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Illinois Spring Preview 2015: Can Fighting Illini build off bowl bid?

(Over the next few weeks we’ll be digging in to each Big Ten team as spring football gets closer)

Last season was an improvement…sort of. At least Illinois found a way to win a few games in Big Ten play and get to bowl eligibility. It took a win over rival Northwestern in the season finale to get there, but the Illini accomplished the first step in making an improvement.

The win over Northwestern also likely kept head coach Tim Beckman from being fired. However, it doesn’t guarantee things are on the way up on Champaign. A lot of that depends on the defensive side of the football, where Beckman has remained loyal to his coaching staff despite failing results over the last few seasons.

The 2015 spring football camp will be vital in showing that improvement is happening. With that, let’s take a look at the Illini heading in to their spring football camp.

 

Spring Football Starting Date: March 17th

Spring Football Game Date: April 18th

Key Returning Players: Mike Dudek, WR; Wes Lunt, QB; Geronimo Allison, WR; Jihad Ward, DE; Mason Monheim, LB; V’Angelo Bentley, CB

Key Losses: Donovonn Young, RB; Austin Teitsma, DT; Earnest Thomas III, CB

Illini Spring To-Do List:

– Find a run game: Donovonn Young is gone, but may not be missed all that much. That’s because injuries and lack of production were the hallmarks of his time in Memorial Stadium. He only had 94 rushing attempts last season for 379 yards. Add in what returning Josh Ferguson had (735 yards) and it’s not a very impressive number.

Sure, the Illini’s offense is more focused on the passing game and getting the ball down field, but it was also because they couldn’t run the ball with much in the way of power. That has to change if the Illini want to avoid getting in to track meets all season long once again.

A good and powerful run game can be a defense’s best friend, and Illinois needs to showcase an improved run effort in spring to help boost some confidence on both sides of the ball.

– Show Improvement on Defense: Speaking of that defense and confidence…it’s time for Jihad Ward and more specifically Mason Monheim to elevate this group for a change. This is a group that has regressed instead of progressed since Beckman came aboard in 2012 — going from 10th in total defense that season to dead last in that category this past season.

Monheim and Ward are going to be leaders on this group, and while the coaching staff and some in the program have pointed to youth the past few years, the time for excuses are up. Illinois are returning seven of 11 starters and all seven of them will be upperclassmen.

That means the defense has plenty of experience to draw on, and this spring is about showing they’ve learned from the experience and are now more capable of being a good group than a liability for this team.

– Keep developing Wes Lunt & passing game: It appeared that Illinois hit a home run in getting home-state transfer Wes Lunt on campus. Early on last season he was one of the most prolific quarterbacks in the Big Ten. However, a leg injury slowed his roll and he ended the season as almost the complete opposite after this injury.

To start the season, Lunt never completed fewer than 63 percent of his passes, however after his return from injury, Lunt could never top the 56 percent mark. He also went from throwing well over 200 yards per game to throwing for a best of 102 yards after the injury.

Lunt needs to show he’s behind that injury and he needs to show he can be the quarterback we all saw early on in the season. Arguably he was the accurate and dynamic quarterback in the league at the halfway point, but he needs to do it for a whole year and showing that he can be consistent from practice No. 1 to the spring game is vital to that improvement.

– Beckman repair relationship with local media: Media narratives can make or break a head coach, and since Tim Beckman bought himself some more time in Champaign with a bowl appearance there will be plenty written about him and his team this spring.

Unfortunately, Beckman has gotten off on the wrong foot this offseason by asking the local media to become cheerleaders for his program. If ever there was a tone-deaf moment in Beckman’s career it was that one. Asking the beat reporters to go from objective to cheerleader is just not a good look. If you want positive stuff written about you or the program, go out and earn it on the field.

A good way to do that would be to go out and put on a hell of a show in the spring game. Remember two years ago when everyone came away from the game shocked by how different and potent Illinois offense looked? It wasn’t a coincidence and it led to some positive press and momentum heading in to the season. It would be wise for this team to showcase that same kind of improvement to help make its own case for better press coverage.

 

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Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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