Talk turns to football at Illinois after tough off season
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) No one is more ready to put the offseason behind him than Illinois coach Tim Beckman.
The kickoff Sept. 4 against Kent State should at least temporarily slow the questions about the accusations by a handful of former players of mistreatment by Beckman and some of his staff. Not to mention the annual speculation about how much longer the fourth-year head coach will keep his job as the Illini remain mired near the bottom of the Big Ten.
There will be actual football to discuss. Those discussions start with the junior quarterback Wes Lunt.
He was the starter last fall until he broke his leg, losing the top spot even after his return to then-senior Reilly O'Toole. This time, Beckman believes Lunt is ready to lead.
''I think he's more comfortable,'' Beckman said. ''It's another year underneath his belt.''
Whether Illinois can improve on last season's 6-7 finish depends, to a large degree, on Lunt's success. Here are some other things to watch about Illinois this season:
LUNT'S RETURN: Many assumed the strong-armed quarterback transfer from Oklahoma State was always the undisputed top dog at Illinois. But he says uncertainty before last season about who would be No. 1 made him uneasy..
''Reilly and I were battling. So I think there was still a little doubt in my mind to taking on the leadership,'' he said.
Beckman and offensive coordinator Bill Cubit say that keeping Lunt healthy is the top job for the whole offense. It's Lunt's goal, too.
''It's a simple as that,'' he said. ''I know good things can happen if I stay healthy.''
LUNT'S RECEIVERS: One major question is who will catch Lunt's precision passes.
Would-be starter Justin Hardee will miss the first two or three games with a broken foot. And last year's top receiver, Mike Dudek, tore an anterior cruciate ligament that is expected to keep him out until sometime in October, if he plays at all.
Cubit says a key to making the offense work - and giving Lunt a quick-hit target that can help keep him healthy - is making use of the slot position where Dudek played last year. He caught 76 balls for 1,038 yards and six touchdowns as a freshman. That role may fall to another freshman, 5-11 Desmond Cain. Expect running back Josh Ferguson to be a bigger part of the passing game, too.
ALL EYES ON DEFENSE: The Illini defense in Beckman's first three seasons hasn't generated much excitement, unless you count big, game-changing plays for the opposition and a whole lot of points. But down the stretch in 2014 the defense helped keep games against Minnesota, Penn State and Ohio State in reach. Illinois won all three, and would love to see a form of that defense return.
The team will play its first two games without its best returning player, defensive end Jihad Ward. He suffered a knee injury that required surgery. But Ward is one of the nine starters from last season's defense who will be back. Beckman also added a co-defensive coordinator, Mike Phair, who brings NFL experience.
HOME HURDLES: Give that Beckman's job security is once again a key issue, Illini fans have been looking at the schedule and wondering if the coach can conjure six wins and another bowl bid. The home schedule doesn't look promising, with just six games in Champaign. Three of those games are against Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin. And after Oct. 24, the Illini only play once more at home the rest of the season.
OFF THE FIELD: The off-field issues that drove discussions of Illinois football in the offseason still hang over the Illini.
The law firm the university hired to investigate the allegations made by former lineman Simon Cvijanovic is still at work, and no one on campus knows what fallout to expect if the findings back up the accusations by Cvijanovic and two others of mistreatment and, in Cvijanovic's case, pressure to play through serious injury.
Cvijanovic has said he might sue, so Beckman has declined to discuss any of it.
Many players say they've done their best to ignore the off-field problems, something Cubit says isn't as hard for them as it sounds. Even after the kind of bad loss that keeps coaches up at night, ''players forget it and they move on.''
Follow David Mercer on Twitter: (at)davidmercerAP