume even more of a leadership role next season.

STAR
Mike Svetina    6-2    235    Jr.
Eric Finney    6-1    215    Jr.
Comment: This should turn into one of the closest position battles. Finney’s knee injury in early August allowed Svetina to step into a starting role.    

Cornerback
V’Angelo Bentley    5-10    190    Jr.
Darius Mosely    5-11    185    So.
Comment: Both are capable starters. Both will have chances to wrestle the job away from the other. Both will play extensively, regardless of who starts.

Strong safety
Earnest Thomas    6-2    210    Sr.
Taylor Barton    6-1    215    So.
Comment: Thomas is the leading returning tackler after 101 stops last season and a team-best three forced fumbles. Needs to improve on some of his angles in pursuit of the ball.

Free safety
Zane Petty    6-1    200    Sr.
Jevaris Little    6-1    185    So.
Comment: Petty, a former walk-on at Colorado State, started final seven games and finished fourth on team with 75 tackles. Steady player who needs to take a leap in possibly forcing some more turnovers.

Cornerback
Eaton Spence    6-0    185    Jr.
Jaylen Dunlap    6-1    175    So.
Comment: This could be a neck-and-neck battle leading up to the opener. Getting takeaways could prove key in this competition.

Punter
Justin DuVernois    6-1    190    Sr.
Ryan Frain    6-2    220    So.
Comment: Last season, DuVernois punted the fewest times of his three-year career so far. Much had to do with an improved Illinois offense. His 41.1 yards per punt placed him fifth in the Big Ten.

Kickoff returner
V’Angelo Bentley    5-10    190    Jr.
Josh Ferguson    5-10    195    Jr.
Comment: Bentley showed his mettle returning kickoffs last season, averaging 21.4 yards a return, including a 100-yard kickoff return for a TD against Southern Illinois.

Punt returner
V’Angelo Bentley    5-10    190    Jr.
Darius Mosely    5-11    185    So.
Comment: Bentley excelled in this area, too, averaging 15.8 yards a return, including a 67-yard touchdown against Ohio State.

Mark your calendar

Aug. 30 vs. Youngstown State
What to expect: A win. Illinois never has lost to an FCS opponent. The Penguins went 8-4 last fall, fading late after starting 8-1, with the lone loss in that span coming at Michigan State. Former Illinois assistant Eric Wolford doesn’t have Youngstown State to the heights Jim Tressel took the program to, but he will have a talented running back in Martin Ruiz (1,094 rushing yards, 15 touchdowns) returning for his sophomore season.

Sept. 6 vs. Western Kentucky
What to expect: No Bobby Petrino sightings in Champaign. The coach, now in his second stint at Louisville, left the Hilltoppers after one season. Surprise, surprise. The older brother of former Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino guided Western Kentucky to an 8-4 record (no bowl appearance, though) in 2013. Quarterback Brandon Doughty will be back after throwing for 2,857 yards last season, along with ball-hawking cornerback Cam Thomas (five interceptions).

Sept. 13 at Washington
What to expect: Defensive coordinator Tim Banks won’t have to worry about Keith Price and Bishop Sankey. Whew. The Huskies quarterback, who threw for 342 yards and two TDs against Illinois at Soldier Field, finally is out of eligibility. And Sankey, who gashed Illinois’ defense for 208 rushing yards, has declared for the NFL draft. Cyler Miles, the likely QB to replace Price, is quite the talent, however, and could do wonders in coach Chris Petersen’s offense.

Sept. 20 vs. Texas State
What to expect: Texas State’s coach is Dennis Franchione. Yes, that Dennis Franchione. And his offensive coordinator is Mike Schultz. Yes, the same Mike Schultz who coordinated a porous Illinois offense in 2009. The Bobcats finished 6-6 last year, losing their final three. Texas State’s quarterback (Tyler Jones) returns along with a balanced rushing game (Robert Lowe and Chris Nutall combined for 1,422 yards, 15 TDs), but this is a winnable game for the Illini.

Sept. 27 at Nebraska
What to expect: Lots of red in the stands. It’s not uncommon for Illinois to open Big Ten play against teams from the year before. But Illinois will head to Lincoln for the second consecutive season, the first time the Illini will open Big Ten play in the same location against the same foe in consecutive years since Illinois hosted Wisconsin in 1950 and 1951. Won’t matter much to Bo Pelini, who will bring back the Big Ten’s leading rusher in Ameer Abdullah (1,690 yards).

Oct. 4 vs. Purdue
What to expect: Darrell Hazell still searching for his first Big Ten win. Doubtful the Boilermakers will beat Iowa a week prior to arriving in Champaign. But Purdue has won three of its last four games against the Illini at Memorial Stadium, so perhaps the Boilermakers will take the Purdue Cannon back to West Lafayette. This is Illinois’ best bet to get its first Big Ten win in October since 2011, but by no means is it a guaranteed victory for Illinois.

Oct. 11 at Wisconsin
What to expect: Joel Stave handing off to Melvin Gordon. Then Corey Clement. For first downs. And, quite likely, multiple touchdowns. Gary Andersen won’t have Chris Borland to anchor the Badgers’ defense, but Wisconsin will still head into next season with a realistic shot of posting at least nine wins. Safe to assume one of those wins comes at the expense of Illinois, which is 0-4 in its last four trips to Camp Randall.

Oct. 25 vs. Minnesota
What to expect: A homecoming loss. Hate to be a Debbie Downer, but the last three times Illinois has scheduled the Gophers as its homecoming opponent, Minnesota has headed back north with a win. A three-game losing streak to end 2013 overshadowed a fine job Minnesota did in finishing 8-5, the program’s most wins in a decade. Settling on Philip Nelson or Mitch Leidner at quarterback could prove beneficial in keeping Jerry Kill’s program on an upswing.

Nov. 1 at Ohio State
What to expect: A loaded Buckeyes team. With one of the best coaches in the game. Urban Meyer will have to improve his defense if his team wants to be one of the four teams vying for a national title on Jan. 12, 2015, in Dallas. Doesn’t help that talented linebacker Ryan Shazier is heading to the NFL a year early. Braxton Miller coming back is a bonus, and by this point in the season, the Buckeyes will have settled on an every-down back to replace Carlos Hyde.

Nov. 15 vs. Iowa
What to expect: Plenty of black and gold in the Memorial Stadium stands. Hopefully it doesn’t outnumber the orange (like Ohio State did to Illinois two months ago). Kirk Ferentz, the dean of Big Ten coaches, will bring the same type of team he did the last time the Hawkeyes visited Champaign six years ago. A steady defense with a steady quarterback (Jake Rudock) who won’t make too many mistakes and a balanced offensive approach complemented by running back Mark Weisman.

Nov. 22 vs. Penn State
What to expect: A third head coach on the Nittany Lions’ sidelines in as many trips to Champaign for Penn State. Joe Paterno coached his last game at Memorial Stadium in 2009 before Bill O’Brien made his lone appearance in 2012. Now James Franklin is tasked with making sure Penn State, in its final visit to Champaign until 2018, heads back to Happy Valley happy. Having quarterback Christian Hackenberg and running back Bill Belton in place should help that cause.

Nov. 29 at Northwestern
What to expect: Don’t necessarily think both teams will have clinched a bowl berth — nonconference games for the Wildcats include Northern Illinois and Notre Dame — but they both could find themselves on the cusp. It’s not unrealistic for Illinois to have at least five wins before heading to Evanston with the possibility of a sixth victory taking place at Ryan Field. Unless Trevor Siemian dices up the Illinois secondary like he did six weeks ago.

 

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