BY JIM COTTER
The second year of a rebuilding project can be a daunting task. Just ask Fighting Illini coach Tim Beckman, who will look to improve on a team that won just two games last season, while losing 10.
Beckman will have 33 new players on his roster, something that he has never seen happen before.
“This is something that I have not experienced at any level of coaching,” Beckman said. “It’s rare, but it is what we have.”
Bill Cubit takes over the offensive coordinator duties for the Illini, and according to Beckman, that is a step in the right direction.
“I have tremendous respect for Bill and what he can do for this offense,” Beckman said of his new offensive guru.
Last season, Chris Beatty usually called plays on first and second down, while co-offensive coordinator Billy Gonzales would handle the duties on third down. Beckman also had a hand in calling plays on fourth down in certain situations, but is adamant that the play calling duties this year will be handled by Cubit.
“This is Bill’s offense to run, and we have total faith in him to make the right calls,” Beckman said.
Redshirt senior Nathan Scheelhaase begins his final season for the Illini at quarterback, and being the elder statesman at the position, he enters the season as the man to unseat.
Scheelhaase, who was recently married, has had three different offensive coordinators during his time at Illinois, and he said it takes some getting used to, but at the same time, he welcomes the challenge.
“I try not to let that stuff bother me, because you have coaching changes from time to time, and for the most part, the offenses have been similar,” Scheelhaase said.
Counting the coordinator that recruited him — Mike Locksley — and the one that he worked under during his redshirt year, there have been five offensive coordinators that Scheelhaase has been associated with.
The offensive line, which was a major question mark a year ago with all of the inexperience and depth issues, is a year older and with the addition of Corey Lewis — who received a sixth year of eligibility due to several surgeries over the past few years — becomes even stronger as a result.
“Guys like Simon (Cvijanovic), Michael (Heitz), Alex (Hill), and Ted (Karras) have all had a couple years of experience, and that will only strengthen the offensive line,” Lewis said.
Lewis’ situation is a unique one, and it’s not without looking at it with admiration how he has dealt with his injuries over the past several seasons.
“I’m just happy to be able to get back out there and finish my college career,” Lewis said.
When asked if he is concerned that another injury will once again set him back, he simply replied “yeah, you think about it in the back of your mind, but I’m as close to 100% as I’ve been in quite some time, so I really don’t think that it’s an issue.”
Besides Scheelhaase, the rest of the offense returns from last season, and the main concern will be at the wide receiver position, where only Ryan Lankford, Miles Osei and Spencer Harris return. Junior college transfer Martize Barr will give some immediate experience to the receiving corps, and Steve Hull has once again switched positions to the offensive side of the ball. Fritz Rock, Kenny Knight and Devin Church, who all saw action at the position last season, also will be in the mix. Church, who is coming off an injury that cut his season short, is back to full strength and should add some needed speed to the offense.
The running back situation remains unchanged, as junior Donovonn Young will join sophomore Josh Ferguson in the backfield, the same spot that they were last season. Joining them will be sophomore Dami Ayoola, while freshman Kendrick Foster also figures to be in the mix,
The tight end position, a spot that has been underutilized under past offensive coordinators, is well stocked, with seniors Evan Wilson and Tim Russell joining juniors Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse. Cubit, unlike his predecessors, has utilized the tight end position in the past, which should benefit this group greatly.
Defensively, the Illini will look markedly different, as just two seniors return to the unit. Jonathan Brown, who saw his season end prematurely with an injury last season, returns at linebacker to anchor a position that saw two true freshmen see significant playing time last season.
Mike Svetina and Mason Monhein stepped into action due to several injuries at linebacker last season, and filled the void admirably.
Tim Kynard, the lone returnee on the defensive line, will see some new faces next to him this season, as Houston Bates and Austin Teitsma have switched from linebacker to the D-line to help stabilize the inexperience.
“We just want to concentrate on getting better, and even though it will take some time, we plan on getting the job done,” Kynard said. “The defense allowed a lot of points last season, and that is one area that we want to change.”
Special teams remain intact, with Justin DuVernois handling the punting duties, while Taylor Zalewski will assume the kicking duties, with redshirt freshman Ryan Frain battling Zalewski for playing time.