Illinois football Head Coach Tim Beckman opened practice to all students on Sunday night as a preview of the team before the season opener on Saturday against Southern Illinois. Students were provided with pizza and bottled water and allowed on the field as the Illini went through their upper-pad walkthrough. After practice, members of Block I, the number 5 ranked student section in America, were given an opportunity to kick a field goal with the prize of having their season tickets paid for by Coach Beckman.
Illinois, coming off a disappointing 2-win 2012 campaign, is looking to regain relevance in the Big Ten conference this fall. After finishing dead last in the Big Ten in scoring offense last season, the U of I brought in Bill Cubit to be the offensive coordinator, replacing the two-coordinator system implemented by Beckman last season. Led by Cubit and senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, there is little doubt that the Fighting Illini offense should outperform last season’s failed experiment.
Defensively, Illinois has some holes to fill in its secondary and on the defensive line. Paul James III, Beckman’s top recruit of 2013, will likely get the chance to prove himself early, and freshman safety Samuel Harlib impressed on Sunday night. 2013 will be a rebuilding season for Beckman’s Illini, with many young players likely to step in and gain some experience.
At this point, Illinois’s strength appears to be in its linebacking corps, led by Mike Svetina and Mason Monheim. Also, the return of Scheelhaase, tailback Donovonn Young, and receivers Miles Osei and Ryan Lankford provide some spark on offense, provided that the team’s biggest weakness, the offensive line, can give them time and space to work with. The line was consistently beaten badly in practice on Sunday and needs to improve before facing Big Ten front sevens.
Any schedule becomes easier when your toughest opponents come to your place, but in the case of the Illini, facing Wisconsin and Michigan State in back-to-back weeks in any location is a tough order. Even without powerhouse Michigan on the docket, the Big Ten schedule looks stacked against Illinois.
In the midst of rebuilding, fans, players, and those in charge must buy into a system for it to eventually work, and this team is young, energetic, they hold each other accountable, and are up to the task. Don’t be surprised if the Fighting Illini pull off an upset or two this fall. I predict wins against Southern Illinois, Miami (OH), and at Penn State for a final record of 3-9.