By Sam Kienzle
Everything seemed to be going so well for former Illinois football coach Ron Zook. After defending himself amidst the constant pressure that follows a few consecutive losing seasons, Zook’s team finally delivered a positive year in 2010 with a 6-6 regular-season record and a win over Baylor in the Texas Bowl. The momentum of a revival season continued to build in 2011, with the Illini marching out to a 6-0 record.
In that span of six victories: wins over #22 Arizona State at home and a shootout with arch rival Northwestern. Illinois fans were surely thinking a big-time bowl game had to be in their future. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and wide receiver A.J. Jenkins were unstoppable. The Illini defense, led by end Whitney Mercilus, was as stout as any in the conference. The next week, after a rousing demolition at Indiana, the Illini found themselves ranked heading into a home showdown against Ohio State.
Then, something happened after a deflating 17-7 loss to the Buckeyes. The team started losing. The offense fell apart, averaging 11.0 points per game on the way to six straight losses. The hopelessness of a team spiraling down the drain turned to ugliness and nausea after losing to still-rebuilding Minnesota for the second year in a row, 27-7, in the season finale. Despite beating a disappointing UCLA team in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, Zook’s time in Champaign was over. In fact, neither he or former UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel had an opportunity to coach their respective teams in the bowl game.
KEY ADDITIONS: Talk about your true key addition, that would be new Illinois head coach Tim Beckman. Beckman comes in from Toledo of the Mid American Conference. While at Toledo, Beckman went 5-7 in his first year (2009) before going 8-5 in 2010 and 9-4 in 2011. In his last two years, the Rockets had a combined 14-2 conference record and MAC West Division championship in 2011.
KEY LOSSES: Defensive end Whitney Mercilus is gone after leading the nation in sacks (16.0) in 2011, declaring for the NFL draft after his junior season. Also gone are cornerback Tavon Wilson and linebacker Ian Thomas. Their losses will be felt, as Illinois’ scoring defense ranked 15th best in the nation in 2011.
Wide receiver A.J. Jenkins’ productivity essentially mirrored Illinois’ first-half and second-half records in 2011. In the first half of the 2011 season, Jenkins grabbed 7 touchdowns and had four 100-yard receiving games. In the second half, Jenkins only had one 100-yard receiving game and zero touchdowns. Still, his productivity in the first half of the season helped the team reach a bowl game, and he was second only to Iowa’s Marvin McNutt in receiving yards in the Big Ten.
WHO DELIVERS IN 2012: The wide receivers and tight ends. Though quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is learning a new system under Tim Beckman, he’s still athletic enough and smart enough to launch the rock effectively. Junior wide receivers Spencer Harris and Darius Millines should fill the void left by A.J. Jenkins. Both got good experience and shook off their “green” while working under Jenkins last season. Junior tight end Evan Wilson is 6’6” and 250 pounds. He caught three touchdowns on only 9 receptions. Scheelhaase is working behind three returning offensive linemen, which bodes well for pass protection.
WHO WILL NOT: All returning rushers after Scheelhaase and the newly departed. Scheelhaase led the team in rushing yards and carries last year. Already, that is not something a head coach wants to see. Gone are second and third-leading rushers Jason Ford and Troy Pollard, who combined for over a thousand yards and 9 touchdowns. By no means is the possibility of rushing efficacy ruled out under fourth and fifth-leading rushers Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson, but both accounted for little over a fifth of last year’s rushing totals. Young had the majority of their combined yards (Young: 451 yards, Ferguson: 52, rest of team: 1729 yards) and all of the touchdowns (6). New faces have to emerge (perhaps true freshman Dami Ayoola), especially if Young gets hurt. It is unlikely that Ferguson (5’10”, 185 lbs.) can handle the workload with his size.
PREDICTIONS: Unless you’re Urban Meyer or Brady Hoke, first-year coaches typically don’t blast right out of the gates. Meyer did in his first year at Florida, going 9-3. Hoke went 11-2 at Michigan. Those are exceptions, however. A new scheme at Illinois won’t be the only thing holding the team back in terms of winning. The schedule is also deceptively challenging. The Illini open against Western Michigan at home, a team that barely lost to Purdue in the Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl last year. The Illini then travel west to hot Tempe, Arizona, to take on Arizona State. Despite a new coach at ASU (Todd Graham, formerly of Pittsburgh), Tempe is a difficult place to play, especially when the game kicks off at 10:30 p.m. CST. The Illini then return to host Charleston Southern and Louisiana Tech. And LA Tech is no laughing stock. The team went 8-5 last season and 6-1 in the Western Athletic Conference. The team must also travel to Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State, and Northwestern. Aye caramba! Given the newness of the staff, the beefy mid-major non-conference schedule, and the road schedule, this team’s ceiling sits at 5 or 6 wins. Six wins and a bowl invitation would be a huge success.