Champaign, Illinois is the destination for our next stop in the “Big Ten Tour” of the conference.
The purpose of BTT is to interview writers who are closely connected with their respective programs from around the conference. It’s always good to know your opponent and what people who cover them have to say.
Tom Fornelli, CBS Sports writer and blogger from SBNation’s The Champaign Room, took some time to answer a few of my questions regarding the season ahead for the Illini and who is expected to make an impact on both sides of the football.
JH: Illinois is coming off a tough two-win season and is now entering Tim Beckman’s second year as head coach. Do you feel that Illini fans will see a better season or will there continue to be growing pains?
Fornelli: It’s going to be a better season, though that probably won’t be evident to a lot of outsiders or partial observers. I’m not expecting this Illini team to win a lot of games in 2013 because there still aren’t a whole lot of playmakers on either side of the ball, and it’s still a very young team. However, I do expect to see a big step forward on offense where the Illini were dreadful last season. There will be growing pains as the team transitions from a running team to a passing team, but I think the new offense will suit the personnel on the field.
JH: Nathan Scheelhaase is returning for his senior year, which is always a positive to have some continuation at the quarterback position. Do you feel he can flourish under Beckman in year two?
Fornelli: Bill Cubit will be Scheelhaase’s fourth offensive coordinator since coming to Illinois. He’s also never been known as a passer, but will not be in a passing system. The good news is that the game plan will call for a lot of short to intermediate throws and quick reads that will protect him from an offensive line that betrayed him quite a bit last season. I don’t think Nate will have the kind of year that Illini fans envisioned during his freshman season, but I do believe he’ll finish in the middle of the conference as a passer this year.
JH: Talk a little bit about the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. Who do you see as potential playmakers that are looking to make some noise this season?
Fornelli: The Illini are thin on both sides of the ball, though the offense has a lot more experience. It’s just that behind that experience is a lot of inexperience. On the defensive side of the ball this team is young. Freshman and sophomores limit the depth chart and when the Illini open Big Ten play it’s possible there could be a lot of players on the field who were playing in high school just 12 months before. And while I expect there to be improvement on offense, the defense doesn’t have me nearly as optimistic. I’m not sure where the pass rush is going to come from, and if there isn’t a good pass rush than a very young secondary is going to have a long season. The only area on defense I’m happy with are the linebackers, but that is only if Jonathan Brown — the best player on the defense by far — stays healthy. As far as playmakers, as I said earlier, there aren’t a lot but the most likely candidate on offense will be running back Donovonn Young. On defense I’m a big fan of Taylor Barton, a safety who redshirted last season, but has shown a knack for the ball during practice and the spring game.
JH: Are there any incoming freshman that you believe can make an impact on the team day one?
Fornelli: I think the big name all Illini fans are following is incoming freshman quarterback Aaron Bailey. While he’s not going to start the coaching staff has made it pretty clear he’s going to see the field this year, we just don’t know what kind of role he’ll be playing. Athletically, though, he may already be the best player on the team.
JH: What are some areas of concern and positives on this team? What are some questions you are looking to be answered this season?
Fornelli: There are literally concerns every where you look. There is no go-to receiver, can Nate learn yet another new offense, what happens if the offensive line suffers an injury or two, where is the pass rush, can Jonathan Brown stay healthy and how will the secondary fare in a baptism by fire? While I’m higher on positions like running back and linebacker, it’s in comparison to the other areas of the team. Which isn’t exactly a high standard to live up to right now. Frankly the only thing I’m looking for from this team this year is to just compete. I can live with losses, but don’t get blown out and at least give some semblance of hope week in and week out.
JH: What are realistic expectations that you have for the team as well as the fans.
Fornelli: The absolute best-case scenario is 6-6 and a bowl game, but it’ll take a good non-conference start — which won’t be easy with both Cincinnati and Washington on the schedule — and probably an upset or two in Big Ten play. The more likely scenario is the Illini finish with three or four wins. I don’t know how the fans will react to it. By and large I think most Illini fans accept reality, but there are also a vocal portion of the fan base that wanted rid of Tim Beckman last season even though it was his first year on the job. But at the end of the day this is a fan base that will need to be a bit more patient. Whether they have any left remains to be seen.