I began by taking a broad overview of the Illinois program, what it has done over the last five years and what that might tell us about what the Illini will do this season.
Two weeks ago, I scanned the 2012 Illinois offense and how it projects.
Last week, I looked at the 2012 Illinois defense and how it is shaping up.
This week, I'll look at the Fighting Illinis' specialists, recruiting class and schedule, and I'll give a final breakdown and my prediction for Illinois in 2012.
Last season, Illinois had lousy special teams.
The place kicker, Derek Dimke, did fine, but he exhausted his eligibility. That leaves a slew of untested, unproven sophomores and freshmen to fill the role. Unfortunately, according to the Big Ten Network's unofficial stats, Illinois placekickers went 1-for-4 in the spring game, missing two field goals and one extra point.
Dimke also had the second-highest touchback percentage in the conference. In other words, he'll be missed.
Meanwhile, the punter returns, but it's questionable whether that's a good thing.
Now-junior Justin DuVernois had the second-worst punting average in the Big Ten—84 out of 94 nationally—with 38.28 yards-per-punt (YPP). This led to his being benched for the final two games in favor of receiver Ryan Lankford, who was nominally better—39.42 YPP.
Currently, DuVernois and Lankford remain the top two punters.
The return game was also an issue. Illinois ranked last in the Big Ten in both punt and kick returns. Nationally, the Illini were last in the country in kickoff returns and third-to-last in punt returns.
Both of Illinois' top punt returners—Lankford and cornerback Terry Hawthorne—are back, as are three experienced kick returners—Hawthorne, utility man Miles Osei and receiver Darius Millines—but both jobs likely belong to Northern Illinois-transfer Tommy Davis (per ESPN).
Davis will be eligible immediately, due to the NCAA graduate transfer rule with which Wisconsin has had recent success. Nobody is going to mistake Davis for Devin Hester, but he should provide a significant upgrade to Illinois' current pool of return men.
2012 Recruiting Class
Rivals ranked Illinois' class 10th in the Big Ten while Scout ranked it dead last. This is off for the Illini, but that had to be expected during a coaching transition. All things considered, Beckman did a good job of holding onto recruits.
Illinois signed 19 recruits in the class, which was especially heavy in defensive backs/receivers. The Illini signed eight players who could wind up at safety, cornerback or wide receiver.
A freshman who could see immediate playing time is running back Dami Ayoola. As mentioned in the offensive breakdown, Beckman likes to rotate his running backs and, with only two experienced backs, Ayoola has room to make a splash.
Ayoola is listed at 5'10", 201 pounds, which means he is the most physically ready of Illinois' running back recruits. Moreover, he had an impressive offer sheet, though Rivals and Scout only gave him three stars. He chose the Illini over Auburn, Notre Dame, Iowa and Wisconsin, among others.
Indianapolis kicker Ryan Frain will also have a shot to immediately get on the field. As previously mentioned, Illinois has an opening in the kicking department and, when college football programs offer kickers scholarships, they expect immediate returns.
Lastly, Cleveland's Lakeith Walls will come into camp as a 6'3", 185-pound athlete. He could wind up at running back, receiver, in the defensive backfield or as a linebacker if he puts on a lot of weight. Nevertheless, offenses like Beckman's value versatility above all else and, if Walls demonstrates that he can be trusted with the ball, he could see immediate playing time as an offensive utility man.
A pound sign (#) indicates must-win for Illinois.
An exclamation point (!) indicates a probable loss.
A dollar sign ($) indicates a swing game.
09/01: Western Michigan Broncos #
09/08: At Arizona State Sun Devils $
09/15: Charleston Southern Buccaneers (FCS) #
09/22: Louisiana Tech Bulldogs #
09/29: Penn State Nittany Lions $
10/06: At Wisconsin Badgers !
10/13: At Michigan Wolverines !
10/27: Indiana Hoosiers #
11/03: At Ohio State Buckeyes !
11/10: Minnesota Golden Gophers #
11/17: Purdue Boilermakers $
11/24: At Northwestern Wildcats $
In order for this to happen, Illinois needs:
- Nathan Scheelhaasse to figure it out and play with consistency. He doesn't need to be as good as he was during the 6-0 start to 2011. However, he needs to be closer to that than he was during the 0-6 end-of-season slide, and he needs to maintain that level throughout the year.
- Playmakers to pop up amongst the running backs and receivers. Scheelhaasse can't do it alone.
- Much improved special teams and a defense that takes to its new, less-aggressive philosophy.
In order for this to happen, Illinois needs:
- The defensive personnel to have issues with the new philosophy. This won't cause the D to fall apart, but it will leave a potential top-25 scoring defense ranked somewhere in the middle of the conference and the country.
- Scheelhaasse to continue to struggle with inconsistency, which leads to a quarterback carousel. This leads to an uncertain, inconsistent offense.
- Continued poor special teams play.
The Season Will Be a Success If...
The Illini win seven games and play consistently throughout the season.
With this schedule, seven games is more than realistic.
Arizona State is the only tough out-of-conference contest. Furthermore, ASU returns only four players on each side of the ball and is experiencing its own coaching change (per ESPN). Frankly, if the game were in Champaign, it would be a "must-win" for Illinois.
The Illini conference slate misses two of the three best teams in the Western Division. The conference road slate is a beast, and it is unlikely Illinois will do better than 1-3 on the road. Nevertheless, there are no teams on the conference home slate that can match the Illini player-for-player.
One has to account for the coaching transition, but if Beckman were in his second or third year at the helm, I'd call Illinois one of the two favorites to win the Eastern Division.
As it stands, Illinois is a dark horse, but anything less than seven wins has to be considered a disappointment this season.
As an Iowa Hawkeye fan, I've been dreading the (inevitable) firing of Ron Zook. Though Zook was a great recruiter, he was such a lousy coach that it made it easy for Iowa to poach recruits from the Land of Lincoln.
Now, Zook is gone, and that means a new head man will have a chance to wake the sleeping giant that is the University of Illinois football program.
Time will tell if Beckman is the coach to do it, but he is a substantial step up from the Zooker. He's put together a strong, young, hungry staff, and he has a nice pool of talent with which to work.
Add to that a favorable schedule, and Beckman will step into a nice situation.
I have Illinois going 8-4 in Beckman's first season, with the Illini getting swept in their conference road slate. That includes an upset loss to Northwestern which, according to my prognostications, will be playing for its postseason life on Nov. 24.
That said, I have Illinois as my Big Ten dark horse pick. If the Illini can win the games they're supposed to—that includes Northwestern—and can pull an unlikely road upset against Wisconsin, they will have a chance of representing the East in the Big Ten Conference Championship.
This, of course, is predicated on Ohio State being out of the race and Penn State being ineligible and heading for a rough first year (aside from all the off-the-field issues) for first-year head coach Bill O'Brien.
Either way, at 8-4, Illinois is my surprise pick in the Big Ten this season.
Check out past installments of 2012 Big Ten Breakdown, beginning with the most recent, the Iowa Hawkeyes.