Matt Daniels: UI football Q&A
No, Tim Beckman hasn’t named Wes Lunt — or anyone — his starting quarterback. Yet. But the season is fast approaching (91 days and counting, with summer workouts starting June 9). In two months, a select few players will don suits and ties at the Hilton Chicago, where a mass of media nearing 1,000 will pepper them with questions during a two-day span. In less than three months, Tim Beckman’s team will start preparations for its season opener against Youngstown State. So it’s never too early to assess what could transpire this fall at Memorial Stadium and elsewhere. For that, we turned to beat writer MATT DANIELS to give us the lowdown:
When is Illinois going to name a starting QB?
Whenever Tim Beckman feels like it. Which, given his ability to maneuver around the topic whenever it is broached, may not happen for some time.
He doesn’t have to name one today. Or tomorrow. Or in two days. In fact, he doesn’t have to let anyone know until Wes Lunt, Reilly O’Toole or Aaron Bailey trots out to the first huddle of the season against the Penguins. Based on what the spring revealed — discounting the subpar spring game from Lunt — the first Rochester product to play for Illinois should get the start against Youngstown State.
If you designed a prototypical quarterback for Bill Cubit’s offensive system, Lunt is the ideal choice. His arm strength, accuracy and ability to make all different kinds of throws could open up the Illinois offense even more this fall.
Who are the leaders on offense?
We’ll break this down by position groups. Among the five quarterbacks on the roster — Lunt, O’Toole, Bailey, Chayce Crouch and Man Berg — O’Toole is the one the other four look up to.
“He just made me feel comfortable and a part of the guys with his personality,” Lunt said. “He’s helped me an awful lot with football. If I have questions, he’s a great person to go up to and just ask.”
When it comes to the running backs — Josh Ferguson, Donovonn Young, Devin Church and Kendrick Foster — it’s a mantle the versatile but soft-spoken Ferguson and the opinionated Young will have to both shoulder. How Young responds after a disappointing 2013 season and how he handles his role is an area to watch in the early part of the season because Ferguson is the clear-cut starter.
With the wide receivers, Justin Hardee is the veteran and most experienced of the group. Which might not exactly bode well considering he hasn’t done much to have his name recognized by the casual football fan in his first two seasons. Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse lead the tight ends room, with LaCosse more of an extrovert than the lead-by- example mind-set of Davis.
The offensive line has plenty of options to consider, but one who has emerged this spring is center Alex Hill (check out our section on Father’s Day for more on Hill). This is the most experienced unit on offense, and after two years of trying to find its identity, this is the time for the likely starting five of Hill, left guard Michael Heitz, left tackle Simon Cvijanovic, right guard Ted Karras and right tackle Austin Schmidt to factor into the top half of Big Ten offensive lines.
How’s recruiting going?
All right. Not great. Not terrible. It’s not like the level at which Penn State coach James Franklin is operating (15 commitments), but not at the level of Minnesota, either (Jerry Kill’s program picked up its first commit Friday). Illinois has five commits so far, and three are in-state products: Centennial quarterback Jimmy Fitzgerald, DeKalb running back Dre Brown and Jacksonville offensive lineman Gabe Megginson. All three are generally regarded among the state’s top 20 prospects in the Class of 2015.
This upcoming senior class for high school football in the state isn’t as strong as the Class of 2014, so it’s all the more important to reel in more than just one or two of the state’s top players. Illinois is in good position with several other key in-state players like New Lenox Providence Catholic wide receiver Miles Boykin, Lemont wide receiver Flynn Nagel, Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin offensive tackle Quinn Oseland and Downers Grove North athlete David Edwards. Landing running back Reggie Corbin out of the Washington, D.C., area earlier this week was a nice surprise, and so was Saturday night’s commitment from Adam Solomon, an offensive tackle from Indianapolis who was high on the Illini’s wish list. Don’t be surprised, either, if Illinois lands one or two junior college players in this class, either, based on relationships the coaching staff has built during its time so far at Illinois.
Who are some junior college newcomers and high school recruits who could contribute?
Jihad Ward comes in full of promise. The Philadelphia native who built a solid connection with Cubit — also a Philadelphia guy — during the quick recruitment of the Globe Tech (N.Y.) defensive tackle has the size and skill set to contribute. Right away. His speed and pursuit to the ball stands out during his two seasons at Globe Tech, especially given that he’s a legit 6-foot-6 and 285 pounds. He has a slight disadvantage given that he didn’t go through spring practice to get himself acclimated to the Illinois defense, but his potential is one that has the Illinois coaches excited. If not Ward, watch out for wide receiver Geronimo Allison. The lanky and tall Iowa Western Community College transfer wasn’t quite 100 percent during the spring as he recovered from a broken arm he suffered last November. He wants to add more weight without losing any of his athleticism, which is quite abundant.
Of the 12 high school players Beckman signed, wide receiver Mikey Dudek had an impressive spring after enrolling early. The Neuqua Valley product has a valid chance to find himself starting against Youngstown State given his speed and his quick grasp of the offensive system. Other incoming true freshmen to keep an eye on include defensive end Paul James (originally a Class of 2013 signee before academic issues surfaced) and center Nick Allegretti from Lincoln-Way East. Ideally, Allegretti redshirts, but if injuries hit the offensive line, Allegretti could slide into a backup role.
What about leaders on defense?
