Illinois football quarterly report
The Illini sit at 2-1 one quarter of the way through their season. It’s somewhat of a surprise, and we’ve established this team is clearly different than the 2012 rendition. As Illinois heads to its first of two bye weeks, now’s as good a time as any to take a look at how the team’s done so far.
It seems Reilly O’Toole has been bounced from the regular offensive rotation, and that’s a good thing. Tim Beckman and Co. know that O’Toole deserves to play college football, but it doesn’t make sense for him to take away possessions from Nathan Scheelhaase, who has been on fire this season. Scheelhaase has 902 yards and eight touchdowns, and has already hit 13 different receivers. He’s also limited turnovers, with just two interceptions and no lost fumbles. He struggled with accuracy against Washington, completing just nine of 25 passes for 156 yards. The Huskies had committed extra defensive backs to cause this, and Scheelhaase hit them in the second half with designed quarterback runs. Freshman Aaron Bailey has yet to throw a pass but has been effective running in short-yardage situations.
Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson haven’t performed up to expectations in the young season. Combined, they have 57 rushes for 253 yards for an average of 4.4 yards per carry. Ferguson has had more success, accruing 125 yards on just 22 carries, but Young had his best game against Washington. His 58 yards don’t really stand out, but coming on 13 carries, it was his most consistent effort yet.
Ferguson has supplanted Young as the go-to pass-catching back, having proven himself dangerous with seven catches for 185 yards and two touchdowns. Meanwhile, Young caught his first pass of the season against Washington and was stopped for no gain. Young led the Illini in receptions in 2012.
Dami Ayoola, who saw limited action in 2012, was kicked off the team after Week 1.
This position has been the lifeblood of Bill Cubit’s rejuvenated offense. Steve Hull and Miles Osei were dormant playmakers for Illinois last season. Hull’s conversion from safety has fulfilled the objective of keeping him healthy thus far and has also added another pair of hands. Osei’s conversion from quarterback has kept a supreme athlete from being buried on the depth chart and brought him to the forefront as a threat to catch and even to throw on a trick play situation as he did against Washington.
Martize Barr, a junior college transfer, has been sensational for Illinois, and his 10 catches lead the team. Not to be outshined, however, is Ryan Lankford, the No. 1 receiver on a team that thrives by spreading it around. He’s proved himself to be a big play threat unlike any other on the roster.
The tight ends have proven valuable as well, with Jon Davis acting as a threat receiving and rushing from the backfield with 12 runs for 74 yards.
A couple drops from this corps have caused some pains early, but nothing compared to what Illinois fans expected.
The return of Ted Karras helped, at least for a little while. Cincinnati in Week 2 was unable to bring down Scheelhaase, but four sacks in the first half alone stifled Illinois drives and put Scheelhaase out of rhythm. Considering the loss of two starters from what wasn’t thought of as a great line to begin with, it’s hard to be disappointed.
Two years removed from boasting one of the best D-lines in the land, Illinois has not pressured quarterbacks with much consistency, with just four sacks so far. Senior Tim Kynard has one of those sacks, but Houston Bates at the LEO position has been as big a force up front defensively.
As a hybrid linebacker-defensive end, Bates could be mentioned among the team’s best linebackers, too. But Jonathan Brown is the unquestioned leader of this corps and of the defense as a whole. Long removed from the days of crotch-shotting Northwestern players (but not so long as for me to not mention it here), Brown has developed into a vocal and exemplary leader, and is third in the country in tackles with 38. Mason Monheim has followed Brown’s lead in his sophomore season, and is second in tackles with 30. Mike Svetina has stepped into his role nicely in what is also his second campaign.
Behind Brown and Monheim, Eaton Spence and Earnest Thomas III are third and fourth in tackles, respectively, and that’s not a good thing. As great a season as Scheelhaase is having, Illini opponents have more passing yards, and that’s due in part to an inexperienced secondary. Thomas, a junior, is the only member of the secondary that started in 2012.
Beckman has said the secondary is improving and will continue to improve. They’ll need to use the bye week more than anyone perhaps, and hope for a good showing against Miami. Unless they’ve gotten much better by the first week of conference play, they’ll be in for it against dynamic Big Ten offenses like Nebraska and Ohio State.
The special teams have been up and down, characterized by none better than punter Justin DuVernois. The junior shanked his only two important punts in Week 1 against Southern Illinois, but two weeks later, Duvernois’ consistent legwork pinning Washington deep earned him conference special teams player of the week honors.
A kickoff return for a touchdown in Week 1 showed promise for V’Angelo Bentley and Osei in the return game. Though there hasn’t been any similar big runbacks, Illinois has outgained opponents 367 yards to 308 on kickoff and punt returns combined.
Kicker Taylor Zalewski missed what turned out to be a crucial field goal in Week 3 at Soldier Field, and Illini fans hope he can become more consistent as the year goes on.
No one believed in Beckman heading into the season. I think that tide could begin to change if Illinois keeps playing the way it has. If nothing else, Beckman can start believing in himself, and the efforts he’s put in to turning a program into a family. Bill Cubit has been everything Illini fans have hoped for and then some. The defense isn’t where it needs to be to compete for a conference crown, but the offense will keep Illinois competitive and, more importantly, keep Illini football worth watching. In a year where pundits like myself were scouring for the schedule for a second — let alone a third — win, we have to give the Illini credit. Overall, I’d say Illinois’ 2-1 record, given their opponents is worth about a B. But provided the context surrounding this team entering the season, these three games were more than Illini fans could’ve hoped for. Next quarter, we won’t be so lenient. For now though, hell yeah, Illinois football.
Eliot is a senior in Media. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @EliotTweet.
Editor's note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that punter Justin DuVernois was a senior. The article should have stated that DuVernois is a junior. The Daily Illini regrets this error.