1. With the regular season over, has Illinois met or failed expectations?
Illinois did not meet expectations this season. The previous two years saw two bowl wins – granted, those bowls weren’t prestigious – but it was the first time in school history such a feat was accomplished.
Ron Zook was fired predominately because of his conference record (11-21 his last four years). So, Tim Beckman was brought in to improve conference standing and to attempt to take the program from hovering around .500 and playing in lower tier bowls to the next level.
Struggles were expected. There is always a learning curve and some growing pains when a new coach takes over. But Beckman’s first year, for lack of a better term, was a disaster.
The teams finished 2-10, with the combined score in losses a staggering 378-132. There were no conference wins (0-8). There were embarrassing road losses – Arizona State (45-14), Michigan (45-0), Ohio State (52-22) and Northwestern (50-14).
Losses to other middling teams in the conference – Minnesota, Purdue and Indiana – showed how far the program has slipped.
2. What one player has made the difference this season?
Two players deserve mention: rover Ashante Williams and linebacker Mason Monheim.
A senior with an up-and-down past, Williams led the team in tackles (61.5) and provided two of the biggest highlights on the year, returning both an interception (versus Western Michigan) and fumble (against Ohio State) for a touchdown.
While Williams will be sorely missed next season, Monheim is a player the Illini will build around for the foreseeable future. Starting 11 games as a freshman, Monheim finished with a team second-best 59.5 tackles. He added 1.5 sacks, an interception, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. A model student and excellent spokesman, Monheim, if not already, should grow into a leader in the offseason.
3. What are the key improvements that need to be made in the offseason?
Given the disparity in those 10 losses, the staff has a lot of work to do this offseason. Athletic director Mike Thomas has been clear – he’s sticking with Beckman, giving the coach at least one more year to get the program turned in the right direction.
Offensively, Beckman and his staff need to get on the same page and establish an identity. Far too often this year the offense came out in games with a new look and new personnel packages. There was no foundation ever set, so nothing was ever built upon. The unit could put together an early drive or two, but as games wore on and defenses figured out what was going on, there seemed to be no adjustments in the bag.
Defensively, the numbers weren’t pretty either, but I feel that side of the ball caught a bad rep due to offensive issues. Numerous times the defense was put in a bad position due to poor field position or turnovers on offense.
I’m not saying the defense played well or even average – the unit didn’t create enough turnovers and gave up far too many big plays. But the offense made it tough on it’s counterpart at every possible turn.
4. What has been the dominant headline of the regular season?
Injuries and a lack of depth made it hard to properly identify problems within the program. Was the lack of offensive identity due to injuries to starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and key contributors Jon Davis, Darius Millines and Josh Ferguson? Did the defense wear down and give up big plays in the second half of games due to an overwhelming lack of depth (made even worse by countless injuries)?
The answer to those two questions is probably so. Illinois players missed a total of 82 games due to injury, according to Beckman. That’s staggering, and in my opinion makes it difficult to properly evaluate performance.
Could have, would have, should have doesn’t have a place in football. But let’s be serious – the amount of injuries that hit the team this year was ridiculously unfair.
A telling stat: Opponents outscored Illinois by an average of 17-7 in the second half of games. Contrast that to the first half of games, where opponents outscored the Illini by less than seven, and you could make the case that this team didn’t have enough manpower to stay in games.
5. If the recruiting class stays intact, what are your expectations for next season?
It’s tough to say, but considering what the team is losing to graduation and what happened this past season, it’s hard to look at the 2013 schedule and feel good.
The offense returns nine starters, so that’s a plus. But the team needs more playmakers at wide receiver, more threats to gain chunk yardage. The offensive line loses two seniors in Graham Pocic and Hugh Thornton and didn’t play well in 2012. The quarterback situation needs to improve, too. Scheelhaase may have to fight to keep his job. Rising junior Reilly O’Toole, a pro-style guy, played well in moments and highly regarded freshman Aaron Bailey will be in the mix as well.
More importantly, a few offensive assistants could be on the way out the door. If that comes to fruition, Beckman needs to make splash hires and establish a philosophy on that side of the ball.
Defensively, the unit loses eight starters via graduation and could lose more depending on what juniors Akeem Spence and Jonathan Brown decide about the NFL.
Some young players like Monheim, Earnest Thomas, Eaton Spence, Darrius Caldwell, Mike Svetina and V’Angelo Bentley saw a lot of playing time. Those guys have to have a big offseason because there’s going to be a lot of holes to fill in a unit that didn’t play very well to begin with.
There’s a lot of work to do to take steps forward, but in all honestly, next season can’t be worse than 2012. Right?