CHAMAPIGN, Ill. | Coming off a 2-10 season, expectations around the Big Ten are low for Illinois.
That doesn't surprise senior linebacker Jonathan Brown a bit.
"A lot of people are counting us out," he said. "My sophomore year, we had the worst linebacking corps in the Big Ten, supposedly, and it turned out (to be) the No. 5 defense in the nation."
Close: That Illinois defense was ranked seventh in the country, a stingy group that allowed less than 300 yards and under 20 points a game.
Last year's edition of the Illini defense had injury troubles — including a hobbled Brown — and wasn't the same. Opponents scored 32 points a game and piled up almost 400 yards a week, and three of the best defensive players are now in the NFL.
After nine straight losses to end the season, the Illini are just looking for improvement.
"Just get out and play, that's' what the game is all about," second-year coach Tim Beckman said, explaining his relief that practices had started. "We've got to get better and we've got to prove we're willing to do it for 60 minutes."
Five things to watch as the Illini try to improve on 2012, starting with the Aug. 31 opener against Southern Illinois:
1. THE SIDELINES: During Beckman's first season in Champaign, the sidelines saw their share of action — he was caught on camera using smokeless tobacco, a violation of NCAA rules, and was knocked to the turf and then flagged for a penalty as he strayed onto the field and into the path of an official. Beckman needs improvement after the 2-10 debacle, but this season's schedule — including Cincinnati, Washington, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State — looks tougher than last year's.
2. ANOTHER YEAR, ANOTHER OFFENSE: Bill Cubit is the fourth offensive coordinator in five seasons at Illinois. He comes from Western Michigan, where as a head coach he was known for a quick-release passing attack. Cubit comes to town to rev up an offense that was the Big Ten's worst in 2012 at just 16.7 points a game. The Illini gave up a league-worst 39 sacks and had a minus-12 turnover margin. Cubit has said part of the problem was quarterbacks holding the ball too long. But that wasn't the only issue. In spite of having three talented backs — Donovonn Young, Dami Ayoola and Josh Ferguson, who are all back — the team ran for 127.8 yards a game, 11th in the 12-team Big Ten.
3. QUARTERBACK SHUFFLE: Beckman says Nathan Scheelhaase is his starter, but there's already speculation that fans will see freshman Aaron Bailey. Scheelhaase has started all but two of Illinois' 38 games the past three seasons — he's 15-21 — but he's never quite lived up to expectations he created as a redshirt freshman — 1,825 yards, 17 touchdowns and eight interceptions, plus 868 yards rushing. Last season, he threw for 1,361 yards, four TDs and eight interceptions. Beckman's early endorsement came with a caveat, that Scheelhaase had to cut his interceptions. The 6-2, 220-pound Bailey, meanwhile, surprised Beckman in early practices with his arm strength. The best quarterback may be on the scout team: Wes Lunt has to sit out a season after transferring from Oklahoma State.
4. IMPACT LINEBACKERS: Looking for a bright spot on defense? That'd be linebacker Mason Monheim. Pressed into regular duty as a freshman, he led the team in tackles with 86. Monheim's back and will team with Brown, who had 108 tackles in 2011. In 2012, he was expected to carry much of the team's defensive load. But a shoulder injury kept him out of three games and limited him much of the rest of the time.
5. ILLINOIS' BIGGEST EDGE: Look up and down last season's Big Ten statistics and you find Illinois in 11th or 12th place in a number of categories. But not punting. The Illini were first in the conference in net yards at 39.2 and third in total yards per punt at 41.9. And the punter behind those numbers, Justin Duvernois, is back for his junior season.
Predicted finish in conference: Sixth (last) in Big Ten Leaders division.
AP college football site: http://collegefootball.ap.org/
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