BY JIM COTTER email@example.com
---- — CHAMPAIGN — Hopefully, the third time is the charm.
University of Illinois Fighting Illini head coach Tim Beckman began his third year on Saturday with the annual Spring game at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, and there are still a lot of questions that need to be answered leading up to the start of the 2014 season.
Leading up to the spring game, the team held a draft to divide the teams. Quarterback Wes Lunt was the first player selected by a group of seniors on the Blue team that included fellow signal caller Reilly O’Toole. Running back Josh Ferguson was the first player taken by the Orange squad.
The Blue team won handily, defeating the Orange team 38-7, as O’Toole fired a couple of first quarter touchdown passes, one to Kevin Carroll for 10 yards and another to Justin Hardee for 25 yards.
Perhaps the most talked about topic throughout the spring practice sessions was the quarterback battle between Lunt, O’Toole and Aaron Bailey. While Beckman is reluctant to name a starter for the season just yet, it appears that the job is Lunt’s to lose. However, according to Beckman, all three have played well during the spring season.
“I thought Reilly started out good throwing the football, and Aaron did a good job of running the football early, and it definitely shows what he’s capable of doing”, Beckman said after the game. “(Lunt) probably didn’t have as good of a game as I’ve seen Wes play before, mainly because he didn’t get into the game early on. He (Lunt) played the second and fourth quarters, and I didn’t factor in the decision of that move, because I probably would have rotated him and Reilly every other series”.
Offensively, Ferguson led the Orange team in rushing with 61 yards on 11 carries, while Bailey, who does his best work from an option standpoint, carried the ball 14 times for 16 yards, including a 2 yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
Defensively, there are still a lot of questions to be answered, specifically in the secondary, which, according to Beckman, still is an issue.
“We gave up several deep balls to receivers today, and those plays need to be made, no question about it”, Beckman said, referring to his defensive unit.
Another concern of Beckman’s continues to be the offensive line, and the lack of depth at the various positions.
“The offensive line continues to strive to find depth, because we don’t have enough depth up front, and some of the twos and threes are going to have to step up”, Beckman noted after the game. Beckman went on to add regarding the defensive line that “the guys on the defensive front need to do much better at pass rushing, which continues to be an issue as well”.
O’Toole had a good day passing the football, completing 12 of 17 passes for 126 yards and the two touchdown passes.
“It was fun out there today, showcasing a little bit of what we have been working on, and also knowing that you still have things that you need to continue to tweak as summer workouts approach”, O’Toole said of his performance in the game.
Lunt isn’t surprised that a starter hasn’t yet been named, but hopes to be the one that Beckman anoints once a decision is made.
“I want to be the starter, and I need to continue working on routes in summer workouts with the receivers, and we’ll just see where it goes from there”, Lunt said of the ongoing quarterback battle.
One bright spot on defense in the game was an 89 yard interception return for a touchdown by V’Angelo Bentley. Bentley showed flashes of brilliance last season, including several deep kick returns and a punt return for a touchdown. Bentley also saw a couple looks on offense as a running back, proving the offensive mind of coordinator Bill Cubit is always looking to shake things up on his side of the football.
Cubit was asked to assess how the offense played, and his response was nothing short of expected.
“We played sloppy, and there were some factors that determined that, from Mikey (Dudek) and Matt (LaCosse) not being able to play, to quite a few dropped passes that should have been caught”, Cubit said of his offense’s performance.
As the Illini head into the summer portion of the workout regimen, there is still a lot of work to be done in order for Beckman to reach his attainable goal of six wins and a return to a postseason bowl berth. Illinois begins its quest for that goal on August 30, when they will take on Youngstown State at Memorial Stadium.
Jim Cotter is a freelance writer for the Commercial-News, and can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org