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April 14, 2012
The Fighting Illini take the field in front of a crowd for the first time under Tim Beckman Saturday, when they hold the Orange and Blue spring game at Memorial Stadium. The game is set for 2pm CT. Admission and parking for the event are free to the public.
Don't expect Beckman to open up the entire playbook. The new coach likes to keep things as secret as possible. The focus will be on the fundamentals, but there are a few things the fans can look for as an indication of how well this Illini squad is coming together. Most of the bigger question marks are on the offensive side of the football. Who will make the big play?
How comfortable are the quarterbacks in the new offense. It will be interesting to see how well Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole are picking things up, and how sharp they are throwing the ball. When we watched practice, they still had much work to do. How quickly they get plays off in the high-tempo offense (will there be any confusion) will be one indicator. Scheelhaase appears to have jumped in front as the starter, but this is a chance for O'Toole to make up ground. Scheelhaase was the top pick in the draft for the spring game, and will guide the Orange team. His top weapon will be TE Jon Davis. O'Toole gets the Blue squad and has a stronger receiving corps, with projected starters Ryan Lankford and Spencer Harris on his team.
Can the revamped offensive protect the quarterbacks? Veterans Jeff Allen and Jack Cornell are gone from a unit that struggled all season in 2011 under former coach Joe Gilbert. Allen is a future pro; his absence leaves a big hole on the O-line. Luke Butkus has had to build the new unit around center Graham Pocic, but will they be able to hold up in the Big Ten? They have been dominated by Michael Buchanan and Akeem Spence in the spring. Redshirt freshman Ted Karras is one to watch. He is No. 1 on the depth chart at right guard. Sophomore left tackle Simon Cvijanovic has got to find a way to get it done.
Terry Hawthorne, Justin Green, and Jack Ramsey on offense. Beckman won't say it outright, but the offense under co-coordinators Billy Gonzales and Chris Beatty is searching for playmakers. Darius Millines, who is expected to be the number one receiver this fall, is once again sidelined with a foot injury. Hawthorne has elite straight-ahead speed - he will see some time at wide receiver, as will Ramsey. Green also can scoot, and he was a highly touted running back in high school before making the switch to corner. He could get some carries from the RB spot. Look for Hawthorne to run a couple of go-routes on Saturday; that's what he does best.
The new star position on defense Illinois will still play a 4-2-5 defense under Beckman and defensive coordinator Tim Banks, a scheme that is similar to what the Illini have run in recent years. Some terminology has changed however. The "star" is a hybrid linebacker / defensive back. Banks will look for players with the speed and coverage skills to excel in the passing game, and the physicality and size to stuff the run. Ashante Williams and true freshman Tajarvis Fuller get the starts Saturday for the Blue and Orange teams respectively.
How will they use Josh Ferguson and Jon Davis? As previously stated, don't expect Beckman to show all of his cards. But these two sophomores have as much play-making ability and versatility as anyone on the Illini roster. Ferguson is the number one running back with Donovonn Young on the shelf, and he has had very strong spring. He can move around, lining up in the backfield or at the slot receiver spot, and is a great fit for the spread offense. Ferguson is the quickest of the skill position players and finishes off runs well despite his lack of size. Like Ferguson, Jon Davis is a freakish athlete. He can create mismatches. If the Illini can get him matched up against linebackers, Davis should be a big time playmaker for the Illini as a sophomore. He is another guy who could move around to keep the defense off balance. In early spring drills, Davis has lined up at TE, the slot, and even in the backfield