#44 Illinois Football 2012 Preview

Illinois Fighting Illini

2012 Overall Rank: #44
#7 Big Ten Conference
Illinois College Football 2012 Team Preview
Illinois Team Page


Illinois started the 2011 campaign 6-0. The schedule got tougher during their 0-6 finish, but the offense also pretty much fell apart. The Fighting Illini failed to score more than two touchdowns in any game during that stretch. This was a team that put up 38 points against Northwestern and 41 at Indiana before the dreary winter hardships set in. The poor finish, which did end up in a bowl win over UCLA in perhaps the most pointless bowl of all time, cost Coach Ron Zook his job. Illinois brought in former Toledo head man Tim Beckman. Coach Beckman had some great offenses with the Rockets and that could eventually be the case here.

2011 Record: (7-6, 2-6)
2011 Bowl: Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl vs. UCLA (W 20-14)
Coach: Tim Beckman (First year at Illinois, 21-16 overall)
Offensive Coordinator: Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales
Defensive Coordinator: Tim Banks

Returning Leaders:
Rushing: Nathan Scheelhaase, QB, 624 yards
Passing: Nathan Scheelhaase, QB, 2,110 yards
Receiving: Spencer Harris, WR, 226 yards
Tackles: Jonathan Brown, LB, 108
Sacks: Michael Buchanan, 7.5
Interceptions: Terry Hawthorne, CB, 3

Other Key Returnees: TE Jon Davis, DT Glenn Foster, OT Michael Heitz, S Steve Hull, WR Darius Millines, C Graham Pocic, S Supo Sanni, DT Akeem Spence, G Hugh Thornton, RB Donovonn Young

Key Losses: OT Jeff Allen, G Jack Cornell, K Derek Dimke, RB Jason Ford, LB Trulon Henry, DE Whitney Mercilus, RB Troy Pollard, LB Ian Thomas, CB Tavon Wilson

While the offense was struggling, the defense kept the Illini in games. The unit ranked seventh in the nation in total defense and could be just as good this year even with the change in regime. The strength stems from the front four. Whitney Mercilus left early for the NFL, but that will not matter much. End Michael Buchanan is ready to take over a starring role after tallying 7.5 sacks last season. With veteran run stuffers Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster in the middle of the line, Illinois has good reason to be excited about their defense. The linebackers lose more talent and depth, most notably Trulon Henry and Ian Thomas. However, Jonathan Brown and his 108 tackles will move to the middle of the unit. The rest of the unit is relatively young, but big things are expected from Houston Bates. Cornerback Terry Hawthrone flirted with the idea of entering the NFL, but will instead lead the Illini secondary. He is a superb corner and is coming off of a huge game in Illinois’ bowl victory. Losing Tavon Wilson may sound like a problem, but senior Justin Green has been in the starting lineup plenty of times and can handle the job opposite of Hawthorne. Both safeties also return and Steve Hull is a good one. Supo Sanni spent much of his offseason injured, but there are some options for Coach Beckman if Sanni is not ready to go.

The offense is where things get interesting. There are losses, some big losses, but there are also some talented young players and an entirely new system. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has been an enigma during his two seasons as the Illini starter. At times he has played great and other times he all but disappears. The concern for Scheelhaase is that Coach Beckman ran a two quarterback system at Toledo. It was not a quarterback battle…it was just two quarterbacks moving in and out of the game. With the running ability of Scheelhaase and the arm of sophomore Reilly O’Toole, the same thing could happen at Illinois. At running back Jason Ford and Troy Pollard are gone, but their replacements are already in place. Donovonn Young finished his freshman campaign strong and is a big back who found the end zone six times last season. Redshirt freshman Josh Ferguson is expected to be the lightning to Young’s thunder. Illinois also lost their best receiver in A.J. Jenkins. He caught 90 passes for 1,276 yards and eight touchdowns. Next on the list last year was Spencer Harris and his 26 catches for 226 yards. Harris is a big target at 6-3, but the quarterbacks will also be looking at speedster Darius Millines and fellow junior Ryan Lankford. Tight ends Evan Wilson and Jon Davis are also proven targets. There may not be a Jenkins in that group, but there is plenty of talent.

The Bottom Line:
Picking up the new offense quickly will be important and Coach Beckman using what he has instead of changing everything in one summer will also go a long way in determining the success of this team. Assuming the defense is solid again, the pressure lies on the offense and their ability to play consistently. As much as the skill players are to blame for the six game losing streak, Scheelhaase rarely had time to do anything. The offensive line returns three starters and has a new sense of pride with the hiring of Luke Butkus as their line coach. Getting a Butkus or two on the line would be nicer, but a Butkus as coach cannot hurt either. If the line holds, the offense could be more like what we saw in the beginning of the 2011 season and less like what we saw at the end.

Projected Bowl: Gator Bowl

2011 Team Stats:
Rushing Offense: 171.69 (41st in nation, 6th in conference)
Passing Offense: 184.00 (91, 7)
Total Offense: 355.69 (85, 9)
Scoring Offense: 22.62 (91, 9)
Rushing Defense: 123.85 (26, 2)
Pass Defense: 162.31 (3, 1)
Total Defense: 286.15 (7, 2)
Scoring Defense: 19.62 (15, 5)
Turnover Margin: -.46 (95, 11)
Sacks: 3.15 (6, 1)
Sacks Allowed: 2.77 (102, 10)