CHAMPAIGN – When you’re a program lacking depth and lacking a recent history of winning, things have to fall right.
Stay away from injuries.
Discover backups who are more capable than suspected.
Have a recruit click earlier than expected.
That’s what Tim Beckman has to be thinking going into the University of Illinois football off-season following Saturday’s spring game.
The 2014 schedule is favorable enough to make the jump from 4-8 to 6-6, but if key players become injured, Illinois doesn’t appear to have the depth to weather that storm.
Here’s how the positions shape up heading into the summer, four-and-a-half months before the season kicks off against Youngstown State:
Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt had a great spring through 14 practices. Then in the 15th – the spring game – he looked pretty ordinary. Because Reilly O’Toole outplayed him in that game, coach Tim Beckman can keep the competition open. That’s what Beckman wants. It keeps internal interest high and he’s probably right because during the course of a season, it’s likely three and even four quarterbacks might line up under center.
Lunt is still the favorite to be the starter Aug. 30 but few quarterbacks get through the entire season without an injury, so O’Toole is important. And there’s a chance offensive coordinator Bill Cubit will have a special package for Aaron Bailey. Beyond that, Josh Ferguson lined up as the wildcat quarterback in the spring game so there’s that possibility as well.
No Illini player is more valuable than tailback Josh Ferguson. He’s the one legitimate home run threat as a ball carrier and pass receiver, the “make ‘em miss” weapon who is so versatile in Cubit’s system. Donovonn Young is back for his senior season and he has to remember that he’s a north-south back who never needs to run parallel to the line of scrimmage.
The emerging back is Devin Church, who Cubit views as a Ferguson clone. “He’s dangerous,” Cubit said. “I really like what I see there.”
Cubit wants to rotate six. It looks like he has four for sure. JC transfer Geronimo Allison is a 6-foot-3 deep threat. Freshman Mike Dudek can do damage in the slot. And then there is Justin Hardee and Martzie Barr.
A surprise in the spring game is walkon Peter Bonahoom, who has good size, good hands and near perfect route-running habits. There’s room for one more, although with Ferguson, Church and versatile tight ends Cubit can make it work. Plus there are two more 6-3 wideout options arriving this summer – Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin’s Malik Turner and JC transfer Tyrin Stone-Davis.
Illinois has two very good ones in Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse and Cubit thinks he has another in Tyler White. Cubit believes tight end is a position of strength.
On paper, Illinois has some solid, experienced players. But it’s depth that concerns the coaching staff.
“We have to find a third tackle, a third guard and a second center,” Cubit said.
Back with experience are Ted Karras, Simon Cvijanovic, Alex Hill, Austin Schmidt and Joe Spencer. Michael Heitz will be a part of the rotation although he was withheld from the spring game due to an injury.
“I look forward to the return of (redshirt freshman) Christian DiLauro,” Cubit said, pointing to another player who sat out the spring game. “He could solve a problem for us. And if Scott McDowell can get past his injury, that could help.”
This is probably the most important position on the team, because opponents ran on Illinois and took advantage of Illinois’ inability to generate a pass rush.
There are some blossoming play-makers, but are they ready to make plays this season? That’s the pressing question.
It looks like Austin Teitsma and Jake Howe are steady in the middle, although defensive coordinator Tim Banks needs more than steady. He needs to have chaos generated by the likes of Teko Powell, Jarrod Clements and Joe Fotu.
There is even less certainty at the defensive end spot. An emerging factor is Dawuane Smoot, who has gained weight and held onto his pass-rushing speed but who also sat out the spring game. Coaches like bursts they see from Paul James III, Kenny Nelson, Dejazz Woods and all eyes will be on incoming JC transfer Jihad Ward, a 6-7, 285-pounder. He arrives this summer.
Gone is play-maker Jonathan Brown, but the most improved defensive player on the team may be taking his place. That’s T.J. Neal. He’s joined by returning starters Mason Monheim and Mike Svetina and Banks would like to get more from Henry Dickinson and Ralph Cooper.
The move of Earnest Thomas III from safety to STAR, brings a hard-hitter closer to the line of scrimmage. Zane Petty is the closest Illinois has to a stud safety and the hope is sophomore Taylor Barton is more prepared to make plays this season. Charleston’s Dillan Cazley is getting work there, too.
The battle at cornerback is crowded with young candidates and Banks is trying to find the ones who play fast while making the fewest mistakes.
Candidates are V’Angelo Bentley, who returned an interception 89 yards for a touchdown in the spring game, Darius Mosely, Jaylen Dunlap and Eaton Spence.