Illinois returns healthy for 2013


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If the Big Ten media days in Chicago signal the beginning of the 2013 college football season for the conference, then Illinois football coach Tim Beckman opened the season by wishing his mother a happy birthday.

Perhaps there was meaning in this. Beckman was energetic at the podium. He was excited to give his mom a shout out. Anxious, even — a word he used to describe his football team and the players’ and coaches’ outlook on the upcoming season.

“You see a healthy football team,” he said. “We lost 400 snaps last year to injury on offense, and we lost 800-plus to injury on defense … You see a team that’s very anxious and excited to progress.”

Illinois enters its second year under Beckman. The first is one many Orange and Blue fans want to forget — the team went 2-10 and was winless in Big Ten play. Illinois failed to reach bowl eligibility for the first time since 2009.

The team was riddled with injuries on both sides of the ball, the most apparent being on defense. It surrendered 32 points and almost 400 yards of offense per game last year after the unit helped will the team to a bowl appearance in 2011.

Many of the defense’s key players went down with injuries at some point last season. Senior Jonathan Brown went down with a shoulder injury and missed the season’s last three games. The Butkus Award semifinalist led the Big Ten in tackles for a loss in 2011, averaging 2.07 per game in conference play.

But Brown is back healthy now, along with senior Cory Lewis. The starting offensive lineman missed 34-straight games between 2010 and 2012 with ACL injuries. Lewis previously played in all 12 games during the 2009 season.

“My mom didn’t even want me to play football growing up,” Lewis said and laughed. “So obviously, the injuries bother her. But I grew up in a church home. We put our faith in God and just grinded it out.”

Starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase also missed two games last season because of an injury. The ailments appeared to have thrown a wrench into his confidence last season, where he threw 4 touchdowns and 8 interceptions.

A healthy Scheelhaase is capable of throwing for 2,000 yards and double-digit touchdowns, as well as running for 800 yards and scoring five times in a season. The Kansas City, Mo., native was tabbed as the Offensive MVP of the 2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, and he is one of only two quarterbacks in Big Ten history to lead a team to bowl wins as a freshman and a sophomore (the other being Brooks Bollinger for Wisconsin).

The Illini have put 2012 behind them. Shortly after Northwestern dismantled Illinois to end last season, 51 of the 91 players met up and began winter workouts. The excitement started then, when the team’s leaders made it apparent that this season will be different.

“The biggest thing that will define if this season is successful is how we go about everything,” Scheelhaase said. “We want to be as prepared as possible and play together … that will give us the most fulfillment this season.”

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