Despite injuries, Illinois looking to take next step
With spring practices finally all wrapping up around the country, HuskerOnline.com continues our look at where each of Nebraska's 12 opponents in 2015 currently stand coming out of spring ball and heading into the summer. Today, we check in on NU's Big Ten Conference opener, the Illinois Fighting Illini, who come to Lincoln on Oct. 3.
To get a feel for where the Illini stand heading into their fourth season under head coach Tim Beckman, we spoke with Doug Bucshon of OrangeandBlueNews.com to get his thoughts and perspective on the team and what to expect once the season gets underway in a few months.
Though Illinois is still trying to gain some traction in its fourth year under Beckman, the Fighting Illini were almost just as focused on making it through spring practice in one piece after being bitten by the injury bug early and often. With a number of players already sitting out with injuries, the biggest loss came to wide receiver Mike Dudek, a 2014 Freshman All-American, who tore his ACL this spring and will likely be out at least until mid-October.
The good news for Illinois was that it did see some notable improvements in the overall talent and depth in some key position groups, especially up front on the defensive line, which has been arguably one of the team's biggest weak points over the past two seasons.
However, things recently took a concerning turn for Beckman over the weekend, as former starting offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic lashed out against Beckman and his staff on Twitter, alleging mistreatment after he suffered football-related injuries the past two seasons and that Beckman did not allow him to attend the team's bowl game or end-of-season banquet.
Illinois returns a good corps of talent on both sides of the ball in 2015, particularly at the offensive skill positions. Quarterback Wes Lunt - who missed last season to injury - and running back Josh Ferguson are both back, and even without Dudek the Illini return Geronimo Allison and Justin Hardee to a receiving corps that should be one of strengths of the team.
The depth behind Ferguson at running back remains a question, and UI is still trying to gets its offensive line settled after losing its starting left guard to graduation and then having three-year starting right guard Ted Karras miss all spring with an injury. Along with a much improved defensive line, Illinois returns an experienced secondary with all four starters back at cornerback and safety.
Offensive star: RB Josh Ferguson
After racking up nearly 1,200 yards of total offense and 10 total touchdowns last season, there's really no question who the face of Illinois' offense is this season. Ferguson gives the Illini one of the most versatile running backs in the Big Ten, and his senior leadership will be counted upon heavily.
Along with rushing for 735 yards in 2014, Ferguson ranked second on the team only behind Dudek with 50 receptions for 427 yards. Given Illinois' injury problems this spring, he was limited to mostly individual work for precautionary reasons and only played about three snaps in the spring game. However, Ferguson should be handed a pretty substantial work load once the season rolls around.
Defensive star: DE Jihad Ward
At 6-6, 295, defensive end Jihad Ward certainly garners his share of attention when it comes to the eyeball test. But after seeing him play this spring, Bucshon said the senior just might have been best players on the entire team. Ward's improvements are one of the main reasons why Illinois is so excited about the development of its defensive line, and he will be depended on to lead the charge up front.
The former junior college transfer racked up 51 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, ranked second on the team with 3.0 sacks and led all UI defenders with five quarterback hurries last season. Ward also showed a great knack for finding the football, as he recovered a team-high four fumbles in 2014 and forced two others.
Spring surprise: WR Justin Hardee
With Dudek sidelined with a knee injury, Illinois needed someone to step up and fill his void at receiver this spring. Hardee was one of the main players to answer the call, as he ended up having a very good spring and emerged as a dependable replacement while Dudek is out and a formidable No. 3 option.
Hardee wasn't even a full-time receiver in high school, so it's taken him some time to adjust to the position over the past few years. He only caught 19 passes for 240 yards and a touchdown last season, but he's made significant strides in his route running and catching ability,
Best spring position battle: Running back
The starting job obviously isn't the issue here, as Ferguson is clearly the No. 1 and arguably the best player on the team. But the depth behind him is still one of the biggest question marks facing Illinois coming out of spring ball. The Illini brought in junior college transfer Henry Enyenihi and early freshman enrollee Dre Brown this spring, but Brown tore his ACL late in the spring after emerging as a legitimate contender for the No. 2 job.
Four-star true freshman Ke'Shawn Vaughn will join the mix in the fall and will have a golden opportunity to move up the depth chart in a hurry. Until then, there's a reason Illinois did everything in its power to make sure Ferguson made it through spring practice unscathed.
Biggest question: Can Illinois stop the run?
Just as it's been the previous two seasons, a good portion of Illinois' success in 2015 will come down to how well its defense can shut down opposing running games. The Illini posted two of the nation's worst rushing defenses in 2013 and 2014, including ranking 115th at 239.2 yards allowed per game last season.
The improved front four gives some reason for optimism that the run defense will be better this year, but it's hard to know if the defense will truly shore up that weakness until it can go out and prove it on game day. With an offense that should be able to put up some points, Illinois desperately needs a defense that can get off the field and not let opponents eat up yards and game clock on the ground.
Early outlook on Illinois vs. Nebraska
Bucshon: "You look at last year and they couldn't stop Ameer Abdullah. I don't know who the running back is for Nebraska this year, but it's the same thing - they're going to have to stop the run. Nebraska is going to come in with another really talented team, though Randy Gregory's not there, and he just killed Illinois last year. But they're going to have to stop the run, and Nebraska is going to be heavily favored coming into that game. I would expect Nebraska to win that game, but at home, you never know. Illinois could pull an upset. But right now you have to figure Nebraska is going to come into Champaign and take that game."
Overall 2015 win-loss expectations
Bucshon: "When you look at the schedule for Illinois, I think they're set up to be a seven or eight-win team. They have that kind of talent, but they have to be more consistent. They can't turn the ball over, and they've got to be able to stop people defensively, particularly stopping the run. Last year I thought this was a seven-win team and then they went out and won six games. Talent-wise it looks like that kind of team again, a marginal kind of bowl team. It's going to come down to the Big Ten schedule again like it did last year. If they win the games they're supposed to win and they pull an upset or two, they could be an eight-win team."
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