The Fighting Illini finished up a grueling and competitive winter workout schedule, and are now ready to take to the practice field. Spring practices kick off on Wednesday at 7am. Fourteen spring practices are followed by the annual Orange and Blue Spring Game on Saturday, April 12 at Memorial Stadium.
Illinois head coach Tim Beckman gets things started with a pre-spring press conference at 11:30am CT on Monday. Check with Orange and Blue News for full coverage.
The Illini plan off-campus practices in Chicago and Springfield. The Chicago practice is set for Gately Stadium (810 East 103rd Street) on Friday, March 14. Sacred Heart Griffin High School is the host for the practice on Friday, April 4. Both off-site practices are scheduled for 5:30pm CT.
Spring drills mark the beginning of Beckman's third season at the helm. It's the beginning of a journey that the Illini hope will lead to a bowl appearance after posting a 4-8 record last fall. The 2014 Illini season begins at home on Aug. 30 against Youngstown State.
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The big story: All eyes on the quarterbacks
There will be no shortage of columns written this spring about Oklahoma St. transfer Wes Lunt, who seems to be a perfect fit for coordinator Bill Cubit's passing attack. Lunt is a long (6-foot-5) and highly skilled passer with a top notch arm strength and poise in the pocket. Most assume he emerges from the spring as the starter, and the odds are high if you are placing bets.
That said, don't sleep on sophomore Aaron Bailey. Bailey was the prize of the Illini's 2013 recruiting class - a former 4-star prospect, all-state performer, and the No. 9 dual-threat quarterback in the nation as a high school senior. He may be the best overall athlete on the Illinois roster; the Illinois staff will have to find a way to get the ball in the hands of this playmaker and let him make something happen.
Senior-to-be Reilly O'Toole and true freshman Chase Crouch add depth, something Illinois hasn't had at the quarterback position for a long, long time. Barring injuries, Crouch will likely redshirt. O'Toole has his work cut out for him, but he has been written off before.
The first thing we will look at when we walk out onto the turf on Wednesday? The arms of Wes Lunt and Aaron Bailey. How strong are they? Are they accurate? And how well have these two signal callers grasped a very complex Cubit offense, something Nathan Scheelhaase mastered as a senior in 2013.
One-on-one: Most competitive position battles
Spring is the time to make your case. How hard have you worked in the three months since the season ended? When you show up for Camp Rantoul in August, where do you deserve to be on the initial depth chart? And given the opportunity to go one-on-one in open competition with others at your position, how do you perform?
Few No. 1 spots on the depth chart should be forgone conclusions for a team that struggled to pick up Big Ten wins, particularly on the defensive side of the football. You have the luxury of starting from scratch in the spring - a clean slate. Two spots on the offensive line (Simon Cvijanovic at LT, and Ted Karras at RG) are probably locked in, along with the emerging star of the offense - Josh Ferguson at running back.
Everywhere else? Open competition. That mind-set gives the guys an edge, and lets the coaches see who really wants it. We look more in-depth at spots where we believe the competition will be the fiercest.
Flavin can be at least serviceable and hopefully equal Corey Lewis' performance from last season, especially considering Lewis played a large part of the season with a torn ACL - a recurring injury that cost him two full seasons.
Schmidt played as a true freshman, and he looked like a true freshman at times. But the coaches like his potential and he has good shot at starting. Someone has to step up in the spring, or we could see some musical chairs on the front five
We like the depth, size, and athleticism that defensive line coach Greg Colby has at this position. Even if a clear starter doesn't emerge from the spring, the Illini will go into 2014 in good shape at DE.
Junior Kenny Nelson (6-foot-6, 250 pounds) is the returner with the most game experience. Nelson played in 11 games a year ago, posting 16 tackles as the backup to Tim Kynard. Nelson has always been a raw talent who passes the eye test, and he should be ready to make a bigger contribution. James could play SDE or Leo and we love his potential at either spot. Fotu, a JUCO transfer, has a big motor.
There is no shortage of bodies at cornerback, and though there is no real star of the group, they have a chance to be pretty good. Things could shake up with the development of some youngsters during the offseason.
One would think Bentley and Spence would be at the plug-n-play point in their careers, but younger CBs brought in by Tim Beckman over the last two recruiting classes are not backing down from anything. Youth, inexperience, and (most of all) lack of strength added up to a rough season for the corners in 2013 - particularly in the run support. The hope is that a year in the weight room will make a big difference this fall.
We're watching you: Five who need to be good
Earnest Thomas, strong safety / star - Thomas was a stat stuffer in 2013, finishing the season second on the team in tackles with 101 (57 solo). But numbers don't tell the entire story. Thomas wasn't the only defensive player who missed assignments and missed tackles, but as a senior leader he needs to be better. He's a better fit at the hybrid star, and will get a look at that position.
Teko Powell, defensive tackle - The most physically gifted of the inside guys, Powell finally started to get it from a technique standpoint midway through the season. He has the size, strength, and athleticism to reach double digit tackles for loss.
Geronimo Allison, wide receiver - Go-to wide receiver Steve Hull is graduated after an amazing one year run at the position. Allison, a rangy JUCO transfer from Iowa Western C.C., is the obvious receiver to step in and pick up the slack. G-Mo is ready to roll.
Alex Hill, center - The Illini have to get the inside running game going. Hill is the anchor in the middle - without a strong season from him it's going to be tough to improve on the 139 yards rushing per game (10th in the Big Ten) and just 3.7 yards per rush in Big Ten conference play.
Dawuane Smoot - Illinois announced that senior Houston Bates, the starter in 2013, won't return. Smoot received spot duty a year ago and has shown raw talent, but he now needs to kick it up a notch. Athleticism and quickness off the ball are Smoot's calling card - he just needs to add strength to take the next step, and he is reportedy at 260 pounds. Only Purdue had fewer sacks last season (14) than the Illini (15) - that' where Smoot has to make an impact.
Breakout: Four who could make a jump
Marchie Murdock, wide receiver - We liked what we saw from Murdock at Camp Rantoul last August, where he had a knack for getting behind the defense and making big plays. A redshirt in 2013, Murdock has a chance to make a move in the spring.
Caleb Day, defensive back - The physical ability has never been in question for this former 4-star recruit - he's is one of the most talented athletes on the roster. Day will get looks at CB and S this spring.
Dillan Cazley, cornerback - Small, but feisty, with quick feet and a stout build, Cazley is a sleeper who could push for significant playing time. Stopping the run was an issue for Illinois, and Cazley will stick his nose in there.
Paul James, defensive end - James is a beast on the hoof - a Big Ten football player through and through. He can play SDE or the hybrid Leo spot - and though he is raw, he's the kind of big athlete that can turn things around for the defense.
Questions we have this spring
If Aaron Bailey isn't the starting quarterback, will the staff find other ways to put the ball in his hands?
The crop of young cornerbacks is a year older. Are they a year stronger?
Who of the early enrollees and mid-year JUCO transfers will make the biggest impact?
The new wide receivers have talent. How good is the chemistry and timing with the QB's?
Can Illinois improve the running game? They have to if they want to go bowling.
And can they stop the run after finishing last in the Big Ten in rushing defense in 2013?
Is there enough team speed on defense to improve on last season's performance?
What adjustments will DC Tim Banks make in the scheme, blitz packages, and coverages.
Will the spring game and off-campus practices in Springfield and Chicago draw visits from top recruiting targets?