Spring (practice) is here!

Spring (practice) is here!

The week started with a snow-covered playing surface at Memorial Stadium.

Bone-chilling temperatures. Not exactly spring-like conditions.

“It’s really cold out,” quarterback Wes Lunt said with a laugh. “I thought we’d get out of winter by now.”

Not so fast, even though Tim Beckman’s third team is about to start spring practices. In fact, by the time you finish your first cup of coffee this morning, chances are Lunt, Aaron Bailey and Reilly O’Toole have already worked on taking snaps and completing passes. The Illini will hit Irwin Indoor Facility early this morning, with a 7 a.m. practice scheduled. Who will fill voids created from the departures of Nathan Scheelhaase, Steve Hull, Jonathan Brown and others is already on. Beat writer MATT DANIELS takes a look at five positional groups worth monitoring between now and the spring game on April 12.

QB derby

One talking point Beckman will stick to numerous times before the season opens Aug. 30 against Youngstown State is this: his starting quarterback played high school football in Illinois.

Unless Ohio native and early enrollee Chayce Crouch surprises everyone this spring, either Lunt (Rochester), Bailey (Bolingbrook) or O’Toole (Wheaton Warrenville South) will start against the Penguins.

Lunt has added 15 pounds to his frame since transferring from Oklahoma State last June, and the 6-foot-5 redshirt sophomore said the added weight is a benefit.

“I do think it’s helped,” he said. “I needed to gain weight, and that was a big emphasis when I got here.”

Beckman and offensive coordinator Bill Cubit remain coy about when they will name a starter. Based on his success — when he wasn’t dealing with injuries — at Oklahoma State in 2012 and the type of offense Illinois runs, the consensus is Lunt will win the job.

Lunt isn’t paying attention to any of that discussion.

“I’m just excited to get out there and run the offense,” he said. “Last year I was running the scout team, so for me ... the best way to learn is to be out there every day.”

Wideout competition

If someone would have mentioned last year at this time that Steve Hull would come within a quick slant route of becoming the sixth Illinois wideout to reach 1,000 receiving yards in a season, eye-rolling would ensue.

Hull emerged in the second half of last season, finishing with 993 yards. So, who is the next Hull?

Perhaps Justin Hardee. The Cleveland native hasn’t exactly seen the field much in his first two seasons, but he showed flashes during the dismal offensive season that was 2012. The junior is one of only two wideouts Illinois has who has actually caught more than one pass at Illinois. His career numbers (28 catches for 287 yards) nearly mirror what Martize Barr — the other receiver to fit the above description — did last year in his first season (26 catches for 246 yards).

Despite all the newcomers Illinois has brought in at this position, Hardee could fill one of those roles vacated by Hull, Miles Osei, Spencer Harris and Ryan Lankford.

“Last spring I did a lot of learning from the older guys,” Hardee said. “This spring it’s different because I’m the older guy. I’ve got to step up and be a leader and carry on the tradition.”

Offensive line stability

These guys don’t have to search out places to eat on campus. They already know the preferred spots.

Which is good since, well, offensive linemen need to be, well, big.

And flexible. Yes, flexible.

“We’ve all been working on flexibility, which is always key for linemen in getting their hips right,” Ted Karras said. “I’ve reworked my stance a little bit to be a little more square. I think we’re all taking an interest in doing a little bit better pass setting so we can protect a little bit longer and keep the pocket wider as far as interior guys.”

Karras will return for his third season as the starting right guard. He knows most of his fellow starters, too.

Left tackle Simon Cvijanovic, left guard Michael Heitz and center Alex Hill all return. The only spot that won’t have a returning starter back is at right tackle. But frontrunner Austin Schmidt spelled Corey Lewis at times last season.

Returning the same offensive system Illinois employed last year is another bonus to the behemoths along the line.

“This is the first spring that I’ve been a part of that we actually had the offense from the fall to the spring,” Karras said. “That makes a world of difference. There’s no real big install or memorization. You’re just rolling with it. We’re going to hone in on some things. With all the same calls and all the same plays, it feels really good.”

Defensive improvement

One area hasn’t changed with Mason Monheim since the 2013 season ended. His full beard and long brown hair are still in place.

“Letting it go and letting the locks flow,” Monheim said with a laugh. “I’m just letting it rage right now.”

Enraged is how most Illinois fans felt after watching the defense struggle mightily last fall. Monheim, who is the second-leading tackler returning for the Illini after he made 97 stops last year, knows the defense has to improve this season. The alternative isn’t pretty.

“I want to emphasize on running to the ball and getting to the ball with high intensity this spring,” Monheim said. “Out there in a game, bad things are going to happen. People are going to miss tackles and have bad reads, but it’s going to be the next guy going to the ball who’s going to have to make that play and the next guy and the next guy. After a while, if an offense sees a defense crashing to the ball every single play, it gets a little demoralizing. That’s what I want to do individually and have that carry over to the rest of the defense.”

Take that stat away

V’Angelo Bentley is the answer to a not-so-flattering trivia question regarding last year’s team.

Who was the only Illinois cornerback to have an interception?

The Cleveland native scooped up his lone interception late in the win at Purdue last November. Jonathan Brown and safety Taylor Barton had the only other interceptions for the Illini last year, which left Beckman’s defense tied with Texas El-Paso, Kentucky, Temple and Utah for fewest interceptions in the country. Ouch.

Bentley, Eaton Spence, Darius Mosely, Jaylen Dunlap and Caleb Day are all cornerbacks Illinois could employ next fall. All bring back at least one season of starting experience or have seen the field for significant portions during Big Ten play.

“We’re definitely focused on takeaways,” Bentley said. “I’m a guy that plays corner, so I want an interception on every play. There’s a big emphasis on that. We have a great offense, so we want to get the ball back to them so they can make plays. We want to be the defense that can get them the ball back at any situation and get the offense out of tough situations.”


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