Depth chart to take shape this week
Game week is just 7 days away. Prep for Western Michigan will be priority No. 1 next week, so the Illini staff will want to lock down the depth chart soon.
There are still some hot positions battles. The right side of the offensive line has one open spot (it could be at tackle or guard). Center Jake Feldmeyer, LG Graham Pocic ,and LT Hugh Thornton have been getting their reps with the first team since day one and appear locked in.
Michael Heitz should be a starter on the right side. That leaves Alex Hill, Simon Cvijanovic, and Ted Karras in a battle for the last spot. If Cvijanovic wins back his starting role (he was penciled in at right tackle on day one at Camp Rantoul), he will play tackle and Heitz will move inside.
Redshirt freshman Ryan Frain has the strongest leg of the kickers and punters, but he is striving to become more consistent. Frain is pushing kicker Nick Immekus and incumbent punter Justin DuVernois. Expect him to win one of those jobs.
Putting together a conventional, 3-deep depth chart for the Illinois offense is tricky. Is sophomore Jon Davis the No. 3 tight end, or the No. 1 H-back? And where do you slot Miles Osei, who will back up at QB, RB, and slot receiver?
In-state recruiting picks up
The newest member of the 2013 recruiting class, all-purpose back Miguel Hermosillo from Ottawa (Ill.), gives Illinois 8 verbal commitments from the state of Illinois. (Just 4 players in the 2012 class are from Illinois).
That's progress, but there's still work to be done. Tim Beckman is serious about pursuing a Midwest recruiting strategy. To raise the program to the level where they will compete for Big Ten championships, Illinois will need to consistently lock down at least half of the top 10 in-state players annually. That means competing for 4 and 5-star players like Ty Isaac, Laquon Treadwell, and Ethan Pocic.
There are still some highly-ranked players on the board in 2013. Besides Treadwell, Illinois is working on DE Josh Augusta (Peoria), safety Jalen Banks (Harvey Thornton), DE Ruben Dunbar (Glenbard West), and OT Kendall Moore (Chicago Simeon).
Broncos up first
The Illini open the season on Sept. 1 at home against Western Michigan. The Broncos were picked to finish 3rd in the MAC West Division (behind Toledo and NIU) in the 2012 Mid-American Conference Football Preseason Poll. They finished 7-6, 5-3 in 2011, losing 37-32 to Purdue in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
One of the Broncos' losses last season was in a 66-63 shootout with Tim Beckman's Toledo Rockets. Among the inflated stats - the teams combined for over 1,400 yards of offense and 10 turnovers. Western Michigan QB Alex Carder was 38 of 59 for 548 yards and 7 touchdowns
Carder - who passed for 306 yards against Illinois last September - returns for the Broncos this season. But he will be without his top receiving target in All-American Jordan White, a 7th round draft pick of the New York Jets. White caught 14 passes for 132 yards versus the Illini.
The task for Illinois - light up Western Michigan's defense, which figures to struggle again in 2012, and keep Carder off balance with multiple blitz packages. If he has time to throw, Carder could be an early test for the Illini safeties who are coming off of an inconsistent season a year ago.
Beckman looks for a competitive edge
There's a lot of buzz about closed practices and lack of information on injured players. The media has access during the first 30 minutes of practice for four days this week, and can conduct post-practice interviews. During game week, the first 30 minutes of practice will be open to the press on Tuesday and Wednesday only.
New head coach Tim Beckman is looking for every possible competitive advantage heading into his first season at Illinois. A review of Toledo film will give opposing coaches a glimpse of the schemes Beckman will employ, but how he plans to use specific players at Illinois will likely remain a mystery until game-day.
One example: Senior Terry Hawthorne has yet to work at wide receiver in practice, despite the fact that redshirt freshman Eaton Spence has proven to be a capable back-up at cornerback, and the wide receivers haven't yet shown big play ability. Interesting.
Players who have been nicked up and missed practice time include tackle Hugh Thornton, safety Steve Hull, and star TaJarvis Fuller. Beckman indicated on Monday that sophomore LB Henry Dickinson is out for the season with a broken leg.
2013 class size is a moving target
You can crunch the numbers several different ways and come up with a different bottom line each time. Illinois now has 19 commitments in the 2013 class, and can accept up to 25 new scholarships in the next academic year. As many as 5 current commits could enroll early in January, and transfers Ryan Klachko and Ryan Nowicki add to the total number of scholarship players on the roster (85 is the max).
Rather than trying to calculate the numbers each time there's a roster change, a better approach might be to look at the holes that Illinois may want to fill at key positions. You don't win games with warm bodies, you win with playmakers. Our preferences:
* Two more wide receivers. The Illini have numbers at the position, but could use athletes at WR to give 4-star QB Aaron Bailey more weapons. It will be interesting to see if athletes Caleb Day and Reon Dawson end up at DB or WR.
* A lock-down cover cornerback. We like the versatility of the defensive backs Illinois has committed. Still, a pure corner - one who can take away option No. 1 in the passing game - would round things out nicely. This isn't the Big Ten of old. More and more teams are playing some version of the spread offense.
* Defensive ends with size - either at SDE or Leo. Preferably 6-foot-4 or above. Illinois has bolstered the defensive line on the inside. Now they need long athletes to come off of the edge a la Whitney Mercilus and Michael Buchanan.
* Offensive tackle. The interior of the Illini offensive line is shaping up nicely for the next several years. But the current commits at tackle will take time to develop before they are ready to compete against Big Ten competition. The Illini need a tackle with the physical tools to play early.
* Running back. This one might have already been addressed. We like Hermosillo at running back rather than slot receiver, especially if freshman LaKeith Walls changes positions at some point in his Illinois career.