A.J. Jenkins ain't walking through that door Illinois fans. Do the Illini have anybody else who can catch the ball?
Know Your Enemy takes a look at OSU's next Big Ten foe (and supposedly second most hated rival?), Illinois.
Q: How did Illinois do last year?
A: Illinois closed the book on the Ron Zook era with a spectacular second half collapse. The Illini started the season 6-0, climbed into the top 25, got upset by Ohio State, and then lost the rest of their games. They regrouped just in time to win one of the most depressing bowl games in recent memory, beating UCLA in the Kraft "Damn, is nothing else on TV?" bowl to finish 7-6.
Q: Who are some famous Illinois grads?
A: Great American Hero Nick Offerman is an Illinois grad. You may all know him better as Ron Swanson on Parks and Recreation. Jawed Karim and Steve Chen, the founders of YouTube attended U of I, as did Sex columnist and internet hero Dan Savage, playboy founder Hugh Hefner, and Deadspin founder WIll Leitch. Basically, if you were wasting time dicking around the internet, blame Illinois.
As far as sports are concerned, Illinois bounceyhoops gave us Deron Williams and Nick Anderson. The most famous football grad is probably legendary badass Dick Butkus, or perhaps hall of famer George Halas. More contemporary Illinois products include Simeon Rice, Neil Rackers, star running back and 9/11 truther Rashard Mendenahll, and Brandon Lloyd.
Q: What should we expect from Illinois on offense next year?
A: Illinois was completely ineffective on offense last season, but it isn't totally clear if the players were horrible, or if it was just Ron Zook's fault. Tim Beckman's leadership should breathe some new life into an underachieving bunch, and that needs to start with QB Nathan Scheelhaase. Like a few other QBs in the Big Ten, Scheelhasse is more than capable as a rushing threat (624 yards rushing, 896 yards pre-sack rushing), but his decision making while throwing left a lot to be desired. One thing that will really help is if rest of the Illini's receiving corps step up. With AJ Jenkins gone, Illinois will need either Spencer Harris or Darius Millnes to contribute in a big way. Scheelhasse took a lot of sacks last season, and part of that is on the shoulders of his pass-catching corps. Standing around and hoping that Jenkins can elude double coverage isn't going to cut it.
Donnovon Young is the team's leading returning rusher. He logged 451 rushing yards last year, and averaged a healthy 5.2 YPC. Miles Osei had a great spring game, and could find time lining up under center, at RB, or at WR. Illinois also returns 6 linemen with starting experience, lead by 2 year starters Hugh Thorton and Graham Pocic. The Illini could have the foundation for a solid running game.
Q: What about defense?
A: It was easy to forget about this, given the smouldering wreckage that was the second half the season last year, but their defense was pretty damn good. They were 5th in the country in passing defense, and only gave up 21 points per game, good for 22nd. The squad lost their best player, All American defensive end Whitney Mercilus, along with two other strong performers (LB Ian Thomas and CB Tavon Wilson), so reproducing 2011 level production isn't likely.
That being said, Illinois still returns enough guys to be one of the Big Ten's stronger defensive sides. All-Conference defensive end Michael Buchanan is still around to wreck havoc (7.5 sacks), along with Jonathon Brown at LB (108 tackles). Glenn Foster and Akeem Spence both return, and are certainly no slouches at defensive tackle. Illinois will have a very strong front seven, and some good depth at safety.
Q: What are their bowl prospects looking like?
A: The non-conference schedule is interesting. Illinois should beat Western Michigan and FCS Charleston Southern comfortably. They also have a road date at Arizona State, and a home game with feisty Louisiana Tech. It isn't inconceivable that Illinois wins all of them, but 3-1 is a good goal to shoot for.
The Big Ten road schedule is unforgiving -- Illinois has to play AT Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State and Northwestern. The home side is a little easier, with Penn State, Purdue, Minnesota, Indiana... which is good, because I'm not sure Illinois will be generating much of a home field advantage this year. Have of you guys ever met anybody who was really pumped about Illinois football? I live in Chicago; my church, office, social circle, newsfeed etc are full of Illinois graduates, but I've yet to meet anybody who gives two turds about their football team. Ron Zook will do that to a man.
STILL, It isn't hard to see Illinois getting to at least 7 wins there. I actually think that Illinois is a better dark-horse Legends division champ than Purdue, but I think Tim Beckman was a great hire, and I know not everybody agrees.
I reserve the right to change my mind later in the fall, after we've actually played some football, but I think OSU beats Illinois again this season