Illini Must Bank On Experience
There's not much optimism around a team that went just 4-8 under second year Illinois head coach Tim Beckman. They lose a veteran quarterback and three starting senior receivers to graduation. Defensively, they lose their top playmaker in linebacker Jonathan Brown. They will have 16 returning starters which should allow them to show improvement elsewhere, particularly at the line of scrimmage.
The offensive load will likely be carried by a tandem of returning running backs in Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young. Ferguson led the team in rushing and was second on the team in receiving. They also get a spark from defensive back and return man V'Angelo Bentley who scored on both a kickoff and punt return in 2013. Four-star quarterback Aaron Bailey was used sparingly as a freshman but now can be a dual-threat weapon coming out of his first full year in the program to keep defenses off balance. Neither Bailey or the more experienced Reilly O'Toole has been particularly impressive as passers.
There's nowhere to go but up for a defense that was terrible in 2013. The hope is to learn from last year's mistakes and generate more of a pass rush and more turnovers. Illini defenders tallied just 15 sacks a year ago and nabbed only three interceptions.
Illinois won't be favored to win many conference games (or even go bowling) but 5 wins might be an attainable goal that would further show progress under Beckman. Unless Bailey is an electric rushing threat, this team won't be favored in games like the conference opener in Lincoln. They do seem capable of competing with the weaker teams on their schedule.
They have to start somewhere. Otherwise, they could be hitting the reset button on this program again in the next year or two.