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September 19, 2013

Passing the 'eye test' - so far




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CHAMPAIGN - Three weeks into the college football season here and we're not talking about hot seats or predicting Illinois' margin of defeat in its next game.

Kind of refreshing, right?

Instead, we can break down the actual football games: if the Illini offense can continue its marked improvement (from 119th in the FBS in scoring offense last year to 41st this year), if the defense is capable of slowing down anyone or if the special teams can continue to be a net positive after seasons of being a detriment.

Following a 45-17 rout of Cincinnati (which was receiving votes) and a 10-point loss to Washington (which is No. 17 in this week's AP poll), we can look ahead to the Big Ten schedule and actually expect Illinois to be competitive in a few, if not most, of its games.

Illini fans can even dream up a route to a bowl game, which seemed all but impossible a month ago.

For that, Illinois football coach Tim Beckman so far has passed the "eye test."

Beckman deservedly came under fire after a disastrous 2-10 season last year, his first at Illinois. The Illini, a team coming off back-to-back bowls, underachieved greatly in a winless Big Ten campaign, especially considering five players from that team currently are on NFL rosters.

Players who had had success under Ron Zook and defensive coordinator Vic Koenning didn't buy into Beckman's coaching staff. Beckman's pieced-together staff - only three of his Toledo assistants followed him to Illinois - wasn't on the same page either, prompting turnover at five of the nine assistant positions following the season.

Beckman didn't set high expectations for Year 2, prompting Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas to say Beckman's staff had to pass an "eye test" this year to earn Year 3.

Yet, Beckman's flawed team - unlike recent years, the Illini have few NFL prospects on its roster, and its defense has just two seniors on its three-deep depth chart - is exceeding those expectations through a quarter of its season. The 2013 Illini look like they will be competent and competitive - a massive upgrade from last season.

"I would say that the first quarter was successful," Beckman said. "We got to play better on the defensive side of the ball, but the goals that we've set and established for ourselves, a majority of those have been set. We're moving the program forward."


Two out of three

The sunnier outlook developed in large part thanks to a capable, if not potent, offense. Beckman upgraded from allowing two inexperience co-offensive coordinators to run his offense to handing the keys to the offense over to 59-year-old Bill Cubit, who has been a primary play caller for 20 years.

Cubit's diverse, multi-formation, pass-heavy offense has re-invigorated the Illini's veteran skill players and excited the Illini fan base.

Illinois had the 107th-ranked passing offense last year. Through three games, the Illini rank 24th in passing offense. Last year, Illinois had averaged 16.4 first downs per game. Through three games, the Illini average 21.7 first downs.

Last year, Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase averaged 136.1 passing yards per game, completed four touchdown passes and had an efficiency rating of 105.9. This year under Cubit, Scheelhaase averages 294.7 passing yards per game, has thrown seven touchdown passes and posts an efficiency rating of 159.5.

But the Illini also have greatly improved in the most overlooked of the three phases of the game: special teams. Special teams coach Tim Salem has employed two deep returners on both kickoff and punt returns this season, and the scheme is paying off huge dividends.

Illinois ranked 118th last season in punt returns and totaled just 25 punt return yards for the year. This season, Illinois ranks 54th in the country in punt returns and has already totaled 87 punt return yards for the year.

Illinois ranked 118th last season in kick returns with an average of 18.8 yards per return. This year, Illinois ranks 14th in kick returns with an average of 28.5 yards per return and V'Angelo Bentley scored the Illini's first kick return touchdown since 2008 with a 100-yard touchdown against Southern Illinois.

That'll help field position.

In a year in which Beckman must show improvement in his program, two of the three phases have made giant leaps from ineptitude to respectability or even exceptionality.


To be determined

For the second straight year, however, the Illini defense has regressed.

Two years ago, Illinois ranked seventh in total defense, allowing 286.2 yards per game. Through three games, Illinois ranks 115th in total defense, allowing 492.7 yards per game.

A defense that ranked fourth in tackles for loss two years ago now ranks 84th in tackles for loss.

Illini defensive coordinator Tim Banks is under the microscope. His 2012 defense had six players who were in NFL training camps and four of which currently are on NFL rosters and ranked 93rd in the country in scoring defense.

The jury is still out on Banks and his 4-2-5 defense. He didn't pass the eye test in 2012, but it's difficult to evaluate Banks in 2013.

He probably has one future NFL draft pick on his roster: Butkus award candidate Jonathan Brown. While Brown and sophomore Mason Monheim make for a dynamic duo at linebacker, Banks has an undermanned and overmatched defensive line group and a talented but extremely young and inexperienced secondary.

Banks had success as a coordinator at Cincinnati, where his Bearcats groups were among the national leaders in sacks and tackles for loss. Will that translate to Illinois? Maybe. Maybe not. But a season with this flawed group probably won't be much of an indicator either way. Banks doesn't have the athletes or depth he wants to run his defense.

"We're coming along," Banks said. "We're a work in progress. ...You're going to have some growing pains. Any time you're dealing with young people, you're going to have that."

Given the youth and lack of talent, another defensive coordinator might not solve the Illini's defensive woes. More talent will.


Meaningful games

With Illinois on a bye week before it hosts Miami (Ohio) next Saturday, Banks was on the road recruiting this week to help boost his talent level. His talks with recruits and coaches are more pleasant now than they were a year ago or even a few months ago.

"I think people are pleased with the direction," Banks said. "Obviously, we came up short against Washington but I think they can see the kids are playing hard. It's a different attitude, a different mindset. They believe the program is heading in the right direction, and it is. Obviously, we want to continue winning games but as long as we continue to put a product out there that is going to make the state of Illinois happy with, I think we'll be satisfied."

The future of Illinois football is still uncertain. Beckman and his staff still have plenty to prove in the long term, and they still face a huge challenge many have failed to conquer: turning Illinois football into a consistent contender.

They still face the short-term challenge of a brutal Big Ten schedule. But through three games, they've made that schedule more manageable and less predictable - in a good way. Fans can now go into next month's Nebraska and Michigan State games expecting to compete and realistically hoping for an upset.

Expectations were low for the 2013 Illinois football team following a disastrous 2012 campaign. Through three games, the Illini have showed they're flawed. The defense has been torched, the Illini gave SIU a chance at an upset and the Illinois offense missed too many opportunities to blow a chance at its own upset of Washington.

But through three games, the Illini look competitive, the staff looks competent and relieved of hot-seat pressure, and the rest of the season could actually be entertaining because the schedule is still filled with meaningful games.

Compared to last season's catastrophe, that's progress - the kind that will earn this staff Year 3.

"What's in the past is in the past but we got to control only what we can control in the future," Beckman said. "I think these football players that are on this football team the last ten months have committed themselves into trying to make this the best program they can make it. I'm proud of the way that they've played the last three football games. ...We're excited about the direction that we've played in the last three football games and the direction that we're moving."



Jeremy Werner is the co-host and Illinois reporter for the "Tay and J Show," which airs weekdays 3-6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 93.5, 95.3 in Champaign-Urbana and streams online at www.espncu.com. You can contact him at jeremy@espncu.com or follow him on Twitter @WernerESPNCU


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