Despite elevating Illinois’ football win total every year, Tim Beckman enters his fourth season as coach on the proverbial hot seat.
Part of that stems from allegations that Beckman has mistreated players, something that triggered an internal investigation by the university. That, plus Beckman’s 12-25 record in Champaign, put the Illini program under a cloud of uncertainty in 2015 and beyond.
The best thing Beckman can do to keep his job is ride the arm of 6-foot-5, 225-pound quarterback Wes Lunt — the Oklahoma State transfer who is now a junior — and not only return to a bowl game, but win it.
Lunt could be one of the Big Ten West’s top quarterbacks. He threw for 14 touchdowns against three interceptions last season when he wasn’t sidelined by a sprained knee or broken leg. (Though Iowa held him to 14-of-25 passing for 102 yards in a 30-14 win on Nov. 15.)
More like buzzkill for the Illini, who on April 8 lost top returning playmaker Mike Dudek (76 catches, 1,038 yards) to a torn ACL. Dudek’s recovery timetable puts his return in mid-October, or right around the time Illinois visits Kinnick Stadium on Oct. 10.
With Dudek out, the spring-game spotlight shifted to multi-dimensional running back Josh Ferguson. The senior rushed for 735 yards a year ago and caught 50 passes for another 427. With the likes of Ameer Abdullah, David Cobb and Melvin Gordon gone from the Big Ten West, Ferguson could be earn more running-back notoriety.
Overall, the main buzz surrounds Beckman, who went 2-10, 4-8 and 6-7 in his first three years after successfully rebuilding the Toledo program.
“The first year was a disaster, I’ll be honest. I put it on my shoulders,” Beckman told the Big Ten Network’s Tom Dienhart after spring ball. “Depth and injuries … I didn’t do a good job. But we have made strides. We still are lacking a tremendous amount of maturity on the field.”
Still to be settled
For Lunt and Ferguson to shine, perhaps the Illini’s No. 1 concern needs to become at least average.
We’re talking about the offensive line, which lost three players off last year’s unit that combined for 103 starts and wasn’t that great to begin with. One of those departed linemen is Simon Cvijanovic, who was the main flame-thrower toward Beckman when he tweeted on May 10 that the coaching staff forced him to play on an injured knee.
A defense that allowed at least 30 points 10 times last season — including in a 35-18 loss to Louisiana Tech (and former Iowa QB Cody Sokol) in the Heart of Dallas Bowl — remains an obvious question mark. The spring-game final score in April? Orange 44, White 41.
Illinois will have a tough go to get back to a bowl game, considering it drew Ohio State (home) and Penn State (road) as its divisional crossover games.
The Illini got to 6-7 a year ago by going 4-0 in one-possession games — a good sign in some respects, but also a reminder that none of their seven losses were close. A team with a shaky offensive line, unproven defense and tenuous coaching situation (not to mention an injury to its best receiver) leaves Illinois starting the race from behind.
But if Lunt can be great (and healthy), the Illini could at least be entertaining.