This is a bit trickier. Their confidence was beaten down last season after a multitude of struggles in containing the run and the pass. Most of the contributors are back, however, so maybe the coaching staff invested in some tools this offseason that Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones used during “Men in Black.” You know, the kind that erases memories.
Along the defensive line, the affable Austin Teitsma is the one the coaches are counting on. He’s not the most talented player in the Big Ten at his position, but the coaches respect and admire his work ethic. Among the linebackers, two potential candidates could emerge. Mason Monheim is an obvious choice given his extensive playing experience in his first two seasons and his contributions (183 tackles, 121/2 for loss and three forced fumbles). Another one is Earnest Thomas, who is making the move from strong safety to the STAR position, the hybrid linebacker/safety role in which Illinois coaches envision him excelling in helping with run defense. He was a bit exposed at times last season in the secondary. Speaking of the secondary, it’s a mixed bag with V’Angelo Bentley, Eaton Spence and Zane Petty all potential choices to fill that role.
What three players will represent Illinois at Big Ten Media Days?
If it were up to the assembled media that covers Illinois, Lunt, Thomas and Karras would spend time along Michigan Avenue on July 28 and 29. Lunt because he’s likely the starting quarterback. Thomas and Karras because they speak their minds and are opinionated on almost any topic. Plus, they can fill up your notebook pretty fast and are veterans on the team.
Alas, it isn’t up to us about what players make the trip to Chicago. Expect three seniors to sit there and go through the paces of answering hundreds of questions (some of them the same) during a 36-hour window. The Big Ten will announce who is attending a few weeks before the event. When the Illinois contingent is declared, don’t be shocked if LaCosse, Hill and Teitsma are the ones who will represent Illinois.
Illinois has lost 11 straight Big Ten games at home. When’s that streak end?
Soon. Like in the Big Ten home opener against Purdue. Sure, it’s not like beating Michigan State, Michigan or Ohio State (which don’t play in Champaign this season anyway), but it’s a game Illinois must win if it hopes to make a bowl appearance. The Boilermakers return quarterback Danny Etling and all-purpose running back Akeem Hunt, but the offense was stagnant last year while the defense was like a sieve at times. Conversely, Purdue will look at this game against Illinois as one it could win as well and could springboard that victory into increased confidence the rest of the Big Ten slate.
What’s one upset Illinois could pull off?
Washington. Seriously. The Huskies won’t have running back Bishop Sankey (now a Tennessee Titan) or quarterback Keith Price (signed as an undrafted free agent with the Seattle Seahawks), two players who picked apart the Illinois defense last season at Soldier Field. Their new coach, Chris Petersen, is one of the best in the business after going 92-12 in eight seasons at Boise State. But this will be only the third game of Petersen’s tenure in Seattle. Despite all the talent the Huskies will have back (linebacker Jon Timu, defensive end Chris Shirley and wide receiver Kasen Williams, among others), sometimes it takes teams a while to mesh with a new coach on the sidelines. Both schools have to replace quarterbacks who left each program with their names firmly entrenched in the record books.
Although the Illini haven’t had quite the dramatic search to replace Nathan Scheelhaase as Washington has had to replace Price. Cyler Miles, the quarterback projected to start once Price left, was indefinitely suspended following an incident after the Seahawks won the Super Bowl and was only recently reinstated to the team a few weeks ago. The Huskies went through the spring with only two scholarship quarterbacks in Jeff Lindquist and Troy Williams, who have never thrown a pass in a college game, and could turn to highly touted incoming freshman K.J. Carta-Samuels. Just saying, Illinois might have enough to leave Husky Stadium with a victory, even though Illinois sports an 11-21 record on the road against Pac-12 teams.
Will this team go to a bowl game?
Yes. That’s not a confident yes or an emphatic yes. More like a nervous, shaky vote of confidence. With 40 postseason games this year (37 are standalone bowls, two bowl games — the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl — are national semifinal games before the winners meet in the national championship game), Illinois would have to have a repeat of 2013 in order to miss out on a game in December or January. That could still happen. Whenever asked about the 2014 slate, I’ve responded with a 6-6 record for the Illini. Where do the wins come from? Youngstown State, Western Kentucky, Texas State, Purdue, Minnesota and Northwestern. The Minnesota game is the crucial one when it comes to bowl aspirations for Illinois. Kill has put the Gophers in a solid position during his first three seasons, and Minnesota has won four of the last five games in the series.
Is Tim Beckman the coach in 2015?
If he lands Illinois a spot in the Fight Hunger Bowl, Pinstripe Bowl, Music City Bowl, Heart of Dallas Bowl, Armed Forces Bowl, Holiday Bowl, the new Detroit Bowl (it replaces the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl but hasn’t come up with a more distinct name), the Capital One Bowl, the Outback Bowl or the TaxSlayer Bowl (formerly the Gator Bowl), then yes. If Illinois doesn’t wind up in one of those postseason games (don’t get your hopes up about a possible spot in one of the two national semifinal games), then the issue gets a little more dicey.
Anything less than six wins won’t have the fan base happy and will force athletic director Mike Thomas to make some decisions that may not sit well with certain people. If Illinois finishes 5-7 and is competitive in all of its games (a trait definitely not seen in Beckman’s first year, but one that was improved upon a bit last fall), that could be enough for Beckman to keep his job. Anything 4-8 or worse, however, and it’s likely that Illinois will have a new coach by the time the 2015 season opens against Kent State.