Big Ten Football Previews: Illinois

BY BEN ROSS | AUGUST 21, 2012 6:30 AM

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The Illinois football team has its work cut out for itself, despite coming off back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time in school history.

Tim Beckman has replaced Ron Zook as head coach; the latter was fired after his squad became the first team in Division I history to lose its final six games of the season after winning the first six.

Beckman comes to Champaign after coaching at Toledo, where he went 17-7 in three years at the helm of the Rockets’ program. Last season, his squad ranked in the top-10 in country in both points per game (42) and yards per game (481). And with dual-threat quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase — Illinois’ leading rusher and passer a year ago — returning for the Illini, Beckman might have the perfect athlete for his system.

“With the offense that we’re installing in Champaign, it will be a dual-threat offense,” Beckman said during the Big Ten media day on July 26. “You’ll see two running backs in the football game at times … It’s a commitment that our offensive staff has made to running the football, and we’ve got to establish the run first for us to be successful.”

Sticking to the ground game is likely where Illinois will see the most success, too.

Spencer Harris returns as the team’s leading receiver with 26 catches for 226 yards last season.

Fourteen Illini starters will return to the gridiron this season, bringing Beckman into a situation that most new coaches don’t get the luxury of enjoying. The biggest question mark he has to deal with going into the season is how to fix the special-team mess that Zook left.

The Illini ranked last in the nation in kick returns and second-to-last in punt returns a year ago. Two walk-ons — Taylor Zalewski and Nick Immerkus — are battling for kicking duties. Beckman brought in the special-team coach Tim Salem from Central Florida to try to improve that unit.

“Right now, in the special-team phase, we’re working on the fundamentals,” Salem told the Chicago Tribune. “Finding guys to be able to catch the ball, finding guys who can block, and finding guys who have talent in the open field. Right now, we’re trying to improve the individual, and if we improve the individual, we improve the team.”

The biggest question mark for this team might the status of the offensive line. Beckman has been forced to shuffle the line in order to meet the requirements of his offense.

Hugh Thornton, last season’s starting left guard, is the projected starting tackle on the same side of the line. Graham Pocic, who has 26 career starts at center, will likely take Thornton’s old spot. Michael Heitz, recruited as a tackle, could be the opening-day starter at right guard.

The transition to a new role isn’t upsetting the players.

“Moving to tackle involves some minor technical changes, but it’s physical and fast, and we’re in the Big Ten,” Thornton told the Northwest Herald. “No matter what position I play, I’m going to see great competition. So it has been a smooth transition for me. And I’m still playing next to Graham, just as I was when I was at guard and he was at center.”

Even with a new head coach and some major holes to fill at some key positions, Illinois has the talent to go a third-straight bowl game. And with Penn State and Ohio State ineligible to play in the postseason, the Illini can some noise in the crippled Leaders division of the Big Ten.

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